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. john

    History will remember 9/11 as the period when the United States of America became
    the biggest cry babies in the world.

    History will judge Americans for giving up
    freedoms and liberties to the state. History will dictate we deserve neither freedom
    nor liberty.

    Historians will judge us for what we are. Cowards. Losers. Crybabies.

    History will also rename the new tea party for what they are. The KKK.

    September 9, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • kyle

      cry babies? because we remember our pain and try to learn from it? it was a attack that damaged our nation and our image of our country. it would be like Germany forgetting WW2 and the holocaust. at the same time americans are not weak, we just need to remeber who we really area as a nation, and btw try saying that to one of our fighting men and women over seas, you may not agree with what they are fighting for but please respect them for their courage to stand up for what they belive in

      September 11, 2011 at 12:06 am | Reply
  2. george from europe

    This attack,was payback for neverending occupation of us army around the world. The pride of usa is lost...forever

    September 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • AnotherJohn

      Since you live in Europe, the European country you reside in invites the US Military to run bases within your country, that's one reason why Euro nations can afford to maintain many social services that would go to building domestic military forces to protect the entire Euro Union. The US doesn't have bases in countries that don't invite us, unless we're at war within that countries boarders. Pull your head out of your rear end before you start getting a kick out of it.

      September 9, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Reply
      • some other john

        Ohh no.. Who is inviting US force.. CIA ?. Preparing battle fields based on hiden forgin policy all over the world to capture the resources and creat virtual colonies..?

        September 10, 2011 at 1:07 am |
    • ed

      Europe lives in fear as the dark races burn their cars nightly and control the streets as the white man pays through the welfare system for those very burnings.

      September 10, 2011 at 8:35 am | Reply
  3. Ted Peters

    To paraphrase Mr. Zakaria in his 2008 Newsweek article about the end of conservatism: Progressive slogans sound anachronistic in the context of today's problems, like an old black and white TV show from the 1960s.

    September 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  4. Gary

    There was nothing special about that day.

    September 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Reply
    • Joseph

      Until 8:46 AM, that is. But if you weren't alive then, you wouldn't know what the experience of fear, sadness and anger was from that day.

      That makes you, let's see, less than 10 years old, right?

      September 12, 2011 at 11:21 am | Reply
  5. VJ

    I agree for the most part, but I wouldn't say 9/11 itself caused the decline of the US. It was the series of events that occurred after 9/11 and our response to it. I am not saying we did the wrong thing because there really was no choice. Most of us Americans were angry and wanted to retaliate. I still feel that way every time I see WTC in smoke.
    But the real reason for our decline is the rules of war in todays age. WWII ended with 2 atomic bombs that took out military targets, with civilian casualities as collateral. Today, that would be unacceptable, and instead war is longer, and takes more ground personnel. If instead we dropped a few atomic bombs in afghanistan or iraq and dont care what occurs in those countries postwar, those wars would be over in 1-2 days. I'm pretty sure al queda will stop if we threaten to drop a few more atomic bombs every time they threaten us. I'm not saying thats the right thing, but thats on par with the thinking of past wars, and will assert our dominance in the world.

    September 9, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  6. Florencia Lopez

    im really appreciate that in my school, every students wore red,blue and white clothes for the tower. so we hopelly the tower wont get hit from the air plane again. We love you NYC!!!! 🙂 Wow i cant believe the tower has fall down and kill 3.000 people. Thank you Goerge Bush for closing the airport stage. I wish the tower will NEVER crash AGAIN! We love you New York !!!! By: Florencia

    September 9, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  7. Florencia Lopez

    PLEASE SAVE THE WORRRLLLD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    September 9, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  8. Kat

    what's next by Islamphobes crap? that the Latin American drugs cartels are Muslims? we're indebted forever to Muslim China? Muslims are taking our jobs? 100,000 Muslim victims of Bosnia killed themselves and blamed the Christian Serbs for it? Rwanda Chrsitian masscres were a Muslim conspiracy? Muslims invaded Israeli towns in Poland, Germany and Russia and established an Arabs-only state with colonies that house Arab immigrants from Yemen and Morocco? Muslims forge evidence of WMD's in Christian countries after speaking to their "heavenly father" to justify invading Christian countries in the west "to liberate them" and make millions homeless and dead in the way?

    September 9, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Reply
    • kyle

      hey don't bring religion into it, you are trying to protect Muslims from people who are blaming their whole religion for extremists in the same way dont blame the whole of Christianity for extremists are their side.

      September 11, 2011 at 12:09 am | Reply
  9. Ricky

    Why doesn't anyone talk about WTC 7 that fell in the afternoon of the same day due to controlled demolition?

