I was hesitant, this year, about whether I wanted to commemorate this particular anniversary, even though it is an important one; it has been a decade since a clear Tuesday morning in September when the United States woke up to some uncomfortable truths. There is so much commentary out there about this issue, from so many perspectives and so many excellent people, that it seems rather superfluous to add to that. This incident in our history had a profound impact on my personal and professional life, but the same is true for many people, all of whom exert varying degrees of ownership over this event, many of whom want to leverage it in specific ways to advance particular agendas.
The myth of American exceptionalism is alive and well today, just as it was 10 years ago when I woke up to find out that everything in my life was falling apart. We still believe, as a nation, that we are unique. Special. Different. We have a mandate; a manifest destiny for the 21st century. We cannot be imperialist or colonialist, because we are working in the name of liberation, and freedom. This is not at all like the empire we threw off over 200 years ago, we have not become the master we hated and feared. We are different, now. We are not them.
Our belief in our own exceptionalism has proved to be particularly troubling in this case because it contributed to an increasing sense of national victimisation which allowed us to isolate ourselves while lashing out at the world around us, because this sort of thing, you know, it doesn’t happen here. Not to us. This sort of thing is an attack on our values, our beliefs, our culture; we have treated an act of terrorism as an act of war, we have accused nations of support for and engagement with it, we have used this as grounds for air strikes and invasions and the takeover of governments, communities, resources. We say that we do this for liberation but really we do it because we are angry about the fact that our exceptionalism is not so exceptional after all.
This country has grown large, and strong, and powerful, and it has become even more of a bully on the international stage. Three years ago we elected a President who promised to change that, and who has made significant strides in changing our international image, through diplomacy that we do not always see and engage with. But we are not there yet, and we have a President who is often faced with difficult choices and catch-22s when it comes to making decisions that balance the interests of the United States against the interests of the world, when those interests conflict. After all, he is our head of state, so we expect him to think of us first.
Sometimes, he does. Sometimes, that means thinking in the long term, so what he does may appear to conflict with our interests. But he is one man in a complex and multifaceted machine. He is not a dictator, not that this is something we want, and this means that he cannot ensure a uniform approach to foreign policy, he cannot always intervene when other government representatives, and agencies, do things that conflict with his foreign policy platform, that may harm our international reputation, that may in fact harm us; ten years ago we were reminded that our national identity, our role on the global stage, had direct intersections with national security, that being known as a bully, that being considered imperial, endangered us not just in the sense that some nations would not want to work with us, but in the sense that people who felt like they had no choice might be driven to take the only action they felt would work, to attack us, on our own soil, to drive home to us that we are not unique, or invulnerable.
Thousands of people died ten years ago, and thousands more have died since then, and yet, we still believe in our exceptionalism and the idea of a higher mandate, the ability to hold ourselves to a different standard than the rest of the world, because we, we are not like them. We are different. We are doing something larger and more important.
To be in this country, to be part of it, particularly to hold a blue passport, is to be part of this national identity, an increasingly complex and heavy mantle. To call oneself ‘patriotic’ is almost seen as a dirty word in some circles, but I do, at heart, consider myself a patriot, though not a nationalist. I believe that this country has the capacity to do great things, that there are many great people in it who are working for change, who want to create a better world, who want to be better themselves, who want their country to be a better global citizen. I believe that this country can redeem itself, if it chooses to do so, that it could actually embrace its stated values of equality, liberty, and justice for all, and I hope that I continue to believe that as I work for it.
To be a patriot is to have a great responsibility, to criticise your nation, to challenge the government and the society, because you believe, firmly, that it can do better than this, that it must do better than this. A decade is a long time; we should have learned more than we did from this, but the doors of learning are always open.