The What If’s



To commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, New York magazine gave over much of its Aug. 21 issue to four stories of that analyzed the subject. One was a photo essay showing artifacts recovered from ground zero. Another was a dialogue held among eight survivors of the twin towers who came together to compare notes. Another piece considered how 9/11 has given rise to a grief culture.

The largest of the four, which actually led off the pack, asked a central question via its headline: "What If 9/11 Never Happened?" A number of well-known writers and political leaders were asked for their opinions, all of which were brief. The commentators included such notables as Andrew Sullivan, Thomas L. Friedman, Bernard Henri-Levy, Frank Rich, Al Sharpton and Tom Wolfe.

The most succinct and insightful of these brief meditations came from Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, which comes as little surprise. At the time of the disaster and at each of the anniversaries since his words have had the deepest resonance.

In answer to the question itself, Wieseltier said that America would have enjoyed "the luxury of some more time in the post-Cold War, inward-looking, money-mad bliss." This was, of course, the period when it was argued that history had come to an end.

But, nonetheless, the writer noted, the bliss would have been short-lived. If 9/11 hadn't happened, some other inevitable date would have taken its place, and that was so, according to Wieseltier, because of the turbulence in the Islamic world; the fear of modernity, especially as embodied in the United States; and because of the extreme hatred of Israel. These things were waiting to explode. The world, he observed, was actually a far more dangerous place back then than many Americans or our policymakers seemed willing to accept.

"I imagine that it must have been excruciating to be the president of the United States on 9/11," the writer continued, "and I understand his subsequent virulence toward the enemies of the United States, but Bush became another victim, the most distinguished and powerful victim, of the instability that 9/11 unleashed in this country. Since 9/11, the discussion of urgent national questions has been dangerously volatile: In Washington, there is almost no point in beginning a political conversation anymore, since you immediately discover that you are speaking either to a Shark or a Jet. The sad truth, however, is that it doesn't matter anymore what America would have been like if 9/11 had never happened. It was one of the cataclysmic days in our history, one of the great American experiences of the irreversibility of history.

"And the sadder truth," he continued, "is that most Americans live as if 9/11 did not happen — basically, we're all still shopping as before. And even the president wants us to stay the same. Once again, this blessed country is weirdly detached from its own historical situation." 


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