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How 9/11 will be remembered a century later

How will 9/11 be remembered on its centenary? Is it seen as a dramatic but ultimately insignificant tragedy or a turning point that fundamentally changed the United States and the development of world politics? Will future generations see this day as a meaningful reflection of underlying trends, as a catalyst for a number of catastrophic foreign policy mistakes, or as an isolated one-off event with relatively modest long-term implications?

It is of course impossible to predict how 9/11 will be interpreted; Perhaps we can only say with certainty that the importance attached to it varies depending on the interpreter. Americans will see 9/11 differently than Afghans, Iraqis, Saudis, or Europeans, and for many people around the world, it's likely little more than a historical footnote. What stands out in our consciousness today is often irrelevant to others, especially when memories fade and recent events demand our attention.

Despite these inevitable uncertainties, the question of how 9/11 might be viewed in 2101 is still a useful exercise as it helps place the event in a broader geopolitical context. I can think of at least two broad and radically different options (plus a third placeholder). Ironically, which possibility comes closest to the truth has little to do with what happened that sunny Tuesday morning 20 years ago and much more to do with what happened in response to it. Furthermore, what happens over the next few decades will determine how 9/11 will be remembered a century later.

How will 9/11 be remembered on its centenary? Is it seen as a dramatic but ultimately insignificant tragedy or a turning point that fundamentally changed the United States and the development of world politics? Will future generations see this day as a meaningful reflection of underlying trends, as a catalyst for a number of catastrophic foreign policy mistakes, or as an isolated one-off event with relatively modest long-term implications?

It is of course impossible to predict how 9/11 will be interpreted; Perhaps we can only say with certainty that the importance attached to it varies depending on the interpreter. Americans will see 9/11 differently than Afghans, Iraqis, Saudis, or Europeans, and for many people around the world, it's likely little more than a historical footnote. What stands out in our consciousness today is often irrelevant to others, especially when memories fade and recent events demand our attention.

Despite these inevitable uncertainties, the question of how 9/11 might be viewed in 2101 is still a useful exercise as it helps place the event in a broader geopolitical context. I can think of at least two broad and radically different options (plus a third placeholder). Ironically, which possibility comes closest to the truth has little to do with what happened that sunny Tuesday morning 20 years ago and much more to do with what happened in response to it. Furthermore, what happens over the next few decades will determine how 9/11 will be remembered a century later.

Option 1: Xi Jinping gets his wish

Imagine for a moment that Chinese President Xi Jinping's greatest hopes will be fulfilled and that the next 80 years will be known as the "Chinese Century". In this scenario, China's economic rise continues and eventually casts as big a shadow as the United States did during most of the Cold War and especially the unipolar moment. China will not become a global hegemon exercising authoritarian rule over every nation or dictating world events, but it could control the dominant heights of key technologies, exercise de facto hegemony in its immediate neighborhood, and have more influence over what other states do than any other power. She would have the loudest voice in most international institutions and the greatest ability to set the rules for most international interactions.

Should this scenario occur, then 9/11 is viewed as a critical event that accelerated America's decline. Not because of the damage the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon suffered, or even the short-term economic consequences (from which the United States quickly recovered), but because of the disastrous response from US leaders to them.

According to Brown University's Costs of War Project, the global war on terrorism ultimately cost the United States about $ 8 trillion. Even if spread over many years, it is an enormous sum that could have been spent on research and development, infrastructure, education, health care, or any other element of national power. Or it could have stayed in taxpayers' pockets and given them richer lives. Much of that sum was spent on electoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with several minor conflicts, wars that further destabilized already fragile regions and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, most of them foreign. The global war on terrorism was also a huge distraction from a number of wider strategic concerns, particularly China's remarkable rise. It is no exaggeration to say that 9/11 – and the US response to it in particular – was a tremendous gift to Beijing.

Furthermore, as Spencer Ackerman argues in his new book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, the domestic response to 9/11 has had a profoundly negative impact in the United States. After a brief outburst of rally-for-the-flag patriotism, the war fueled internal division, xenophobia, and a wider fear of colored people, thereby strengthening the white racists at the core of Trumpism (and increasingly the Republican Party itself). . US officials hailed torture and rendition as political tools, lied to the country about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the progress they were making in Afghanistan, and no one was ever held accountable. As both Thucydides and James Madison warned, eternal war corrupts even the healthiest political institutions, and that is exactly what has happened in the United States.

