WASHINGTON -- As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches this week, it is not surprising that we are inundated with questions about this unique experience in American history.
How have we, from the vantage point of a decade, handled the memory of that bitter attack by radical Muslims on the twin towers in New York and at the Pentagon? Do we understand now what it was the terrorists intended to achieve? And most important, are we winning in the long run, or are they?
Reading over the endless pontificating this week, one finds that many observers are taking the point that 9/11 barely changed us at all.
Philip Stephens, writing in the Financial Times, notes with some surprise that "the curious thing is how little the changes owe to 9/11.
"Osama bin Laden grabbed a decade's worth of headlines, but the future was being written in Beijing, Delhi, Rio and beyond."
This might be called, in a reflection of Bill Clinton's famous "It's the economy, stupid!" remark, the interpretation of 9/11 in which the development of formerly impoverished Third World countries is now what we should keep our eye on. Yet, economic analysis is not enough when we're seriously thinking about terrorism.
Another adept analyst, The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum, has pointed out the stunning degree to which the U.S. military has both broken down into smaller parts and, at the same time, expanded into a larger creature since 9/11: "We created a vast security bureaucracy encompassing some 1,200 government organizations, 1,900 private companies and 854,000 people with security clearances.
"We launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We organized counterterrorism operations in such far-flung places as the Philippines and Yemen, and we changed the culture of our military. We sharpened our focus on al-Qaida and imitators. We spent ... some $3 trillion."
Yet virtually everyone involved warns against over-expectation. The Pentagon's last major assessment on global security reads, in an important passage, "No one should harbor the illusion that the developing world can win this conflict in the near future." Radical religious ideologies, new technologies and cheap, powerful weaponry have sent the world into "a period of persistent conflict."
The country remained divided these 10 years between those who would fight (or dearly wanted to) and those who stayed at home. The American people were involved only tangentially -- and that was a major impediment of the neocons' wars. Outside of the military, we took no part in them, held no responsibility for them. Nor did the Bush administration demand of Americans that we pay for these wars.
Many of the soldiers had unusual reasons for serving. On "Meet the Press" last Sunday, the impressive son of prominent historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explained why he had enlisted for six years in the Army right of Harvard. His reasons were that he wanted to serve his country and to experience the world. He wanted to be a soldier. But his were not the usual historical reasons for enlisting -- i.e., that the country was endangered or attacked and needed defending.
Another question that still presents itself 10 years later is why our intelligence analysts did not anticipate such attacks.
One who did was the late, maverick FBI terrorism specialist John O'Neill. In a "Frontline" TV special last week, O'Neill's brilliant, unique work was finally recognized.
He was certain that the Middle East terrorists who hit the twin towers in 1993 would hit again. "I was convinced," said McNeill, who was killed in the 9/11 blast, "that they wanted to finish the job. (I had also been convinced they would go back to it, but only because criminals always return to the place of the crime.)"
But by far the most interesting part of what we can see about the 9/11 attacks is that they have served to transform the American outlook toward conflict. Now our military operates with the idea and reality of "permanent war." No longer are the denizens of the Pentagon thinking about long periods of peace, as was true before 9/11. They more and more accept the idea that we will simply always be fighting some war someplace, or maybe two or three.
Today, when we haven't managed to get out of Iraq or win any sort of victory in Afghanistan, we are talking about going into Pakistan, Yemen or maybe even Syria, even while we are spending ourselves into oblivion and destroying our young men and women.
These are the things we should be thinking about on this 10th anniversary. Anyone for regrets?