Editor's Note: Tune in this Sunday in the U.S. at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. for a special edition of GPS: "9/11 and the World". (If you're watching internationally, tune in Sunday at 4 p.m. ET, 8 p.m. ET and Monday 7 a.m. ET.) Fareed will have a one-on-one with former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and an expert panel on how the world has changed - and not - since September 11, 2001.
By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
Those of us who live in New York have our own special memories of 9/11/2001. I was driving down the Long Island Expressway, about to begin a month-long leave from my job at Newsweek to work on a book. Around 9 a.m., I switched from the CD player to the radio to listen to the news. The reports were chaotic but the outlines of what had happened were clear. I turned around and headed back to New York to get to my wife and 1-year-old boy. As I approached the Triborough Bridge I saw huge barricades and dozens of police cars. All bridges and tunnels were closed. Manhattan had been sealed off. Cell phones were useless that morning because 8 million people were trying to use them simultaneously and the result was cellular gridlock.
I turned around and headed to my destination in Long Island, the home of friends where I had been planning to work on the book. As soon as I got there, I turned on CNN and watched with horror and anger. Finally, I was able to talk to my wife and knew that she and my son were fine. But soon I got a call from one of my dearest friends, my roommate from college. His brother, Chris, worked on one the high floors of the Towers. No one had heard from him. I began calling friends and contacts at the New York Police Department, the FBI, the CIA - anyone who might have any ideas about what I might do to help. I remember looking at the hospital emergency rooms, with beds set up on the streets, waiting for patients to come streaming in. But, of course, they were all empty. No one ever came. Chris was never heard from again.
I guessed instantly who had done it. I had followed Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda for a few years, through the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa and on the USS Cole in Yemen. In my previous job, as Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, I had published a commentary on bin Laden’s then-little-known fatwah against the United States by the eminent Princeton historian, Bernard Lewis. But I was still stunned by the attack - by its audacity, simplicity and success. In one respect, I was thoroughly American. I imagined that America was an island, a rock, far away from the troubles and infections of the rest of the world. And like most Americans, I felt a shock, an intrusion, a violation.
I put my book project on hold and spent all my spare hours reading and thinking about what had caused the attack. What explained this monstrous evil? I wrote my columns for Newsweek on it and then, a couple of weeks later, I was talking to Newsweek’s Editor, Mark Whitaker, and we decided that I would write a full-length essay explaining the roots of this rage against America. I spent three days and nights in a white heat, reading, researching and writing. The result was a 6,000-word cover essay that ran in Newsweek worldwide titled, “Why They Hate Us?” It got a lot of attention - more than anything I had ever written. It was a moment that Americans - in fact, people around the world - were deeply curious for answers, explanations and understanding. The piece did deal with America and American foreign policy in small measure, but it was mostly about Islam and the Arab world in particular. It was mostly about them.
That’s how 9/11 was discussed and analyzed at the time - mostly with a focus on them. Who are they? Why are they so enraged? What do they want? What will stop them from hating us? That discussion of Islam and the Arab world had its problems, but its was a fruitful discussion, especially once it was joined by Arabs and Muslims themselves. I have often said that the most influential piece of writing of the last decade was a United Nations report, the UNDP’s Arab Development Report, written by Arabs, that documented in granular detail the decay of the Arab world. Once Arabs began to focus on how stagnant and repressive their societies had become, it set off a chain of ideas and actions that I believe has led to the discrediting of al Qaeda and its philosophy and the rise of the Arab Spring.
But if 9/11 was focused at the time on them, ten years later the discussion is mostly about us. What is America’s position in the world today? Are we safer? Are we stronger? Was it worth it? Some of these questions are swirling around because the United States is mired in tough economic times and at such moments, the mood is introspective not outward looking. Some of it is because of the success in the war against al Qaeda. The threat from Islamic terrorism still seems real but more manageable and contained.
But, in large part, the discussion about the United States is the right one to have. History will probably record this period not as one characterized by al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. That will get a few paragraphs or a chapter. The main story will be about a rapidly changing world and perhaps about the fate of the world’s sole superpower – the United States of America. History might well record 9/11 as the beginning of the decline of America as planet’s unrivaled hegemon.
The day on 9/11, the world was at peace, and the United States strode that world like a Colossus. It posted a large budget surplus. Oil was at $28 a barrel. The Chinese economy was a fifth the size of America’s. Today, America is at war across the globe; it has a deficit of $1.5 trillion and oil is at $115 a barrel. China is now the world’s second largest economy.
Al Qaeda will be forgotten. Few people today remember what the Boer War was about. But what they do know is that, around that time, the dawn of the 20th Century, Great Britain spent a great many of its resources and, more importantly, its attention, on policing the world and sending its troops to Africa and...Afghanistan and Iraq - some things never change. But Britain forgot that the real threat to its power came from the economic rise of Germany and the United States, which were challenging its industrial supremacy.
America needs to get back its energy and focus on its true challenge – staying competitive and vibrant in a rapidly changing world. That requires not great exertions of foreign policy and war but deep domestic changes at home. The danger comes not from them but from us.
For more of my thoughts through the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to bookmark the Global Public Square. Also, be sure to tune in this Sunday at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT for a special edition of GPS: "9/11 and the World". I'll have a one-on-one interview with former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and I'll convene a group of experts to discuss how the world has changed - and not– since September 11, 2001.