9/11, 2001 – 2021

Something rang false back when President Biden announced that the final withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan would occur on September 11, 2021. Twenty years to the day since al-Qaeda hijacked UAL 175 and 93 and AA 11 and 77 and crashed them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania rather than, thanks to the action of passengers, the White House. What sort of commemoration did he have in mind? Not the defeat of the Taliban. Not the restoration of sovereignty to Afghanistan. What was the withdrawal to be a completion of? Not the so-called war on terrorism. Not a peace agreement among Afghans.

As the Taliban advanced last month far more quickly than anticipated, Biden defended his decision to carry out the Trump administration’s de facto surrender to the Taliban. “I inherited a deal.” Such strange fealty squared with his belief in his own rightness twelve years ago. He now could disinherit nation-building, recalling his oft-publicized opposition as vice president to Obama’s 2009 troop surge: “I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency or nation-building. That’s why I opposed the surge.” He went even further, as if rewinding history all the way to the original 2001 Afghan mission: “get those who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001, and make sure al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that.” Did we? The falsehoods of Trump’s justification of his deal with the Taliban, namely, that al-Qaeda was all but defunct and that the Taliban would no longer harbor it, have been amply exposed. Biden parroted these claims in justifying his own commitment to unconditional withdrawal.

The consequences of the precipitous, ill-planned withdrawal will cascade through the coming months and years. Most immediately it has left the fate of hundreds, more likely thousands, of American citizens and permanent residents prey to the Taliban, as well as even more Afghans who allied with the U.S.-NATO forces. More permanently, and appallingly, it has turned the fate of Afghan woman and girls over to this fanatical ultra-misogynistic vengeful theocratic regime that already terrorized Afghan society from 1996 to 2001.

As the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 loomed, it provoked memories and reflections well before Biden linked it to the Afghanistan withdrawal. I lived in Brooklyn and taught in Manhattan at the time of the attacks, and then I was on a teaching exchange and a sabbatical in France during the ensuing build-up to the invasion of Iraq. The historic tensions that pitted the U.S. and Britain against France and Germany became a palpable everyday presence. My first impulse toward writing what eventually became The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought since September 11 (Princeton, 2007) was to challenge Robert Kagan’s caricature of the U.S.-Europe tensions in his slogan, Americans are Hobbesians, Europeans are Kantians. He associated Hobbes’s “war of all against all” with the hard-edged realism of the neoconservative faction in the Bush administration and Kant’s “perpetual peace” with European resistance to interventions and over-reliance on the United Nations and international consensus. He got Hobbes and Kant all wrong. Hobbes imagined that civil society arises when individuals give up their natural right to self-protection and survival by any means necessary, yielding the means of violence to the sovereign to secure their mutual protection and thriving. The sovereign assumes the responsibility to protect subjects or citizens from internal and external violence; civil society supplants the state of nature’s (hypothetical) war of all against all. Kant thought the relations between nations existed in just such a state of nature, each neighbor a potential deadly antagonist; he neither presupposed nor expected perpetual peace but believed that the only way to reduce the prospect of war between nations was for them to construct lawlike relations with one another. Neither pacifism nor world government figured in his thinking.

Kant and Hobbes are not symmetrical opposites. For Hobbes, the sovereign is defined by the responsibility to protect and is thus inhibited from reckless bellicosity. For Kant, sovereign nations’ inherent rivalries risk war and need the inhibitions of agreed-upon rules. The Iraq debates, especially among scholars and theorists, frequently concerned the justifications of armed intervention and under whose auspices it should occur. The model tended to be humanitarian intervention, shaped by the debates over ethnic cleansing and genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. When does a nation, a coalition, or an international body have the right to intervene by force in the affairs of a sovereign nation? The right to intervene and violate a nation’s sovereignty could be justified on the basis of a humanitarian duty to protect. To draw on more Hobbesian  terms, the ruling-power in such circumstances —the sovereign—has in effect abdicated the duty to protect and hence sovereignty itself.

In the event, neither the Iraq nor the Afghan intervention was a humanitarian intervention. The American-led “coalition of the willing” unjustifiably intervened in Iraq on the false pretense that Saddam Hussein colluded with al-Qaeda and possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” American-led NATO forces intervened justifiably in Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda, which was harbored and protected by the Taliban. The overthrow of the Taliban regime was the necessary means to the end of crippling or destroying al-Qaeda, while the overthrow of Hussein and his Baathist regime was the primary goal and based on various false, dubious, and mistaken premises. The neoconservatives believed, naïvely and recklessly, that simply toppling Hussein would give rise to democracy in Iraq and set in motion democratic movements throughout the Muslim world. The tragic irony of the Iraq intervention was that the overthrow of the sovereign set in motion the Hobbesian nightmare itself, a splintering of civil society into warring factions that left the population unprotected by either its own government or the occupying power.

