Yale University

Class News

September 11: America Wakes Up

by Al Adams '64
November 5, 2001

Living six time zones from New York City, early on the morning of September 11, I was awoken by a call from a friend concerned about another friend in the City. I was asleep; we all were asleep, figuratively, for years before the events. Which is why the attacks succeeded to the extent that they did, despite the dedication and heroism of so many on that day.

I used to work at counter-terrorism in the State Department in the late 1980s. Much has changed since that time but one constant remains: history is not kind to those, great or small, who do not look after themselves.

Many ask: How could such a thing happen to the United States? The answer is, I submit: We did it to ourselves. Bin Laden, for sure, was the author of these deeds. But the proximate cause was a pervading sense that the United States was charmed and that there was no real need for citizens to be concerned with events overseas.

Lulled into false security by the collapse of the Soviet Union and our spectacular victory in the Persian Gulf, we essentially disarmed ourselves. We failed to pay our apportioned dues to the United Nations, allowing our arrears to accumulate to $1.5 billion and almost losing our seat in the General Assembly. We cut our foreign aid programs to the quick and disestablished our public diplomacy function, eliminating the United States Information Agency. We became isolated, as well, from our allies on a host of issues, from trade matters to global warming, not to mention our threat to denounce the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Foreign news coverage declined significantly, as did studies of foreign languages, even in the State Department.

Above all, we cut ourselves off from human intelligence sources in favor of high-tech collection. Consequently, we are flying almost blind when it comes to hard, real-time, on the ground, reliable information about our enemy. Finally, doctrines in Washington about the use of force became so encumbered with conditions that battlefield casualties spelled political suicide. Hence, the hasty withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 and interminable consultations about the use of force in the Balkans, culminating in an air war against Serbia that we were indeed fortunate to win. Others, notably Osama Bin Laden, took their cue from all this and assumed we are a paper tiger.

Caught up in the euphoria and self-possession of the 90s, Americans, by and large, tuned out. The press followed suit and, reflexively, so did our politicians. We are, after all, a democracy and, as such, the views of the public prevail. Our raw capacity for action became larded over within folds of bureaucratic fat, turf fighting, patronage appointments, routines, political correctness, and lawyers' counsels.

For a professional, the result was almost beyond belief: the people of the world's greatest economic and military power ― so intimately inter-linked with other countries ―withdrew into domestic concerns, ignoring the world beyond except for business travel and occasional cruises.

That said, much has changed since September 11. America is a stunningly resilient country, with a strong sense of community and public service. When shocked out of our indifference by events such as Pearl Harbor and September 11, we have a habit of rising to the challenge. And woe to those who get in our way!

We can prevail in the this war on terrorism, but ONLY if the public remains strongly engaged over the long haul and insists that our political leaders do the same. Which means, among other things, vigorous public debate, sustained, unconventional action and accountability when someone drops the ball.

The events of September 11 brought forth a new mood at home and a new orientation in foreign policy abroad. They provided a new rationale for American involvement in the world at large and opened important opportunities for cooperation with Russia, China and India with whom we have generally enjoyed distant relations, if not confrontation.

At home, we are more aware of our vulnerabilities and how they bind us all together. We are more prepared to accept a larger role for government in our lives, as only government can provide for our defenses in these troubled times. As we are more mindful of the role of government, we are correspondingly more trusting of those who serve us in government. Similarly, we now seem to be taking a deeper interest in what is going on overseas in the cultures, languages and policies of distant countries.

Perhaps the greatest change is my sense that many Americans have crossed a watershed in how they see the world around them, the one that starts at their door. No longer do most of us view the world as a source of opportunity for new pleasures privately to enjoy. The self-gratification and cynicism, which lead us to turn away from public causes, no longer seems the dominant theme of our times.

Rather, inspired by the images of the destruction in New York City and the selflessness of many following the attacks, I believe that Americans are looking for new heroes and new opportunities to help. Whatever the cause ― from giving blood and reading to elementary school children, to Sunday schools and environmental clean ups and adult classes on public issues ― we seem to have the time we didn't before September 11. There is a pent-up thirst among us today to extend ourselves, to help where we can, to share ourselves and our time with others. This represents a major shift in attitude and an immense opportunity for public and community service, which I hope, endures.

Perhaps the time has come for a great citizen's movement to inform ourselves of causes, large and small, at home and overseas, and to help us find more useful ways to make a difference. What better memorial could we build to the 6,000 whom we lost on 911?