Beyond  /  Comparison

Have We Learned Nothing?

The comparison between last weekend's Hamas attack and 9/11 is apt.

The events of the past weekend have been called Israel’s 9/11. The comparison is apt. At the most basic level, the scale of Israeli casualties, which are still being tallied, greatly exceeds the casualty count of 9/11 as a percentage of the society in question. The scale of the intelligence failure is likewise comparable; all sides are united in wondering how Israel’s lavishly funded, reputedly sophisticated security state managed to miss a border incursion of this magnitude. 9/11 was America’s greatest humiliation since Pearl Harbor, and Hamas’s incursion is Israel’s greatest humiliation since the Yom Kippur War, a full fifty years ago. (In at least one respect, the analogy fails: it took mainstream US media years to begin to acknowledge that George W. Bush had failed to protect American lives, while Netanyahu’s failure is already a topic of fierce public debate in Israel, where Haaretz and some members of the military elite are calling for the prime minister’s resignation.)

But I also can’t remember a time since 9/11 when emotion and bloodlust overwhelmed reason as thoroughly as they do now, including among liberal elites in media and politics. The lasting impact of the 9/11 attacks was a kind of collective psychosis that overcame most Americans, and perhaps especially those in the DC–NYC corridor charged with crafting and enforcing conventional wisdom, who had witnessed the attacks up close. After 9/11, Christian zealots who longed for a crusade against the Muslim world and secular intellectuals who longed to overthrow Arab dictatorships and remake them in America’s image were free to say so in public without apology, and to see their ideas put into bloody practice. More sober voices, meanwhile, struggled with how to calibrate their words. It wasn’t that American elites were unaware that the United States had committed injustices around the world, or that 9/11 could plausibly be construed as blowback; it was that 9/11 had given them permission not to care. US support for Israeli apartheid, Saudi theocracy, and Pakistani covert operations across the Khyber Pass might all have been hard to defend, but it was distasteful to bring any of that up while Lower Manhattan smoldered and the faces of the missing were posted on every corner. No one could rationally assert the premise of American innocence, but rationality was beside the point. These were the conditions in which it was possible to sell the public, including leading liberal outlets, on a destructive imperial adventure in Iraq that virtually everyone now acknowledges was premised on false intelligence and wildly hubristic ambitions.