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Homeland insecurity

Ten years after 9/11, America's real challenge is not terrorism but staying competitive and vibrant in a fast-changing world. Fareed Zakaria writes.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2011 23:45 IST

Watching the moving memorial services for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I was reminded of my own memories of that day. 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 am, 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 headed back to New York to get to my wife and one-year-old son. As I approached the Triborough Bridge, I saw huge barricades and dozens of police cars. Manhattan had been sealed off.

I turned around and headed to my destination on 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 of 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 idea about what I might do to help. 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 US embassies in Africa and on the USS Cole in Yemen. In my previous job, as managing editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, I had published a commentary on bin Laden's then-little-known fatwa against the US 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 the country 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, a 7,000-word cover essay titled 'Why They Hate Us'. It got a lot of attention - more than anything I had ever written. It was a moment when 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 largely about Islam and the Arab world in particular. It was mostly about them.

That's how 9/11 was discussed and analysed 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 it was fruitful, 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 the United Nations' Arab Human 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 to the rise of the Arab Spring.

But if 9/11 was focused at the time on them, 10 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 US is mired in tough economic times and at such moments, the mood is introspective. 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 America is the right one to have. History will probably record this period not as one characterised by al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. The main story will be about a rapidly changing world and perhaps about the fate of the world's sole superpower - the United States. History might well record 9/11 as the beginning of the decline of America as the planet's unrivaled hegemon.

On the morning of 9/11, the world was at peace, and the US strode that world like a Colossus. It posted a large budget surplus. Oil was at $28 a barrel. The Chinese economy was an eighth the size of America's. Today, America is at war across the globe; it has a deficit of $1.3 trillion and oil is at about $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, Britain spent a great many of its resources and, more importantly, its attention on policing the world and sending its troops to Africa, 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 US, 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. This requires not great exertions of foreign policy and war but deep domestic changes at home. The danger comes not from them but from us.

Fareed Zakaria is a columnist at the Washington Post

© Washington Post Writers Group

The views expressed by the author are personal