    September 9, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Reply
    • Brian

      ..Because that never happened. (shhhhh BIG brother is watching and listening to you)..

      How does a steel and glass building just FALL down at freefall speed with only 3 small fires inside? (hint.. military explosives help a bit in that collapse.. ).

      September 9, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Reply
      • ed

        Our resident meatheads who only feel powerful when they think they know something special.
        Planes damaged all the buildings and some came down.

        September 10, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  10. david

    first of all, mr zakaria, how did bilderberg group feel about 9/11? second, it is beyond obvious that 9/11 was carried out by the american government. for proof, there is no wreckage at shanksville or at the pentagon. the THREE towers fell at free fall speed into their own footprints. at world trade center 7, officers were telling everybody to back up, theyre going to blow up 7. dick cheney also issued a stand down order. none of this is debatable. it all happened. i just wish fareed would tell us what goes on at bilderberg. we know you go there.

    September 9, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  11. nytw

    9/11 was obviously a horrible historical event. But how will people remember hit, 12/7, 6/6, 8/6, 11/11. Pretty much the same way.

    September 9, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  12. Greg

    Hey Fareed. Still having those weekly meetings at the White House so you know what propaganda to spew? You are a disgrace and should be deported, if not tried, on grounds of treason (if you're even a legal citezen). Your blathering about how we should change our system of government, how our system is a failure and not as good as other parliamentary systems will end soon enough when you get fired from CNN. You are terrible. I'm disappointed to see CNN employ foreigners that bash the American system all the time. Shame on you guys.

    September 9, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Reply
    • ed

      Fareed sleeps with the fish.

      September 10, 2011 at 8:37 am | Reply
  13. Nik

    Yet another piece of hate propaganda from the Terrorists fav apoligist. You are a disgrace. We don't need to change my friend. As much as you want us to.

    September 9, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Reply

    If you people dont realise what the jewiish people are behind till now.. forgot the west and there greed for OIL. the jeews blew up the twin towers. not bin laden he would claim anything.. think of the jEWish people who took land from others.

    September 9, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  15. For the truth

    911 was a self inflicted wound by the CIA and Mossad. The official 911 fairytale has more holes in it then swiss cheese, but the idiotic Americans are too busy watching American Idol to see through the garbage the government gives them. What a sad country America has become.

    September 9, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • FFFF

      Yep, too bad the American media covers up all the lies of this country. Americans are a bunch of sheep headed off for slaughter.

      September 9, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Reply
    • latergator

      no one watches american idol anymore.

      September 10, 2011 at 1:53 am | Reply
    • ed

      You are not taking your medication.

      September 10, 2011 at 8:45 am | Reply
  16. James

    911 was allowed to happen to kick off the endless war on terror.

    September 9, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Reply

    so true a endless war.. so called JIHAAD .. wrong enemy is a religion .. U.S GOOD LUCK

    September 9, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  18. Brian

    Why are my posts being censored by CNN? You gotta love "FREEDOM OF SPEECH!". Thanks CNN for defending our rights to FREE SPEECH!!! (NOT)

    September 9, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Reply
    • kyle

      free speech doesnt cover hateful comments

      September 11, 2011 at 12:11 am | Reply
  19. Craig

    History won't remember 9/ all. It is insignificant in the scheme of things.

    September 9, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  20. kimsland

    Fareed Zakaria (the blog writer) was going on a 'month long leave from your job' without your wife and 1yo son?
    Then you turned back, found it was way to hard to continue to get to your family (through traffic not rubble) SO then decided to turn away from your family AGAIN, for a month!?

    Maybe you should have perished youself back then, at least your family would had a reasonable reason to be alone through this world traumatic time.
    I'd rather hear from writers who have more family values, you have nothing to contribute when you show nothing to your own family. Its meant to be in good times and bad, not in selfish and cold.

    Rethink your own values, they start at home.

    September 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  21. wowgold

    It's ten years now! I can't believe it.

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    September 9, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  22. Edward Baldo

    There is a video in which engineers and architects is saying that this was an implosion

    See in;

    September 9, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  23. Bvallery

    9/11 is comparable to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and therefore was treated as an ACT OF WAR, and was handled the exact way that it should have been. Just because times now are different from the 1940's and we are not fighting a "uniformed army" doesn't mean that they are not an army at all. They are skilled, and battle hardened army, who fought of the Russians at their peak. We will never forget what happened on 9/11 just like the Afghans will never forget when the Americans arrived, and in time, left. We didn't choose this war, but i'll be damned if we don't finish it. I am a former Sgt. in the Marine Corps, and a 3x Iraq War Veteran, I fought, and those that chose not too, well honestly, shame on you. This war could've ended a long time ago, if people would've gotten off of their fat, lazy ass's and stood up for something that is much greater than themselves. People like our military wouldn't have to serve multiple deployments in an enlistment and face bouts of PTSD because of it.

