It has become a banality: everyone alive at the time remembers exactly JFK’s assassination and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Banal as it is, I remember both, eidetically. I was in a classroom on November 22, 1963 when the teacher, a Sister of the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was called out of the classroom, rushed back in, and in a numb voice proclaimed “President Kennedy was just shot.” We children sat watching the newly-installed television, transfixed but blank, while Walter Cronkite made his famous proclamation that “President Kennedy died today.” The nuns were crying; we were just confused.
On 09/11/2001 I was on the way to work on a bus when an announcement was made on the radio: all drivers should avoid the west side of lower Manhattan due to an aircraft incident at the World Trade Center. I assumed that someone in a Cessna or Piper Cub wanted a view and got too close to the buildings, but when I saw the plume of thick black smoke in the distance, and heard someone on a cell-phone exclaim “You mean terrorists?!” I immediately left the bus, crossed the street, and returned home, where my 6-year-old son greeted me with “Terrorists hit the World Trade Center where we visited just last week and is this World War III?” We watched the towers fall on the only working television channel, WCBS 2. Later we sat, silent, on the front porch, the only sound being the occasional starling clicking and chattering, and the strange whine of military aircraft in the distance.
A couple of weeks later, the New Yorker published a block of reflections by its regular writers. Some were trite, others mournful, some (e.g. Jonathan Franzen’s) were predictably self-obsessed. But the piece that stood out, and generated a great deal of heat rather than light, was Susan Sontag’s. The passage of hers that prompted the most feverish outrage was this one:
The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.
To be clear, Sontag was not justifying the slaughter in Lower Manhattan: she was trying to understand why it might have happened. But she was, I think, egregiously wrong in characterizing courage as “a morally neutral virtue.” The phrase “morally neutral virtue” verges on self-contradiction. Aristotle, who along with Plato cemented the notion into Western consciousness, understood a virtue to be a human excellence, something that makes us more perfectly human. To lack virtue is to exhibit vice, or human defect. To suggest that Mohammed Atta and his conspirators were courageous but in a “morally neutral” sense is, at best, seriously confused. They exhibited only vice in their actions.
But Sontag was right to suggest that the 9/11 conspirators were not cowardly. Aristotle in this instance had it right once again. For Aristotle, courage is a virtue with two corresponding vices. Cowardice is a vice of deficiency of confidence in the face of fear and recklessness or rashness a vice of excess of confidence in the face of fear. Courage, like all human excellences or virtues, is a mean between two extremes of feeling and action. In the case of courage one feels fear but also enough confidence to balance and overcome it, and one acts accordingly and proportionately. Cowards let fear swamp confidence, and the reckless let confidence swamp fear. Thus the problem with the 9/11 terrorists was not that they acted with excessive fear but with no fear at all, thus no reckoning of the consequences for themselves and — more importantly — their innocent victims.
Is this a difference that makes a difference? I think it does. To fail to reckon what your deeds entail, to be reckless, is markedly different from making that reckoning and shrinking from what one ought to do and be. To be reckless or rash or ruthless is not therefore just a failure to be prudent or practical: it is to fail at being human in a deep and cutting way. While one ought to be ready to lay one’s life on the line for justice’s sake, which is what courage is, it is evil to lay other’s lives on the line, willy-nilly, as a mere means to your own ends, without regard for the justice of your cause or whether the recipients of your action deserve to suffer or die. To kill people working in a skyscraper to make a political point, regardless of whether that point is right or not, is to be heedless — reckless — of other souls. Recklessness, more often than not, is murderousness.
I think the intervening eighteen years have, to a considerable extent, vindicated Sontag’s view, though perhaps not in a way she would have anticipated (she died in 2004). Her plea for Americans was to be skeptical of the official view emanating from Washington that America remained strong and had nothing to learn from whatever motivated the attackers. She concluded her piece thus:
Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. “Our country is strong,” we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.
“Stupidity”, however, is not our problem (rather, not our only problem). After 09/11/2001 we in the United States have found it easy to be both reckless and cowardly, but have struggled with true courage. This is certainly not to suggest that those who have placed their lives on the line in the armed forces or other first-response professions lacked courage: the opposite is true. But courage’s corresponding vices loom behind the post-9/11 ethos as an ironic ground to many noble figures. In 2001 almost 3000 individuals were victims of murderous injustice at the hands of reckless ideologues. But the reaction of the US government, and a sizable chunk of its citizenry, was motived by both an excess and a deficiency of fear, rather than a proportionate and sober respect for it.
Riding a wave of popular support, the George W. Bush administration invaded Afghanistan, drove the Taliban from power, denied Al Qaida a base there, and . . . the United States is still there. It is the longest war in American history, with over 31,000 Afghani civilian deaths. The endgame recently proposed, and then withdrawn by the Trump administration, was supposed to be a peace-deal with the Taliban, the very regime that the United States overthrew in 2001 a matter of months after the 9/11 attacks. This is crazy.
For any war to be justifiable it needs to make strategic sense, and it needs to be mindful of civilian deaths (a.k.a. “collateral damage”), understanding that these deaths must be proportionate to the end of re-establishing a just order, and that the war in defense of this just end has a reasonable chance of success, of being brought to an end. Regarding the Afghanistan war, none of these criteria withstand scrutiny. But this presupposes that they were seriously scrutinized by American policy-makers in the first place. I suspect they were not. Still, an endless war is by definition an unjust one.
