Sept 11, ten years later

Updated: 2011-09-14 14:17

By Han Dongping (

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Ten years ago, the United States of America, the sole superpower of the world, was surprised by the hijacked airplane attacks on its World Trade Center towers. Ten years later, Americans are remembering what happened that day and what has happened since.

On that day, I had just finished my morning class, and returned to my office, when one of my students came in telling me that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center tower. I could not believe it, and I turned on my computer, just in time to see the second airplane hit the second tower. That was the first time an enemy of the United States had been able to strike the mainland of the United States. In the eyes of those living in the Third World, such attacks are not viewed as so surprising. I grew up hearing my mom tell me how in her childhood her home was leveled twice by airplanes. But it was a big thing for the Americans, who had enjoyed relative serenity during the two World Wars and during the Cold War. Americans have always fought outside their own territories, avoiding the destruction and mutilation of their own homeland.

At the time, in a national survey, close to 90 percent of American people demanded massive retaliation, even before they figured out who had done it. I knew it was a sensitive time. When a colleague of mine asked me to comment on the event, I said that as an ethnic Chinese, I did not want to make any comments. He almost yelled at me. “For God’s sake, Dr. Han,” he said, “you teach international politics.” At that point, I said I was shocked to learn that 90 percent of the American people wanted massive retaliation before they even figured out who had done it. Before I was able to finish, the colleague responded: “What if I killed your wife and child?”

I said to him. “That is why I did not want to make any comments in the first place. Now you want to kill my wife and my child just because you dislike what I said. Even if you killed my wife and child, I would not retaliate before I figured out who did it and why they did it. I will not act like a chicken without a head.”

A couple days later, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia accompanied by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani visited Ground Zero, and made a donation of $5 million to the victims of Sept 11. But because he made a comment that the US should reflect on its foreign policy, Giuliani returned the money to him and said that the US did not need anybody to criticize its foreign policy. Giuliani later on was depicted as a heroic mayor, I think, partly because his dealing with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

The Chinese have an old saying: pifushouru, bajian sigu, tingshen erdou. (when insulted, a hot headed individual would rise with his sword, and risk his life to fight) The Chinese believed that this kind of courage was unwise. I feared that at the time, the American government would do something which in the end would prove to be as pifu zhirong.

As the sole superpower of the world, it was almost impossible for the enemies of the US to challenge its military superiority. It would be like striking an egg against a rock. But Bin Laden and his terrorist groups understood the superpower mentality of the United States. It would not swallow any insult, and it would be rash in doing something to scare potential enemies. In the face of terrorist attacks, the US government lost its cool, and began to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ten years later, with over 7,000 of its own casualties and 250,000 Iraqi and Afghan civilians dead, and a price tag close to $5 trillion, the US is stilling fighting its anti-terror war, with no end in sight.

In one of my earlier articles here, I said that the terrorists were trying to bleed the US to death. To many of my American readers, including one of my former students, my statements were taken to imply that I was anti-America. Some of them even wrote to my college president to get me fired. I am anti-nobody. I am telling the truth. It seems that telling the truth has become an offense in some people’s eyes in today’s America.

If the terrorists’ original goals were indeed to bleed and weaken the United States, then to a significant extent they have succeeded in that task. Last Thursday, right before President Obama’s speech to Congress, Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News commented that the American economy is broken, and that it seemed as if American politics was broken as well, referencing the inability of the American government to solve the problems the country was currently facing.

That night while President Obama talked with passion about his $447 billion stimulus program, $240 million in tax cuts, and $200 billion investment in infrastructure, in order to increase employment, his Republican colleagues in Congress failed to show much interest. Some of them even refused to attend the speech at all. With more than $14 trillion in national debt, the Republican Party had no interest in spending more money that the US did not have.

Has the US government ever paused to reflect on the Sept 11 terrorist attacks and learn some lessons from it? Judging from what the US has been doing in the world, it has not. Maybe that is the destiny of all superpowers in the world. They are unable to pause and reflect on their actions. They tend to rely more on their physical strength, and neglect the danger of doing so.

The United States of America is a tired and injured giant today. It needs to tend to its wounds. In order to do that, it needs to stop messing with other people’s internal affairs. Again, the US government can afford to lose its war on terror, but it cannot afford to lose its own people. The American people, particularly the unemployed, need the government to show that it cares about its own people at this time.

Han Dongping is Professor of History and Political Science at Warren Wilson College, NC. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.