America Hasn't Really Changed Since 9/11

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When William Butler Yeats sat down to write about the 1916 Easter rebellion in Dublin, he knew it marked a rupture in Ireland's fabric. Before 1916 was one state of affairs; after it, all was "changed, changed utterly." Sept. 11, we have come to think, is an event for modern America much as Easter 1916 was for Ireland. At home the U.S. is supposed to be different from the way it was; abroad it has ostensibly found a fresh definition of its role in the world.

I don't believe it. I don't believe that the essentials of American society were changed by the attacks, and I don't believe that American foreign policy should be stood on its head in response to them. Sept. 11 needs to be put in perspective.

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One way of doing so is to compare Sept. 11 with Dec. 7, 1941, that other day that will live in infamy. For the U.S., World War II really was epochal. More than 12 million were mobilized into the armed forces; nearly 300,000 died in battle; the economy was rescued from a deep slump; technological innovation proceeded at a pace never seen before; the social and economic position of women was transformed; the carapace of legal racial segregation began to crack; weapons were developed that could end life on earth; and in the war's shadow, the G.I. Bill created a mass middle class.

Nothing that has happened since Sept. 11 suggests that it will mark so profound a change in American society. If it had, two indicators would by now have flashed red. Everyone knows that the churches were full on Sept. 16, but everyone who regularly goes to church knows they haven't stayed that way. Michael Dimock, of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, who has tracked polling data since last fall, says he can find "no evidence" of a religious awakening. The Pentagon says that although there was an approximate doubling in the number of people expressing interest in the armed forces after Sept. 11, this did not later translate into any marked increase in enlistments.

Nor is there any reason to believe that the war on terrorism will dominate American foreign policy. Take one more comparison, this time with the cold war. For more than 40 years, the U.S. was consumed by a global struggle against communism. Some 95,000 Americans died in Vietnam and Korea in wars designed to contain the communist threat. The defense budget soared to levels unprecedented in "peacetime."

It is simply ridiculous to imagine that defeating radical Islamic terrorism — however vile it may be — will require the same level of national commitment as was seen in the cold war. The Soviet Union's ideology had many adherents and apologists throughout the West. For leaders in the developing world — where the Soviet Union was extending its power as late as the 1980s — Moscow was associated with progress and an escape from the thieving grasp of colonialism. Above all, communism was militarily powerful; the Soviet Union had thousands of weapons of mass destruction aimed right at us, and in Vietnam communist forces defeated the U.S. and its local allies.

The contrast with radical Islamic terrorism could hardly be more pronounced. Al-Qaeda controls not a single state. Leaders of every nation in the Muslim world loathe al-Qaeda's tenets, for the very good reason that they threaten those leaders' power. Though there is certainly a network of al-Qaeda sympathizers in the West, radical Islam has been unable to proselytize outside a very limited core of religious fanatics. Compared with the military power of Soviet communism, Islamic terrorists are a raggle-taggle army on the run. To revise our national priorities fundamentally in response to the terrorists pays them more respect than they deserve.

In fact, a foreign policy shaped by the war on terrorism would serve America poorly. The world is full of problems that need American resourcefulness: the rise of China, the fall of Japan, Europe's crisis of self-confidence, economic turmoil in Latin America. Policies designed to combat terrorism have nothing to offer such cases, yet any one of them may have more of an impact on our future than Sept. 11. If the U.S. takes terrorism as a simple guide to complex situations, it will often fall into error. It is, for example, natural for Americans to sympathize with Israelis — fellow sufferers from terrorism. But it is false to imagine that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its roots in competing claims to the same real estate, can be solved solely by asking who is a terrorist and who is a victim.

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