For South Atlantic Quarterly issue, "September 11, 2001" February, 2002
Robert N. Bellah
September 11, 2001. I am not sure that even now, more than four months later, I know how to think about it. I have heard young people say, "September 11 is the worst thing that ever happened to America." I am tempted to reply, "In your lifetime." I will be 75 years old this year and I have lived through quite a few dark days in my life. Perhaps it will not be entirely inappropriate for me to try to put September 11 in perspective by reflecting on some of those earlier moments.
I was born in 1927. Although I was too young to understand it, the stock market crash of 1929 had serious repercussions for my family. As I was becoming aware of the world in the middle 1930s, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were all in power, and the Japanese were at war with China. I remember being the one who brought in the paper every morning, and in those days before television, it was the newspaper that we depended on for news (though I do remember listening to speeches by Hitler and Mussolini on the radio, and the reassuring words of FDR). How many mornings I saw huge black headlines reporting the latest disaster! In March of 1938 came the Anschluss, Hitlerís annexation of Austria. In September of that year there was the infamous Munich pact, through which the British and French handed over the Sudeten border area of Czechoslovakia to Hitler; followed early in 1939 by Hitlerís occupation of the whole country. And on September 1, 1939, Hitler, now acting on the basis of a secret pact with the Soviet Union, invaded Poland. The period of appeasement was over; the Second World War had begun. One might think these were events in Europe, not events affecting the United States, but those of us who lived through those events, even a twelve or thirteen-year-old child as I was at the time, knew that these terrible events were happening to the United States because they were happening to the whole world.
Audenís famous poem, "September 1, 1939," was written, as its opening line tells us, in New York, and it expresses not only what an Englishman, but what many Americans were feeling at that moment:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Although the Polish campaign was over in weeks, many more dark headlines were to come. In April of 1940 Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway with little opposition. In June he overran the Netherlands, Belgium, and France with lightening speed, although most of the British army was successfully evacuated from Dunkirk. The ensuing air war over Britain was inconclusive, and Hitler turned his attention from a possible invasion of Britain to what he expected to be a lightening campaign against the Soviet Union. In early 1941 the total failure of the invasion of Greece by Italy, Hitlerís ally, diverted his attention to the Balkans, where again he made short work of Yugoslavia and Greece. He was now master of almost the whole of Europe right up to the Soviet frontier, but he wanted more. On June 22 the Russian campaign began, initially with enormous success, driving to the gates of Moscow and Leningrad by the end of the year.
However breathlessly we watched the fall of Europe, on December 7, 1941, something terrible at last did happen to the United States. I have recently had to remind my younger friends that the horrifying attack on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, pales in comparison to the defeat suffered by the United States on December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor was a military disaster of the first order. The United States Pacific fleet was effectively destroyed, even if a few carriers absent from Pearl Harbor were spared. The United States being militarily incapacitated, in the next six months the Japanese took the Philippines, Indochina, Burma, and the Netherlands East Indies. Perhaps the most shocking news was the sudden fall of the supposedly impregnable fortress of Singapore. In New Guinea the Japanese had come to within a few miles of the northern shore of Australia. That is what Pearl Harbor meant: the Japanese conquest of almost all of East and Southeast Asia. It would be hard to think of a greater defeat in American history.
And yet we won the war. After an enormous effort by the United States and its allies, including importantly the Soviet Union, the Germans surrendered in May and the Japanese in August of 1945. World War II is what we all believed was the "good war," the war against an evil so enormous that there could be no question of the justice of our cause. And the end of European fascism and Japanese militarism, among the worst regimes modernity has produced, was certainly a good.
But is it so entirely clear that we won the war? Wasnít there a sense in which we were defeated in that war, and I donít mean only by the early disasters? I would say that we were defeated to the extent that we became like the enemy we opposed. Early in the war we condemned the Germans for their indiscriminate bombing of civilians. By 1943 or 1944 we were engaging in the most terrible bombing of civilians in history. Hundreds of thousands died in the fire bombing of Dresden, Tokyo, and other German and Japanese cities. And then on August 6 and 9 the United States unleashed the only two atom bombs ever to be used, unleashed them on the large, crowded cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As an 18-year-old at the time, looking forward to immediate induction into the army, I, like most other Americans, had no doubt that using the atom bomb was the right thing to do. Only considerably later did I come to see it as second only to the Holocaust among the crimes of the Twentieth Century.