At this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the duty to protect unexpectedly asserts itself again. But in an altogether new light. Not does the duty to protect justify an intervention, but rather: When does the ending of an intervention and the withdrawal of armed force constitute an abdication of the duty to protect? It’s one kind of tragedy not to intervene in a humanitarian crisis because lacking the means or considering it too costly or dangerous. It’s another kind of tragedy not to intervene out of callousness when the means are there. The Trump-Biden tragedy lies in causing a humanitarian crisis by ending an intervention. “We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago,” Biden insisted the day after the final planes left. “Then we stayed another decade.” That second decade was not empty of accomplishments. Even as governance and exaggerated hopes for democratization faltered in Afghanistan, liberalization made significant gains. The most significant liberation from the Taliban rule that was suffocating Afghanistan in 2001 was the education that millions of Afghan women and girls were able to enjoy. We—and I turn to the first-person plural because I’m speaking as an American citizen not just an analyst or theorist—we had a duty to protect the institutions and humanitarian gains we enabled. In claiming to eschew nation-building and humanitarian intervention in favor of “vital national interest,” Biden renounced our national responsibility for the consequences of the occupation of Afghanistan. The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt put it succinctly: “The 39 million people who may now be subjected to brutal, fundamentalist rule. The little girls barred from school and imprisoned in forced marriages. The people of the wrong faith prevented from worshiping, or killed for it. Are they not an American interest?”

The Post’s Afghanistan Papers reporting has revealed countless falsehoods that have been proffered all during these twenty years by every president and scores of generals, policymakers, and national security officials. The skein of misrepresentations and lies is so dense that it became virtually impossible for citizens, indeed for political leaders themselves, to assess the political, civic, and military situation in Afghanistan. Judgments and decisions have been made based on layer upon layer of fictions concerning earlier judgments and decisions. It is understandable that the lack of a reliable grasp on the reality, whatever the reality is, lends the aura of validity to Biden’s decision to end the so-called forever war. And as Biden performs sincerity and straight talk as well as, or better than, any modern politician, and as Republicans, billowing at whichever end the Trumpian wind blows, condemn the withdrawal they applauded under Trump, it is little wonder that the underlying national consensus is, Thank God, we’re out of Afghanistan.

Yet, Biden’s judgments and decisions are not as clear and just as they sound. He evokes a set of crisp but questionable distinctions and intentions that are meant to inaugurate a more realistic vision or “doctrine” of foreign policy. But each one is flawed:

Antiterrorism is to supplant nation-building and counterinsurgency. But nation-building and counterinsurgency easily become a part of antiterrorist actions, or a consequence of them. Afghanistan was proof of that! The antiterrorist goal of getting at al-Qaeda required overthrowing the Taliban and then dealing with the resulting humanitarian and governing crisis in Afghanistan. Targeted strikes, effective policing, financial controls, special forces, and assassinations are unlikely to suffice in every instance. Ten years after the Taliban were defeated, the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was hailed as, finally, the defeat of al-Qaeda but turned out not to have defeated al-Qaeda after all.

No more forever wars. Biden has taken up this rallying cry and views his Afghan withdrawal as ending the forever war. This repeats a fundamental error in thinking about the conflicts that erupted with 9/11. Despite its departure from Afghanistan, the U.S. remains caught up in an ongoing war with no end in sight. That the U.S. was in a war in Afghanistan and now is not, and that a proper war is one that is won or lost within clear boundaries of space and time, are misconceptions. The Muslim world is engaged in a geo-civil war which implicates the West but does not conform to the conventional vision of wars as nation-bound conflicts won or lost on a single territory. It is a geo-civil war in the sense that it is a civil war among Muslims in shifting antagonisms (Sunni/Shiite, Arab/Iranian, Islamist/nationalist, tribal, fundamentalist/pluralist, pan-Arab/pan-Islamic, ISIS caliphate/al-Qaeda Wahhabism), but at the same time this civil war has geopolitical causes and effects, from tensions between Muslim countries, including nuclear armament, to terrorist attacks in Europe, Israel, and the U.S., and the succession of refugee crises. The “war on terror” or “war on terrorism” is an empty metaphor that has failed to describe this geo-civil war, a war from which withdrawal is impossible.

Leaving Afghanistan to put resources and attention to Russia and China. Biden echoes Obama’s declaration ten years ago that the U.S. was going to “pivot” to Asia, reinforcing the illusion that the U.S. could pivot away from conflicts in the Muslim world. But the geo-civil war did not, and does not, go away. Its metamorphoses and metastases in the decade since the promised pivot have included ISIS’s violent “caliphate” and crimes against humanity, the Syrian civil war and Bashar al-Assad’s crossing Obama’s chemical warfare redline with impunity, the Libyan civil war after Gaddafi’s overthrow and execution, the illiberal evolution of Turkey’s democratic Islamic regime, and radicalization and self-radicalization among Muslim youth in the West, especially in Europe.

Twenty years is indeed a long time, especially for electoral and news cycles, but Muslims’ geo-civil war endures in all its shapeshifting ambiguities and contradictions. Biden’s foreign policy vision of America’s long-term vital interests may be very shortsighted.