    September 9, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Reply
  24. Terry Brookman

    Google, Loose Change

    September 9, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Reply
  25. JFritz

    Most of the world that hasn't already will forget it, because new horrors, created by man or nature, will probably occur, alas. Those directly affected by the event will hurt, probably forever. The rest of us will remember but move on, hopefully having learned that fanaticism of any kind creates havoc. That's life.

    September 9, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  26. Charles W. Gill S.F.O.

    The article was mostly true. On the other hand, Fareed Zakaria, partly because he is paid by the US press, is not seeing certain things. First and foremost, he is not noting that several elements are necessary for a revolution, much like any fire. The first, the the item to be burned. People must be angry with the way things are or they simply will not act. Second, there must be heat, the spark that sets the fire to burning. We are told this was an event in Tunisia. I am not sure that is it, but it was either that or something much like it.

    There is a third item necessary for any fire and without that item, the fire will die. That item is the catalyst, oxygen. Oxygen is such a dangerous element. It is prone to explosion. With oxygen, Adam Smith's law of unforseen consequences applies.

    In the Arab Spring, we very much so the anger of the people and the spark, the man in Tunesia. The spark, in all probability came from the United States and Nato. Now we have the fire. It is not likely that Egypt, Libya, or Syria will end up with democracies. That was never the plan. They will end up with new governments that look very much like the old ones but with very familiar faces. We have unleashed the wildfire and we may well get burned as a result.

    One thing that very much interests me about this Arab Spring is the distinctions between them and us, but the similarities. The rich oil barons of the Arab world struggling to protect their monied interests against the masses, most with legitimate concerns for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, health care, and education. On this side of the world is our rich monied interests trying to stuff more money in their pockets at the expense of the poor. These monied interests pushing tax cuts for themselves and reductions in the minimimum wage and regulations that protect workers, all at the expense of the poorest workers.

    At the same time of the Arab Spring was the unreported events of Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and New Jersey, along with other places. It is not them versus us, the world versus America. It is simply us. The same events are unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic. How fitting that this article would appear at the same time as the burning of the Israeli Embassy in Egypt. The Israelis are having their own food problems in their country. That is not the issue. The issue now is the out of control fire that may yet devour us all.

    September 10, 2011 at 1:24 am | Reply
  27. whateverandever

    I think some people forget how supportive the country was of Bush after 9/11. We needed and leader, and as hard as it is to believe now, he gave us the leadership and comfort we needed as a nation in full on fear. I find it disgusting that people belittle the lives of those lost, and their families still living in grief, with their "conspiracy theories." There were no 'controlled demolitions' and I'm quite confident those who were running in and out of the buildings will attest that no was planting military explosives to bring the towers down. Ridiculous. Get a life and have some respect.
    Those innocent people died not just because of a greedy government, but a greedy country-a greedy culture. Why don't we focus on electing people who represent AMERICAN values-not GOP, not dem-to bring our country back to a place of pride. That's the real justice-not just war, not just Al-Qaeda gone-but rebuilding the strength of our country so that we prosper fiscally, politically and socially. Sounds good to me.

    September 10, 2011 at 1:44 am | Reply
    • ed

      Now we have Obama, the worst President in the history of this land.

      September 10, 2011 at 8:41 am | Reply
      • kyle

        actually the worst president is Buchanan he let the civil war happen and committed treason soooo please do not blame a president for something unless u really know your facts

        September 11, 2011 at 12:13 am |
  28. American John

    Some of these comments by people here are ignorant. The conspiracy theorists are totally wrong and misinformed. The different posts are by same person,but with a different name. whatever and ever makes sense. Some of these people need to get a life and start reading and studying.

    September 10, 2011 at 2:33 am | Reply
    • some other john

      but, don't study too much ......... most of the terrorists are highly educated.

      September 12, 2011 at 9:24 am | Reply
  29. Madhu Thangavelu


    ...the danger comes not from them but from us.....reminds of Linclon's Lyceum speech Jan 1838...

    "At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."

    I hope non-historian readers will scan the piece :

    But as an immigrant, I see no better place to live, no better society to raise our children, do you ?

    And so, we'll remember the ending of Gettysberg address :

    - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

    September 10, 2011 at 2:44 am | Reply
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