David Little in a roundtable discussion on terrorism in a recent issue of Harvard Magazine points out that the only place in international humanitarian law where the word "terror" appears is in two 1977 protocols that supplement the Geneva Conventions protecting victims of armed conflict: "The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence, the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population, are prohibited." Jessica Stern then responded: "But what about the carpet bombing specifically with the aim of terrorizing the civilian population? Does that fit into our definition? What about dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I think that has to fit into our definition, because itís very clear from the documents the purpose was to terrorize the civilian population." It would seem that the United States, now engaged in a "war on terrorism," not so long ago perpetrated the greatest acts of terrorism in human history.
While I was an undergraduate at Harvard the relief at the end of World War II quickly evaporated and the Cold War, pitting the "free world," led by the United States, against atheistic Communism, led by the Soviet Union (later referred to as the "evil empire"), began. The Cold War lasted more than 40 years, and again we won it. Who could not rejoice at the "velvet revolutions" of 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of Communist domination in the former Soviet Union itself? That these great transformations occurred with a minimum of violence is almost as wonderful as the fall of tyranny itself.
So we won the Cold War, but again, did we? Did we not, in some ways even more clearly than in World War II, become like our adversaries? In The Good Society my coauthors and I pointed out the enormous centralization of state power in the United States that began with the Truman Administration. Not only were the armed services united in the Department of Defense, not only was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) created, but:
The National Security Council, headed by a national security advisor, created only a little later, extended the direct initiative of the President in foreign policy over the heads even of the secretaries of state and defense. A report written in 1950 by a committee headed by Paul Nitze for the National Security Council (NSC 68) became a kind of blueprint justifying the emergence of a national defense state within a state. Nitzeís logic was that America had to use Soviet means to counteract the Soviet threat. The ironic consequence was to create a powerful apparatus of centralized authority outside the normal constitutional structures of democratic accountability that mirrored the Stalinist state itself.
In the name of fighting Communism, the United States systematically undermined freely elected governments and supported ruthless anti-Communist tyrannies all over the world for the entire period of the Cold War.
One of the earliest and most shocking examples of American disregard of democratically elected governments came in Guatemala where Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, after being elected president in 1951, made agrarian reform his primary concern. In 1954 he was overthrown by invading forces organized by the CIA. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly the Belgian Congo) in 1960 Patrice Lumumba was elected premier in the first parliament after independence, but he was driven from office and killed after Joseph Mobutu, with American support, instituted a military government. Mobutuís decades-long American-supported regime systematically looted one of the largest and richest countries in Africa, leaving it at his death without a functioning government or society. In 1965, after an abortive Communist coup involving army leaders, President Sukarno was overthrown by General Suharto with American help. In the ensuing bloodbath hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as a million, Indonesian leftists were massacred. There is some indication that the CIA supplied the names of many who were killed. In 1970 Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile. In 1973 he was overthrown and killed in a military coup, with American help, by General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile as a dictator until 1989, presiding over a regime that "disappeared" and murdered thousands of leftists. Mobutu, Suharto, Pinochet, and many other dictators were regularly recognized by the United States as "leaders of the free world."
This string of Cold War "victories" was broken at one decisive point: Vietnam, where the United States entered a war it could not win. The Korean and Vietnam Wars were the two hot wars that punctuated the decades of the Cold War. We did not win the Korean War, but we did reestablish the status quo ante. Vietnam was very much part of Cold War strategy, justified by the famous domino theory, namely that if South Vietnam fell, all of Southeast Asia would follow. It is interesting to note that the Vietnam War was a war against terrorists, namely the Viet Cong, insurgent guerrillas fighting the intensely unpopular government of South Vietnam, charmingly referred to by Lyndon Johnson as "the free people of South Vietnam and their government." This "free" government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to hold the elections mandated by the Geneva agreement of 1954, which had divided the country into north and south, elections that were to be supervised by an International Control Committee. Diem was afraid he would lose. It was to this government, not because in any intelligible sense it was free but because it was anti-communist, that we committed ourselves.
