What 9/11 Can Still Teach Us

Just after four American civilian planes brought low the world's only superpower and greatest nerve center ten years ago, I said on All Things Considered that they'd made a mockery of the dollar-driven premise that our massive defense establishment can still defend an open society.

Yet instead of rethinking its defense and foreign policies since then, American society become less open, more polarized, and, in many ways, weaker -- nowhere more so than at universities such as Yale, which now employs as "professors" John Negroponte (George W. Bush's national intelligence director), Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Tony Blair, and other "practitioners" of the grand strategies that have brought this country to where it is today.

The question we haven't answered since 9/11 is whether a society such as ours has the will and moral resources to defend itself: not as a global directorate, police force, or profit center, but as a republic: a wellspring of civic disciplines that sustain a politics of reasonable hope against a politics of fear and misdirected resentment.

On the other hand, though, it has to be recognized that the attacks on the World Trade Center also mocked claims by the powerless that terrorism is morally or spiritually redemptive. It certainly wasn't on 9/11. This wasn't John Brown's anti-slavery raid on Harper's Ferry, or guerrilla warfare against Latin American juntas, much less a democratic Velvet revolution or a civil-rights movement like our own. It was, rather, an implosion of anything that anyone who believes in politics can endorse.

The bloody paradox we've been ducking ever since is that our vaunted global technologies and investment strategies can't by themselves dissolve the oldest of errant human impulses -- the religious and tribal fanaticism carried by the suicide bombers.

It's too early now to say whether the Arab Spring shows that millions of the powerless have learned that hard lesson any better than we've learned ours: they haven't yet sidelined terrorism any more than we've sidelined the crackpot "realism" of our national-security system and of the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-defrauding tsunami system that drives it.

Our universities and other civic institutions will have to produce fewer brilliant tsunami surfers and a lot more pearl divers -- civic patriots who plumb the undercurrents and unearth the buried treasures of the powerless in our midst. That's 9/11's hardest lesson. In 2008, Barack Obama seemed to embody and testify to the fact that we'd learned it. But he and we are still discovering just how hard that lesson really is and how much loving struggle our civic redemption will require.

A version of this appeared in the http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/sep/09/911-reflection-jim-sleeper/Yale Daily News.