Zakaria: Reflections on 9/11 and its aftermath
September 9th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Zakaria: Reflections on 9/11 and its aftermath

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.

soundoff (272 Responses)
  1. erich2112x

    "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."......IN YOUR DREAMS FAREED. You are so incredibly manipulative a phony, it makes me sick. i ca't stand to hear you use the word "WE" when referring to America.

    September 11, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Reply
    • erich2112x

      Such a cunning little dweeb that Fareed.

      September 11, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  2. Frankfoe

    It was a shame that the Bush admin couldn't protect us that day 10 years ago. The Bush admin failed, George W.Bush failed as a president. Thank God for President Obama. He killed Bin Laden. Something the Bush Admin couldn't accomplish. It is very sad to be a Republican. They are very weak and pathetic... So sad......

    September 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  3. honorcouragecommitment

    Why must we dwell on it you ask? Why must never forget? Becuase OUR country was ATTACKED by Terrorists! This was not another "car accident" or an arguement between parties on healthcare. Our country was attacked and that must NEVER be forgotten! So get over your self and if you don't want to "dwell" on 9/11 once a year then I suggest you stay off sites like "CNN" and any other new channel on this day. Let America refelect on the tragic events of 9/11 and take time out to remember those lost.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  4. Mark

    Sad but true.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  5. prakash

    Fareed is wrong his ananlysis on Sept 11 attacks. The bottomline is that no matter which part of the world Muslims live they create trouble for others. Just look at Israel, India and other non muslim countries.
    Just like the US bombed Hiroshima after the Pearl Harbour attacks if we had Bombed Afganistan with a Nuclear Bomb after 9/11 we would have eliminated Al Qaeda forever with much less cost to the US economy

    September 11, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  6. Payman Jahanbin

    Like always,you always separate the people ,all around the world with their bloody Governments,today one more time you reminded us the Iranians were the only who mourned the day ofter 9/11although the Iranian regime is the worst terrorist Government,the most hated and barbaric regime in the world . Kudos to you Sir,indeed what a noble man you are,telling the truth makes the people special and admirable,thanks one more time

    September 11, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  7. Cata Tonic

    Why is there no mention of the CIA toppling the Chilean democratically elected socialist government and replaced it with the dictator Agusto Pinochet. That also occur on 9/11.. 1973. Reflect on that!

    September 11, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Reply
    • Kay Eauno

      II just commented on that. 60,000 died as a result, in part, of the US action in Chile.

      September 11, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Reply
  8. Mike Houston

    Look at this mess, Fareed. What an agglomeration of misinformed fools. If these are the people
    who follow your writings its time to shut this forum down...No useful purpose is being served here.

    September 11, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Reply
  9. Kay Eauno

    9/11 to me is the day the CIA helped overthrow a democratically elected government in Chile that posed a risk to American businesses. Our own 9/11 is simply karmic payback.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Reply
    • Godfrey

      Terrorists kill not to negotiate, but to kill, you senseless vermin. The only karma is that the koran to be used for lining litter boxes and in lieu of toilet paper.

      September 12, 2011 at 7:23 am | Reply
  10. raymond

    When is the SEQUEL coming?

    September 12, 2011 at 1:19 am | Reply
  11. Allah has mercy

    They bombed the Twin Towers because americans had invaded their muslims countries.
    It is called Karma.

    September 12, 2011 at 3:12 am | Reply
  12. Godfrey

    No, you pig. They attacked the USA because they are bloodthirsty muslims. allah is a pedophillic dog followed by unrepentant idiots who kill for sport and to divert attention from their own, self-inflicted misery.

    September 12, 2011 at 7:20 am | Reply
  13. Chong Sun Wah

    The "War On Terror" is a big mistake instead focus on Universal Education in Spirituality.


    Racism on the rise in Europe

    In Norway, England, the Netherlands, Russia, and especially Austria, racist and Islamophobic movements are on the rise. glish+List&utm_campaign=828a7dad99-Newsletter&utm_medium=email#disqus_thread

    September 12, 2011 at 8:09 am | Reply
  14. April

    Ahhh 9/11...we all suffered..and we still do even 10 years later...this horrendous attack changed America today..we are still in trillions in debt because of it...and China is rising to the top...I really do not want to be saluting to the Chinese flag....we as Americans need to stick together and take care of this country...We need to rebuild this country as it was is becoming a laughing stock..and I despise people who say we are spoiled and do not know anything...We are the most hardworking people I feel and we need to keep on doing that and keeping America's reputation alive...Starting with educating the American people and preventative care...

    I wish people can see the real America...not some stupid media that puts out the bad things about America...II hate when I go abroad and people have this notion about us Americans and it is all BS. I truly love this country and seriously you only realize how much freedom we have here...when we leave and visit other places.