Our involvement in the war, which began gradually in 1964-65 and ended ignominiously in 1975, had by 1969 required 540,000 American troops on the ground. Over the course of the war we sustained more than 50,000 dead, and the Vietnamese well over a million. In addition to indiscriminate bombing and the killing of civilians in ground warfare, we engaged in widespread chemical warfare (Agent Orange) the effects of which are still being suffered by some Vietnam veterans in this country, as well as many in Vietnam. Devastating though the war was for the Vietnamese, the consequences for American society, from which, wishful thinking to the contrary, we are still suffering, were extraordinary, marking in many ways an important social and political turning point. I will come back to these domestic consequences below.
There is no question that the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes it sponsored were oppressive and on a large scale murderous, often exterminating those who had earlier been their leaders, and it is a mercy that they are gone. The crimes committed by the Chinese Communists, however, were at least as bad, and today we consider them our friends, although they continue to be one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. Since the United States during the Cold War helped to militarize much of the world, supported regimes drenched in blood, and severely damaged our own society, it is certainly questionable that we "won."
Now, since September 11, 2001, we have, for the third time in my life, embarked on a war, this time the war against terrorism. On September 11 the United States suffered the worst attack on our own country since December 7, 1941. Like Pearl Harbor, the events of September 11 were a terrible defeat. In spite of our enormous military budget, in spite of the lavishly funded efforts of the FBI, the CIA, and other intelligence agencies, nineteen men, utterly ruthless with respect to the lives of others and willing to sacrifice their own lives, carried out a devastating and totally unexpected attack, with whose consequences we will be living for many years. In the patriotic euphoria that has swept the country since September 11, the extent of the defeat we suffered has been downplayed to the point of denial. Polls indicate that trust in government is up since September 11, after having been in decline for decades, though why confidence in a government that failed to protect us from such an attack in spite of our enormous expenditures on "defense" should be trusted is far from clear.
It is not only the loss of life and the physical destruction in New York and Washington, but also the effects on our economy and on our daily lives that have to be considered in thinking about the gravity of this defeat. An already weak economy has plunged into recession, a recession of unknown duration, in spite of optimistic expectations of early recovery. Everything having to do with air travel has suffered severe economic setbacks, and there are ripple effects throughout the economy. A taken-for-granted sense of security in our own country has been lost, perhaps forever. "Security" is now an issue not only at airports but throughout our society. It is indicative of our new situation that the president created the "Office of Homeland Security," bringing the term "homeland" into prominence in a way unusual in our history. "Homeland" usually referred to the "old country" from which we or our ancestors came. America was different; it was the chosen land, the land to which we came. Now we are just one more "homeland" among the nations. That a group of nineteen men, with only a few hundred thousand dollars at their disposal, should so gravely wound the most powerful nation on earth is a fact with which we have not yet come to terms. That all our wealth and all our power did not protect us and perhaps can never protect us from unforeseen catastrophe will take a long time to get used to.