Most importantly, this scenario also assumes that the United States has not learned the right lessons from the past 20 years and is unable to reverse the partisan death spiral that now threatens the very core of its democratic system. In place of a reawakened sense of national goals, renewed unity within an increasingly multicultural society, and a re-committed political elite, the United States is lapsing into a vicious quasi-democracy where voter accountability amid a sea of ​​gerrymandering, voting restrictions, and myth-building by news organizations that were not set up to inform the public but to benefit a site. Instead of a competitive market for ideas and an empowered electorate, political power is being transferred even more to those with the largest budgets, the most seductive lies, and the fewest principles.

In this unhappy future, Americans stop working together to widen the cake for everyone and instead mostly argue over their respective shares. And when that happens, along with a few other foreign policy mistakes, it will be easy for China to fly past the US in the fast lane and fulfill Xi's ambitious dreams. If 9/11 is not seen as the death knell of American greatness, it is certainly seen as a catalytic moment that accelerated its decline. Osama bin Laden's ploy to induce the United States to react self-destructively will have been confirmed, but only because America fell into the trap he set.

Option 1 is not inevitable. There is another scenario.

Option 2: American Renaissance

Instead, let's assume that President Joe Biden's greatest hopes will be fulfilled and the United States will come together again. How is 9/11 seen in this much brighter future? This scenario begins with America's enduring strengths being recognized, strengths that its citizens tend to forget for all their self-inflicted wounds and accusations. Unlike most other wealthy democracies, America's population will continue to grow for the rest of this century. The economy remains an engine of innovation in many key sectors, even in the face of shrinking R&D budgets. In fact, some economic models predict that US GDP will lag behind China by mid-century, but will regain number 1 by 2100, largely due to more favorable demographics. And while geography does not shield the United States from all threats, the country is still in a far more favorable geopolitical environment than any other potential great power (including China).

This scenario assumes that the current feverish state of US domestic politics will eventually wane and a new era of progressivism will limit the corrupting effect of money in politics. A return to sensible immigration policies in the middle would again allow the country to attract talented, energetic, and enterprising-minded immigrants from other countries, gradually turning them into Americans, as the United States has by leaps and bounds but consistently successfully doing is history. White Americans are conforming to their status as a plurality rather than a majority, aided by the greater racial tolerance that younger Americans are already showing. Innovation continues to fuel economic growth, fewer dollars are spent on unnecessary military capabilities or wasteful and unnecessary wars, and political reforms reverse the current assault on suffrage and restore greater accountability in politics. US grand strategy abandons the futile pursuit of liberal hegemony and returns to the realistic principles that have so successfully guided it for most of the nation's history. And so forth.

Meanwhile, keep imagining China stumbling. Dragged down by unfavorable demographics (i.e., increasing numbers of unproductive aging retirees), environmental degradation, scarcity of resources, and coordinated global opposition fueled by Beijing's bare diplomacy, China never quite manages to achieve primacy. Perhaps Chinese leaders miscalculate as badly as US leaders did after 9/11 and are wasting resources in a fruitless war of their own. Even if China's current and future leaders avoid such grave mistakes as Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, its economic growth rate will slow and the Chinese Communist Party will have to focus primarily on containing social discontent. If all of this happened, the next 80 years wouldn't be the Chinese century at all.

In this scenario, 9/11 through 2101 will be a distant memory for living Americans. Not entirely, of course, but it is viewed as an isolated tragedy that sparked some unfortunate reactions but did no lasting damage to America's overall position in the world. To keep this prediction from seeming fanciful, consider how often Americans now take a moment to remember Maine! The explosion that sank this unfortunate warship in Havana harbor sparked a national turmoil not dissimilar to the 9/11 response and helped drive the United States into the Spanish-American War. We still hear a lot about the Depression, the appeasement in Munich, Pearl Harbor, the Normandy Landings and Vietnam, but the destruction of the USS Maine has slipped behind the veil of national amnesia. If the United States manages to renew itself over the next few decades, 9/11 will be seen as a minor tragedy that many Americans believe is best forgotten.

The wildcard

There is at least one other obvious possibility, however. If the worst-case predictions for climate change prove correct – and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore them these days – the next 80 years will see a series of changes in human life, including the 11th. The war it unleashed against terrorism seems like a bit of a distraction. When coastal cities are flooded, island states disappear, the Gulf Stream weakens, large parts of the world become uninhabitable due to deadly combinations of heat and humidity, and hundreds of millions of people migrate in a desperate search for survival, our descendants will neither have the time nor the desire have to think about a terrorist attack in the pre-dystopian era. At best, 9/11 is seen as one of the many factors that has kept the United States and many other countries from taking action when they should have.

In summary, what 9/11 means to future generations depends less on what actually happened that day, or how the United States and others reacted, but more on what the United States and others do from that day on. I wish I was more confident that we will make the right decisions.

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