Cross-posting: My 9/11 etude

(Throughout the day today, The Economist’s Democracy in America blog will be sharing various impressionistic thoughts and recollections on 9/11 by us, the correspondents. Mine is here, and again below:)

ON SEPTEMBER 11th, 2001, I had already been a correspondent for The Economist for four years and, as we are wont, had moved around for the publication, just then finding myself living in Hong Kong and covering Asia. It was already evening in Hong Kong and I had just returned, somewhat tired from a long day, to my flat on the 25th floor of a skyscraper in “Mid-Levels”, with a view of Hong Kong, the harbour and Kowloon. Just then my assistant called and said simply: “Turn on the TV.” For the rest of my night, which for America was that endlessly long morning and day, I watched.

The next morning, I walked to my office and stopped by my usual coffee bar in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s expat playground. All the regulars were there, and in each conversation, people of various nationalities were trying to make sense of what this world was now to become—now, as of September 12th, as of the day after. Anger, worry, confusion, fear—all these emotions were mixed together. I knew right away that the main significance of this dreadful event lay in what would happen next, not in what had already happened. How would America react? China? Muslims? Everybody?

There was a lot of nonsense said in those early days, as always when people must talk about something but have little new to say. I was suddenly getting lots of eager advice to cancel a trip to Indonesia. A Muslim country, you see. I went, and it was my favourite trip ever to that mystical place, easier for the lack of other travelers and just as welcoming as ever. The Schadenfreude of many mainland Chinese was harder to stomach. The unfocused jingoism of some Americans (“nuke’em back to the stone age”) even harder.

The first casualty of war is truth, it is often said. Instead, it is nuance. Every individual flees to his in-group and becomes susceptible to its caricatures of the respective out-group, to what the Germans call a Feindbild, a perception of The Other as enemy. This is already an act of de-humanisation. Bad laws, more oppressive bureaucracy (at borders, in courts, in daily life), distrust in interpersonal relations invariably follow, just as one apocalyptic horseman inevitably rides close behind the one before.

Did September 11th teach us about the risks of terrorism? It should not have. The existential threat of a suitcase bomb, a rogue nuclear event, already existed before and exists still. On the other hand, September 11th itself killed about as many Americans as die each year as a result of texting while driving. Homo sapiens are bad at understanding risks relative to one another, and worse at responding proportionately. The world became a worse place on that day. In part because the terrorists made it that way. In part, because the rest of us then did the same.


For the regulars here, some of these thoughts might strike you as “in-character”, such as those on