The military campaign in Afghanistan has gone more quickly than most people expected, and that has diverted us from thinking about the full magnitude of what has happened to us. Although Afghan civilians killed by our bombing probably outnumber those killed on September 11 in the United States, the casualties have, as wars go, been light, and extremely light for American troops. As of this writing neither Osama bin Laden nor Mullah Omar have been found, and finding them was a major war aim, but otherwise we could declare that we have "won" and consider the war over. The Taliban regime was truly awful, even in a world of terrible regimes. Its ruthlessness toward its opponents, its brutal treatment of women, its horrifying desecration of religious monuments of other faiths (the figures of the Buddha carved into the cliffs near Bamiyan being only the most notable examples) make it a regime whose end we can truly be glad to see. The rhetoric of the war on terrorism, however, suggests that it is intended to be much more than a brief campaign in Afghanistan leading to the replacement of the Taliban government. There are terrorists, we are told, in some 60 countries in the world, and it is our intention to "hunt them down" and eliminate them wherever they are. After much speculation that Iraq appeared to be next on the list after Afghanistan, George W. Bush, in his first State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002, specified an "axis of evil," consisting of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
The very idea of a "war on terrorism" has been questioned, as it does not seem to be like what we ordinarily consider a war to be: someone wins and someone loses, or there is an agreed end of hostilities. Like a war on drugs or a war on poverty, a war on terrorism would seem to have no end. It is hard to think of instances in which such wars have been won. When we consider the case of the ETA in Spain, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, or the Islamic militants in Kashmir or Palestine, the prospects of "victory" are not encouraging. Even after decades of armed struggle the British never "defeated" the IRA: it was only when peace talks brought the political representatives of the IRA into the government of Northern Ireland that a still somewhat uncertain peace was established. That example might suggest that terrorism can be "defeated" only by negotiation, not by retaliation.
It is far too early to say whether the war on terrorism will have anything like the scale or length of World War II or the Cold War, but our experience with those wars may lead to more than a little caution about this one. Even at the beginning of it we have at moments sounded like our enemy. President George W. Bush at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance service held on September 14 at what is called the "National Cathedral" (actually the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul) promised to "rid the world of evil." A reporter for the San Jose Mercury called me for comments on that talk and I suggested how unlikely it is that we can "rid the world of evil." She said, "I canít even rid my own neighborhood of evil," and I replied, "I canít even rid my own heart of evil."
Early on President Bush began to refer to bin Laden as "the evil one," but, as Richard J. Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, the largest seminary in North America for the mainstream evangelical movement, pointed out, "The problem with Ďthe evil oneí is that in Christian thought, the only one who is totally, hopelessly evil is Satan. We don't really believe that anybody is beyond redemption until their dying breath, if they reject Christ." Calling Mr. bin Laden "the evil one" supernaturalizes him, Dr. Mouw said. He added that saying Mr. bin Laden was wanted dead or alive, as the president had done, trivializes human life. "That's not an example of moral leadership, or spiritual leadership," Dr. Mouw said. Mr. Bushís language strangely mirrors that of Osama bin Laden, who also believes that he is at war with "evil." It suggests that in a prolonged war on terrorism we will in many ways resemble our opponents. The fact that we are bolstering several tyrannical regimes in formerly Soviet Central Asia as part of our campaign against terrorism is a pattern all too familiar from the Cold War.
Another comment of Mr. Bush at a press conference since September 11 is revealing of the state not only of his own but also of the national psyche. When a reporter asked him "why do they hate us?" he replied that he really couldnít understand it "because weíre so good." Apparently Mr. Bush has not studied much American history. As Cicero reminds us, "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child," although some of what Mr. Bush is ignorant has occurred during his lifetime. In concentrating on my own 75 years, then, I should not overlook what has occurred before I was born. America has not been "good" for a long time before 1927. In The Broken Covenant, I pointed to the two "primal crimes" at the beginning of American history: the genocide of the American Indians and the enslavement of Africans. I also spent a few pages on the Spanish-American War of 1898 when, for the first time, we extended our imperial conquests beyond continental North America. I did not, however, discuss sufficiently the war we undertook against Philippine independence in 1899-1902, during which we committed atrocities that prefigured our behavior in Vietnam.
Although American history is a history of violence, it is not, in that respect, different from the history of most nations. And it is far from the whole story of America. When a student said to me at some point in the late 1960s, "This is the worst society in human history," I told him to study a little more history. This is not the place to rehearse the achievements of American society. The most notable one is the original commitment to create a society based on the belief "that all men are created equal," and the gradual process that has extended that original ideal to include those who were originally, wholly or in part, left out, especially racial and ethnic minorities, and women.
