20 years after 9/11, America is fighting for its future

20 years after 9/11, America is fighting for its future
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How do you defeat an ideology?

Twenty years after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the United States has shown that it can topple hostile regimes with startling ease; it can kill and capture terrorists and suspected terrorists by the thousands; it can detect, disrupt and prosecute terrorists and terror cells; and it can degrade threats to America and Americans posed by al Qaeda, other Islamist ideologies, and other extremist groups.  

Our nation has not shown, however, that it can defeat the ideas that underlie extremist ideologies.  To the contrary, the recent resurgence of the Taliban has been met with enthusiasm by extremist groups of all stripes, including far right-wing extremist groups. Time will tell whether the Taliban’s triumphant return to power will last, and whether it will embolden other extremists to attack the United States and other Western nations.  

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What is clear, however, is that we have fallen short of the task identified by the 9/11 Commission as the most important objective: “Just as we did in the Cold War,” the report concluded, “we need to defend our ideals abroad vigorously.” To accomplish this, the report stated, “[T]he U.S. Government must define what the message is, what it stands for. We should offer an example of moral leadership to the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors. …” The values that we project, moreover, must include “widespread political participation and contempt for indiscriminate violence … respect for the rule of law, openness in discussing differences, and tolerance for opposing points of view.”  

It is painful, in the perspective of today’s politics, to read this language of consensus about what America’s core values are. It seems an artifact of a vanished era.  

Look at the current state of our politics. Every close election — and some not so close, with margins of millions of votes — is contested as “corrupt.” State legislatures across the nation are racing not to “promote widespread political participation” but, in many instances, to curtail it. Indiscriminate violence has become a favored tactic of domestic extremist groups of the far right and far left. Our respect for the rule of law has been challenged by some of the very tactics deemed necessary to fight the war on terror: targeted killings, renditions, imprisonment for years without charges, the failure after 20 years to try any of the accused 9/11 conspirators.     

Most tragic of all, in the past two decades the “openness in discussing differences, and tolerance for opposing points of view” held up as core American values by the 9/11 Commission have disappeared entirely from America’s own public square. They have been supplanted by the prevalence of the methods and messaging of commercial speech, which was once viewed by the Supreme Court as enjoying less protection than political speech because of its inherent tendency to exaggerate if not defraud and to sow dissatisfaction and division.  

Unable to divine a bright line between commercial and political speech, the court has decided that spending in fact is a form of protected speech, and has thus left our public square undefended from the market forces that, in manipulating public opinion to the right or left, have effaced civility from public discourse and thus eroded the very ideals that America needs to stand for and promote in order to prevail in the world.

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Clearly, we have failed to win the crucial battle of ideas. To the contrary, if anything, we have lost ground. As a consequence of exposure only to points of view with which we agree, Americans have been led to embrace a mistaken idea of individual freedom, in which little or no regard is given to the differing interests and opinions of other individuals, or of the community at large. Basic public health and safety measures — polio vaccines, blackout curfews during wartime, rationing of scarce food and fuel — adopted in past decades of public need without cavil, now would be protested and defied as matters of existential individual rights, viral clicks, and better cable ratings.  

Our adversaries, from Russia and China to radical Islamists and other extremist groups, have seized on this decadent form of individualism. Russian, Chinese and Iranian trolls and Islamist and other extremists have impersonated extremes of both the left and right to accelerate our internal divisions and have pointed to our excesses as emblematic of our core ideals. They have used those excesses to make the case for repressive authoritarian government, for medieval caliphates, for the extinction of individual freedoms.        

This cannot stand.

After 20 years, the existential struggle is no longer taking place on far-flung battlefields but literally in the palms of our hands: on our phones, on our websites and social media outlets where commercial surveillance has become political surveillance, exploiting our preferences to drive us further and further into dead ends of our own biases, and in our living rooms, where conversations steer clear of politics or become confrontations.  

The hard truth is that we cannot win the struggle of ideals without recovering our own, and the first step must be self-awareness. Politicians must be bulwarks against misinformation and manipulation, not their agents. We must address the structure that has made polarization profitable for social media companies, for cable news networks, for political consultants, for interest groups. And we must not, in our self-absorption, forget that there is a larger struggle than the fight between Democrats and Republicans; whether we like it or not, America is now fighting for its future, for its place in the world.

How do you defeat an ideology? You defeat it with a better idea. You defeat it, as the 9/11 Commission said, by promoting civic engagement, education, openness to other points of view and tolerance in discussing differences. Why is that a better idea?

In a world of converging populations and multiple faiths, there is a profound spiritual humility, a future-facing wisdom underlying these American values. They acknowledge that there is no future for an America, for a world in which absolutes clash in unyielding strife, and that no one faith, culture or nation has a monopoly on truth. As Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi realized, truth as we in our limited way are permitted to see it emerges from a process in which differing views are respected.  

As it was 20 years ago, the American way is a better path forward for the world. But from the heartbreak of the pandemic, the wreckage of Jan. 6, the riots of Portland, Seattle and other cities, and the ruins of Afghanistan, we need to recover our core values first for ourselves.           

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.