Read more from Slate's Sept. 11 anniversary coverage.
The proper task of the "public intellectual" might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either. To the government and most of the people of the United States, it seemed that the country on 9/11 had been attacked in a particularly odious way (air piracy used to maximize civilian casualties) by a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and "unbelievers," and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.
To me, this remains the main point about al-Qaida and its surrogates. I do not believe, by stipulating it as the main point, that I try to oversimplify matters. I feel no need to show off or to think of something novel to say. Moreover, many of the attempts to introduce "complexity" into the picture strike me as half-baked obfuscations or distractions. These range from the irredeemably paranoid and contemptible efforts to pin responsibility for the attacks onto the Bush administration or the Jews, to the sometimes wearisome but not necessarily untrue insistence that Islamic peoples have suffered oppression. (Even when formally true, the latter must simply not be used as nonsequitur special pleading for the use of random violence by self-appointed Muslims.)
Underlying these and other attempts to change the subject there was, and still is, a perverse desire to say that the 9/11 atrocities were in some way deserved, or made historically more explicable, by the many crimes of past American foreign policy. Either that, or—to recall the contemporary comments of the "Reverends" Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—a punishment from heaven for American sinfulness. (The two ways of thinking, one of them ostensibly "left" and the other "right," are in fact more or less identical.) That this was an assault upon our society, whatever its ostensible capitalist and militarist "targets," was again thought too obvious a point for a clever person to make. It became increasingly obvious, though, with every successive nihilistic attack on London, Madrid, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Bali. There was always some "intellectual," however, to argue in each case that the policy of Tony Blair, or George Bush, or the Spanish government, was the "root cause" of the broad-daylight slaughter of civilians. Responsibility, somehow, never lay squarely with the perpetrators.
So, although the official tone of this month's pious commemorations will stress the victims and their families (to the pathetically masochistic extent of continuing to forbid much of the graphic footage of the actual atrocities, lest "feelings" and susceptibilities be wounded), it is quite probable that those who accept the conventional "narrative" are, at least globally, in a minority. It is not only in the Muslim world that it is commonplace to hear that the events of 9/11 were part of a Jewish or U.S. government plot. And it is not only on the demented fringe that such fantasies circulate in "the West." A book alleging that the Pentagon rocketed the Pentagon with a cruise missile—somehow managing to dispose of the craft and crew and passengers of the still-missing Flight 77, including my slight friend Barbara Olson—was a best-seller in France, while another book about another 9/11 conspiracy theory was published in the United States by the publishing arm of the Nation magazine. Westminster John Knox Press, a respected house long associated with American Presbyterianism, published Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11, which asserted that the events of that day were planned in order to furnish a pretext for intervention in the Middle East. More explicitly on the Left, my old publishing house Verso—offshoot of the New Left Review—published an anthology of Osama Bin Laden's sermonizing rants in which the editors compared the leader of al-Qaida explicitly, and in the context not unfavorably, to Che Guevara.
So, for me at any rate, the experience of engaging in the 9/11 politico-cultural wars was a vertiginous one in at least two ways. To begin with, I found myself for the first time in my life sharing the outlook of soldiers and cops, or at least of those soldiers and cops who had not (like George Tenet and most of the CIA) left us defenseless under open skies while well-known "no fly" names were allowed to pay cash for one-way tickets after having done perfunctory training at flight schools. My sympathies were wholeheartedly and unironically (and, I claim, rationally) with the forces of law and order. Second, I became heavily involved in defending my adopted country from an amazing campaign of defamation, in which large numbers of the intellectual class seemed determined at least to minimize the gravity of what had occurred, or to translate it into innocuous terms (poverty is the cause of political violence) that would leave their worldview undisturbed. How much easier to maintain, as many did, that it was all an excuse to build a pipeline across Afghanistan (an option bizarrely neglected by American imperialism after the fall of communism in Kabul, when the wretched country could have been ours for the taking!).