Nevertheless, even for those included, it has turned out to be a problematic society. In The Broken Covenant I put it in strong terms by suggesting that our material success is our punishment, in terms of what that success has done to the natural environment, our social fabric, and our personal lives. Let me reflect a bit on how life in America has changed during my lifetime. During the 1930s when I was growing up, most Americans were just getting by during a long depression. We did not think of ourselves as a great power, though we must have known we were potentially one. The great powers who made the headlines were in Europe and Asia and many Americans, remembering the futility of World War I, hoped that we could somehow stay out of the terrible conflicts taking place abroad.
World War II changed all that. By its end we knew we were a great power, one of only two great powers left in the world after the defeat of the Axis. But in our hearts most of us were still provincials, uneasy with the role that the National Security Council was creating for us. We wanted very much to believe in our own goodness and innocence, to believe that the "free world" we were leading really was free, and that all the evil was on the other side. That is the world of the 1950s when many Americans were for the first time leaving poverty and attaining a modicum of prosperity, and to which we have looked back nostalgically ever since. In the early 1960s our goodness seemed be affirmed by the success of the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. When the civil rights legislation finally passed early in the presidency of Lyndon Johnson I am sure I was not alone in feeling prouder to be an American than I had ever been in my adult life, or would be again. But on the very cusp of that great changeóand however incomplete it turned out to be, it was a very great changeócame Vietnam.
It was Vietnam that made many Americans face the dark side of our history, which had of course been there all along, little though we liked to acknowledge it. The fact that it was a failed war, and that the great sacrifices it entailed were unredeemed by any higher purpose, was a blow to our society from which we have not, as I have said above, recovered. I donít think the failed war was itself the cause of the great changes in American society that have been documented by Robert Putnamóthe decline of civic and social, public and private, engagement in every sphere, which began in the period 1960-1970 and has continued sinceóbut it was the catalyst.
The revival of laissez faire capitalism in the 1970s in place of the modest welfare state we had built after World War II was another indication of the change. An older elite with some sense of public responsibility seemed to shrink from the society we were becoming and its place was taken by leaders who believed they owed nothing to anyone but themselves. I donít say that all our older virtues were lost, nor that there were not also significant advances in the years since 1970, such as the greater inclusiveness I have mentioned. For me the public acceptance of homeless people on the streets as natural rather than as a disgrace that had to be addressed, which began around 1980, is an indication of the change I am describing.
In the very midst of this transformation came the unexpected end of the Cold War, leaving us not one of two great powers, but the only great power, the one superpower, not only militarily, but economically and culturally. Without ever quite intending it, we found ourselves the center of a world empire of an entirely new kind, or if not entirely new, new since the fall of the Roman Empire. Unlike the European and Japanese empires of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we were not a great power with far-flung possessions, locked in contest with similar empires. We were, virtually without territorial possessions, at the center of the only empire there is. What we took as normal, we expected everyone else to take as normalópolitically, economically, and culturally. And who could stand up to us? Who had the power, and I donít mean just the military power, but the social power, to tell us no?
It is into this world that September 11, 2001, came. Deeply repugnant though the attack was, should it have so surprised us? Do we really have to ask, why do they hate us? At this late date in our history to relapse into the dream of innocence and imagine that evil is the sole possession of our enemies invites disaster. Covering ourselves in American flags and vowing to "smoke out" bin Laden and "get him, dead or alive," or engaging in a far-flung and open-ended war against terrorism, addresses none of the realities in the midst of which we live.
If we are really a new kind of empire, foreshadowed only by the Rome of two millennia ago, we can imagine several possibilities. A new leadership, following the examples of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius, could lead us on a "civilizing mission," for which we might gain some gratitude along with inevitable resentment. Or, more likely, we will not last very long, but will fall from the sheer weight of the enemiesóon the periphery and withinóthat we have created. The question for those of good will, then, is whether reform is still possible, or whether it would be better to try to build an alternative city, within the very pores of empire. Stanley Hauerwas has argued eloquently for the latter course. As I approach my 75th birthday I grow ever closer to his views.