On 9/11, I must have been among the first few thousand New Yorkers to glimpse the unfolding catastrophe. I had just finished my morning run several minutes before 9:00, a loop through Williamsburg’s Northside and Southside, and turned onto Richardson Street to cool down. I saw smoke on the horizon, and in that fraction of a second where the mind runs ahead of perception I wondered how that could be since I’d just been through that part of the neighborhood and there was no fire, and then as my eyes refocused I realized the smoke was coming from a tower of the World Trade Center. I scurried home and turned the TV on.

A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It was not at first presumed to be a passenger jet or suspected of being a terrorist attack—until, several minutes later, the second plane crashed through the north tower. Our upstairs neighbors’ apartment had a clear view of the towers. My partner and I had lived in that apartment for a couple of months while ours was being completed. In those months my political and architectural prejudices against the twin towers of global capital had steadily dissolved. I could see them from my desk and became fascinated by the play of light and shadow that continually danced across them as clouds came and went and as the sun coursed from dawn to dusk. Now they were burning. From the neighbors’ deck we watched the unnaturally white smoke against the pure blue sky. Our neighbor was still shaken because her husband had flown on United that morning from New York to Boston, from which both AA 11 and UAL 175 had departed; he had called upon arriving saying something was going on at the airport. The three of us watched in horror as the towers burned and wondered how people were getting out. And then the one collapsed and then the other. TV transmission was lost, public transportation shut down, schools closed, and the regular flow of passenger planes to-and-fro LaGuardia and JFK was replaced by a couple of fighter jets that kept circling the five boroughs.

The first day the university reopened I had an evening class of advanced undergraduates at Baruch College. It was our first semester in a new building. Students moved through the lobby and hallways, quieter and sparser than the normal throng. Solemnity and uncertainty replaced the anticipation and excitement of just a few weeks before. The Armory that hosted the famous 1913 show of European art sits diagonal from the Vertical Campus across Lexington and 25th. Now it was the center where desperate friends and relatives gave and sought information about their missing loved ones. I had no idea what to expect in this first meeting. A majority of the class were in their seats; I silently worried about those who were absent. We shared various experiences and observations. One student reported that three of her friends perished at the World Trade Center. A young police detective who was back in college pursuing a bachelor’s degree said he was working twelve hour shifts six or seven days a week. Another student was the son of a fire captain who knew many of the lost fire fighters. So many of these individual stories would reverberate in the coming weeks. Most Baruch students pursue business degrees, so how many students or alums were interning or working for companies and firms in the World Trade Center? I unsuccessfully pressed a senior administrator to have the college identify victims with a tie to the college. I thought of the fire captain’s son and the detective many times in the following months as memorials sprang up on fire trucks and at fire stations in neighborhoods throughout the city.

I asked the class what they wanted to do with the rest of the evening. We could cut class short and resume next week. Or we could discuss the issues that were emerging regarding the attacks, terrorism, and America’s response. Or we could take up the readings assigned after our last meeting. Spontaneously and unanimously the class wanted to discuss the assignment. I had the sense that gathering in this space separated from all they had seen and done in the last several days was a respite. Not an escape from reality but an opportunity to regain equilibrium and autonomy in relation to that reality. My surmise was tested immediately. The assigned readings were Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, a handful of poems on the death of a girl or young woman, a fictional figure through whom Wordsworth probes the experience of death, loss, youth cut short, grief, and missed possibility. The students were insightful and engaged. They touched on the poems’ themes, speculated on the poet’s motives and feelings, questioned the fictionality of Lucy, and entertained the structural and formal features of these short poems. It was a great discussion. It was one of those moments when the everyday commitment to teaching suddenly, often unexpectedly lights up as conviction and vocation. That feeling was all the more intense because in the midst of all the death and grief of 9/11, which my students were living in the most immediate ways, these poems did not offer consolation. They did not soften loss. They did not wrap death in any redemption, afterlife, or compensation. The shortest of the Lucy poems is at once “but a vision of reality” at its starkest and one of the most powerful and complex poems in English:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

  I had no human fears:

She seem’d a thing that could not feel

  The touch of earthly years.


No motion has she now, no force;

  She neither hears nor sees;

Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course

  With rocks, and stones, and trees.

To have that evening’s discussion of Wordsworth with my fellow city dwellers affirmed anew the meaning of learning. The classroom is a space where mind and sensibility can exercise themselves without coercion or dogma, where reality can be confronted without a loss of autonomy or courage, where consolation can be questioned without loss of hope.

Jill Biden has devoted her life to teaching community college students, so the president must know teachers’ visceral conviction that education is the surest path to individuals’ freedom and society’s enlightenment. The more socially oppressed, denigrated, or excluded the individual is, the more essential is his or her access to learning, inquiry, and freedom of thought. There is nothing more horrifying and heartbreaking than seeing young persons being deprived of the education they want to pursue. Is this not indeed a vital American interest anywhere in the world where it can be fostered or protected?


  1. Paul Cunningham says:

    Thanks for sharing JB. I have some thoughts to share and will do so at another time and forum. Coincidentally Pam, Poppy, Fiona, and I are flying into Newark late tonight and on to midtown for a few days. Will be in the city on 9/11.

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