    And everyone on here who is fighting about whose God is greater...who is right or wrong...if the 9/11 is a hoax? does not matter.

    The FACT is 9/11 happened...people died...we need to think about the future and of our children...
    Medical coverage is getting expensive....Oil is increasing by the barrel...and what is the point of complaining and acting immature...really...grow up.

    God Bless America- The LAND OF THE FREE!

    September 12, 2011 at 8:30 am | Reply
  15. Gene Guerin



    September 12, 2011 at 10:07 am | Reply

    History will remember 911 as the day Bush froze!

    September 12, 2011 at 10:10 am | Reply
  17. Uuuggh!

    Seriously people, you can't stop being hateful and ugly for just one day out of respect for the people who died because of hatred. You all make me sick.

    September 12, 2011 at 10:27 am | Reply
  18. Dogcatcher

    9/11 will also mark the date the United States began its transition to a full-fledged, technology-driven national security state, not too different in the treatment of its citizens than that of the adversaries it fears. For many years, of course, America will still proclaim itself the "land of the free", but that will become even more of a hollow slogan than it is today. Whenever individual rights and privacy rights clash with national security interests, the security interests of the state will usually prevail. The apparatchiks never have enough security.

    If you doubt the path the country is on, simply think back to the way Americans lived one hundred years ago and note the minimal governmental interference with citizens' lives back then.

    September 12, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Reply
    • LV

      I'm sorry, this is just stupid. A hundred years ago there were no phones, no planes, just paper, trains and USPS along with the telegraph.

      September 14, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  19. Patrick McDermott

    I completely agree that our focus needs to be on us and our relationship with the world going forward. I would argue that it wasn't the past ten years, and that was to our detriment. It's why I am working on a campaign that focuses on making the next decade better than the last. The campaign is called Be2021 ( and its goal is to empower young people across the country to build a movement to envision and create a better world by the 20th anniversary in 2021. We feel that young people are the ones who have the right and the responsibility to create that world. If you agree, then join us at our website ( and on Facebook (

    September 13, 2011 at 10:48 am | Reply
  20. LV

    Let us clearly identify the enemy as Islamic Jihad. Let us not turn a blind eye on those who aid and abet that enemy, at home or abroad. The next time we attack, let's declare war and cut the cost by not rebuilding.

    September 14, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  21. Alleen Hallmon

    I'd need to examine with you here. Which isn't something I often do! I enjoy studying a submit that can make people think. Additionally, thanks for permitting me to remark!

    November 18, 2011 at 9:28 am | Reply
  22. Eddie Fonseca

    Billy Joel the famous American singer who wrote the famous song being in a New York State of Mind, which was hit song over twenty years ago talked about his love for the greatest city in the world New York from it's theater district to the city that never sleeps from the people who walk Time Square at midnight looking for the greatest deals on shoes and clothes. When that dark day of September 9/11 hit New York city many Americans like myself witnessed the greatest act's of terrorism, ever to hit our soil and watched innocent family's being torn apart from losing loved ones from terrorists who thought by taking innocent Americans they would scare us not act atall by putting us in state of fear for a very long time. Our brave men and women of the NYPD, NSA, FBI Terrorism Unit and other who stood up and in one voice said, we as New Yorkers and Americans will not go quietly into the night and we not let terrorism and bring those to justice who seek to harm our freedom and liberty for all Americans and the people of the world as well. As years passed after 9/11 where does New York and America stand on terrorism we still consider high on the list just like illegal immigration, our current president did something that George Bush could not do kill Osama Bin Laden and try to bridge a path with Arab American's and the Middle East and try to understand that sometimes being patient is the key to solving problems and not always using military might all the time, but in this case Obama used some sense and created a plan of attack by attacking Osama Bin Laden terrorists cell when he least expected and by turning an opponents weakness to our advantage we finally as Americans got the justice we have been seeking for over four years and counting and now American family's can finally tell their loved ones, we have won and let them rest in peace forever knowing their sacrifice did not go in vain on 9/11 on that dark day in America's history. It's a new day in New York and for America, and for rebuilding race relation's between Jewish Americans and Arab Americans where a young Jewish women can date an Arab American man and have a quite dinner at a fancy restaurant with a nice bottle of red wine to end of the perfect date night in New York city. Without Americans and New Yorkers uniting together to rebuild the American Dream of freedom and precision from fear of other's, such as terrorists who thought they could rule our lives will we as a nation be able move forwards and let freedom prevail or will the memory's of 9/11 haunt us for years to come.

    August 20, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  23. JAZ Z

    Dear Fareed,
    What do you think about US traders and Israel's involvement in 9/11 attack? Or was it an 'inside job' of US as many say.

    August 8, 2017 at 9:45 am | Reply
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