The war in Iraq that followed on the Afghanistan invasion — a war resting on a pretext of lies and manipulation — was even more questionable than the US war in Afghanistan. Iraq was not involved in 9/11 — a fact known even at that time — but was justified as a “preventive war”, not to be confused with a “pre-emptive war” where attack by a belligerent power is imminent. It was a “discretionary” war of choice, which did not fall under the banner of necessity. What were the motives for choosing this war? The Bush-2 administration chose to ignore sound intelligence that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. And while oil was certainly a factor in going to war in Iraq, I doubt that by itself it would have prompted the full-scale invasion conducted by the Bush-2 administration. I think that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spilled the beans when he said, on the evening of September 11, 2001:
We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kinds of attacks.
Or, more honestly, if crudely, by the historian Michael Ledeen, according to journalist Jonah Goldberg:
“Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
This is the posturing of a hulking schoolyard bully, not a nation committed, according to its official rhetoric, to the constraints of a just war. And while bullies are characterized by reckless disregard for the well-being of others, the concealed basis for their recklessness is a burning fear of being shown-up as something less than omnipotent. Rather than acknowledge the cowardice at the core of their character, they cover it up with reckless and rash behavior. Fear is their governing emotion. The bully cannot stand being courageous, because the courageous admit their limitations and vulnerability.
Courage exacts a price: you risk a lot by refusing to let fear get the better of you or letting lack of fear tempt you into injustice. Courageous people know that they can and will suffer in the face of their dealings with fear. The courageous realize they can lose the battle, but refuse to flee in the face of possible loss and refuse to lash out with unjust abandon as well. Fear is real, but to let it win the battle with just action and just feeling is to relinquish one’s claim to human excellence. It is to whittle down one’s humanity for safety’s sake. It is to do evil to avoid danger.
In his book The Abuse of Evil: the Corruption of Politics and Religion since 9/11 , the philosopher Richard J. Bernstein contended that America’s response to the attacks hinged on a misunderstanding of what “evil” actually means, a misunderstanding that eventually proved disastrous. Writing in 2002, Bernstein thought that the United States was in the middle of a clash not of civilizations but of mentalities:
I argue that what we are now confronting is a clash of mentalities, not a clash of civilizations. A mentality that is drawn to absolutes, alleged moral certainties, and simplistic dichotomies stands in contrast to a mentality that questions the appeal to absolutes in politics, that argues that we must not confuse subjective moral certitude with objective moral certainty, and that is skeptical of an uncritical rigid dichotomy between the forces of evil and the forces of good.
The problem being, for Bernstein, that absolutists refuse to admit the possibility of evil in themselves when confronting the actuality of evil in others.
Bernstein hastens to add that a suspicion of “alleged moral certainties” is entirely compatible with “a passionate commitment to oppose injustice or immorality”, and a determination to oppose one’s enemies. But he is making a plea for recognizing our limitations — in knowledge and in action. Post-9/11, however, the United States of America plugged its ears to avoid hearing that there are limits — limits to the manner in which one can express fear while still holding on to one’s claim to justice and common decency. Bullies do not want to hear that.
In the age of Trump we live in a bully-culture, defined in equal measure by cowardice and recklessness: it is an age of generalized fear. It would be simplistic to blame the emergence of the bully-culture on 9/11 — its roots lie deep in the history of the republic — but it certainly exacerbated it. Fear has America in its grip: fear of foreigners, fear of the poor, fear of the non-white — fear of the generalized other. And the reaction to this fear has been proportionately reckless: internment camps on the southern border, radical nationalist violence, open racism, misogyny, LGBT-phobia, pro-gun and anti-socialist mania, contempt for the opposition, hysteria and lies and boundless hate on social media, and so on. And this is not a phenomenon limited to the political Right. Fear has paralyzed the so-called “resistance” as well, resulting in an over-cautiousness in the face of an odd emerging hybrid of plutocracy and fascism which threatens to transform the republic. The “loyal opposition” is afraid to impeach, afraid to invoke the 25th Amendment, afraid of failing to run an “electable” candidate, afraid to take to the streets as they did in Puerto Rico and Hong Kong. It is not conscience that makes cowards of us all on the Left: it is a fear of not succeeding in the face of aspirational tyranny. Not that there isn’t a basis for that fear — there is. It’s just that courage enjoins confidence in the face of fear, in full recognition that we might fail.
The United States of America, like any nation, needs to confront its mortality. All human efforts, in the end, will fail. This does not render meaningless the pursuit of patriotic success, the effort to live up to the ideals of a political community: one ought to do what one ought to do, individual and community alike. But one also ought to be able to face failure, indeed mortality, with equanimity, and not with the fist-shaking recklessness of the bully, a recklessness that is the twin of cowardice. The dead need to be mourned, the courageous honored, and justice pursued — and then one goes on living in pursuit of an excellent life, a praiseworthy and choice-worthy life, the Socratic life-worth-living, without being contorted by fear or heedless of justice. This is the unlearned lesson of 9/11, the lesson that The United States of America needs to learn before it is too late.