9/11/11: Squandered Sympathies

(The seventh in a series)

The squandered sympathies meme states that the United States, as a consequence of 9/11, was the recipient of widespread international sympathy and good will. The meme was born as soon after 9/11 as some people began to anticipate U.S. action in Afghanistan, which is to say as early as those segments of the left ideologically predisposed to condemn as imperial and brutal any form of U.S. military action, even in self-defense, could characterize any non-passive reaction by the U.S. to 9/11 as exactly, by definition, imperial and brutal. That is to say, further, that the squandered sympathies meme was created by those from whom, ideologically, the United States, as a world military, economic, political, and cultural power received already little or any sympathy. The squandered sympathies meme is thus largely and significantly a polemical con propagated not truly to lament a singular error in American ways, but to reinforce an ideological case and to suck into sympathy with it the unsuspecting.

For those so inclined, the intense controversy and international dissension over the impending war in Iraq served to fully substantiate the meme.

The meme still thrives today. Just four days ago, Simon Critchley, chair of the philosophy department at New York’s New School, offered for The Stone, a New York Times forum for contemporary philosophers moderated by Critchley himself, “The Cycle of Revenge,” a strikingly simplistic and naïve reduction of the nature of the U.S. military response to 9/11. Wrote Critchley,

Think back 10 years, if you will. In the days and weeks that followed 9/11 the people of New York City, Washington and indeed the entire United States were the recipients of an unquantifiable wave of empathy from across the world. The initial effect of 9/11 (I was still living in England at the time) was the confirmation in the minds of many millions of people that New York was an extraordinary place that rightly engendered huge affection, indeed love.

Note with me that Critchley offers that he was then living in England. As it happens, it was when I arrived back in Paris nearly three weeks after the attack that I had the opportunity for my first sustained exposure to the English language press, and that was, in fact, the English press. I quickly learned in the British papers about the debacle during an airing of the BBC’s Question Time, a television program in which a studio audience poses questions of selected guests. Only forty-eight hours after the attacks, a largely anti-American audience spewed hateful accusations against the U.S. and its policies at former U.S. Ambassador to Britain Philip Lader. The BBC received hundreds of phone calls protesting the studio audience’s behavior. In a rare occurrence, Greg Dyke, then the BBC’s director general, apologized to Lader. In an occurrence of cosmically apt coincidence, just this past September 8 – the very day Critchley’s commentary appeared in the Times – the BBC repeated its Question Time display of sympathy, as part of a ten-year anniversary consideration, in the very same venue.

Once again however, the BBC allowed the programme to go off the rails into Israel and America bashing, with scenes reminiscent of ten years ago, when as the dust was still settling around Manhattan, the BBC were forced to offer an apology for their role in the BBC Question Time that followed 9/11.

However, the Question Time incident was just one of many. No less than it is now, the Guardian was home to multiple rhetorical attacks offering up what are now representative neo-Stalinist attacks not just on the U.S., but on political liberalism. Seumas Milne, then the paper’s comment editor wrote, in a column just two days after the attack titled “The Can’t See Why They’re Hated,”

Nearly two days after the horrific suicide attacks on civilian workers in New York and Washington, it has become painfully clear that most Americans simply don’t get it. From the president to passersby on the streets, the message seems to be the same: this is an inexplicable assault on freedom and democracy, which must be answered with overwhelming force – just as soon as someone can construct a credible account of who was actually responsible.

Shock, rage and grief there has been aplenty. But any glimmer of recognition of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing their own lives in the process – or why the United States is hated with such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the developing world – seems almost entirely absent.

No sympathy squandered here, and how quickly does Milne turn to the companion meme delivered up by my colleague’s email, swamping in imagination the actual violence with the ideologically necessary, if only in conjecture. One week ago, Milne, now an associate editor with the Guardian, penned a ten-year anniversary column justifying his 2001 commentary against the “savage response” to his earlier heartfelt condolence.

Five days later, September 18, Charlotte Raven in the same pages, authored “A Bully with a Bloody Nose Is Still a Bully.” Railing not against the perpetrators of the attack, but the U.S. for its “crazed” agenda, Raven unsympathetically reduces three thousand lives to a “bloody nose.” One would be challenged to find any American military announcement of “collateral” civilian deaths in war as callous. Raven was also ashamed of the BBC’s Dyke for apologizing to U.S. Ambassador Lader for the BBC fiasco. This is the more humane alternative to the American imperial state.

For comprehensive, unsquandered anti-Americanism and Western self-loathing, however, Raven could not match Madeleine Bunting’s October 8, 2001 column titled “Intolerant Liberalism.”

Both Bin Laden and the Taliban are being demonised … while halos are hung over our heads by throwing the moral net wide: we are not just fighting to protect ourselves out of narrow self-interest, but for a new moral order.


What is incredible is not just the belief that you can end terrorism by taking on the Taliban, but that doing so can be elevated into a grand moral purpose.

We see here that what many believe developed over the years since 9/11 was already present as of that date – a far left identification with America’s and the West’s enemies, whatever their stripe, not through the humane empathy denied, then, to the American nation, but out of an ideologically constructed compassion, in this instance, for the proponents of theocratic totalitarianism. But why would any expect sympathy from any who cannot conceive the opposition between the West and Islamism in moral terms? Bunting, too, did not merely disagree with such a notion; she found it “incredible.” Then, in a stunning inversion of the terms – the actors – under consideration, Bunting, projects the nature of Islamism onto the West, which, she argued, “is tolerant towards other cultures only to the extent that they reflect its own values – so it is frequently fiercely intolerant of religious belief.” This is, of course, a preposterous claim arguable only by someone who has said all that came before it; it also completely contradicts the more common and more accurate critique of the Western powers that they tolerate, do business with, and even support regimes that themselves – in addition, sometimes, to their cultures – reflect little of Western values. One strain of radical left critique faults the West for – in the practice of realpolitik and its self-interest – not being true to its values, and now Bunting offers the claim of the contradictory, multi-cultural strain that the West arrogantly tries to impose its values on the rest of the world. Bunting offered not a coherent vision, but a unitary animus that will reach for any available stick, in this instance the perversely proffered claim of intolerance against liberalism just a month after 9/11.

As morally obtuse as was Bunting’s consideration of events, she was sharp enough to spy the essential issue even as she turned it upside down. She knew the definition of liberalism even if she could not truly conceptualize it or concretely recognize it. She proceeded to consider how every system of thought has contradictions and that for liberalism it is that between the claim of tolerance and the claim of universality in its values. Western liberalism, that is, arrogantly believes it values are better than totalitarian, exclusionary, misogynistic, and undemocratic theocracy.

Within the first month, the first days after 9/11, the crux of the conflict had been identified by those who had no sympathy to squander for the United States. It is, indeed, part of the integral nature of cultures to prefer themselves over others: it is how they maintain themselves coherently, in unity, as identifiable cultures – except, of course, when some elements in a society are so overwhelmed by ideologically informed guilt that cultural self-debasement masquerading as intellectual liberation becomes the substitute for a natural and healthy self-regard. But this only makes all cultures the same. They all look in the mirror and preen and primp. If there is any difference in comeliness, we recognize it only through reason, a faculty Bunting tortures even as she disbelieves in it, for she believes, even as she makes judgmental distinctions, that none are possible.

This was just some English high tea of squandered sympathies, there is rhapsody and theory and America itself yet to come.


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