One credible estimate of the financial losses suffered by America in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks places them somewhere close to 2 trillion dollars. Taken together with subsequent foreign wars – US troops have been deployed in Afghanistan for longer than their entire engagement in World War II – this figure rises, according to the calculations of the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, above 5 trillion. (For some context, the total value of American real estate in 1990 was 3.8 trillion dollars.) In the New York Times David Sanger notes that for “every dollar Al Qaeda spent to pull off the Sept. 11 attacks, the cost to the United States was an astonishing $6.6 million.” Further afield, the knock-on effects on global markets and the number of jobs lost because of diminished commercial activity are far more difficult to quantify — but they hardly bear thinking about.

Even so, the true impact of the September attacks should not be measured in lost revenues and property damage, for its real importance lies elsewhere. During the last decade, the world’s leading great power – its “hyperpower” in the artful coinage of the publisher Josef Joffe – has turned its focus sharply inward. And despite a willingness to undertake ruinously expensive military campaigns, the US arguably wasted more of its time and energy building a security state within its own borders. The sums of money spent on this project – in the form of a vast, ineffectual bureaucracy and “security theatre” that deters no one while harassing millions – bespeak a country that has lost its way.

During the pursuit of unattainable levels of security, too many rules have been bent or broken. Vice-President Cheney’s infamous “one percent doctrine” – that grave but unlikely threats, like the detonation of a nuclear bomb within the American homeland, should be treated as near-certainties – is a perfect summation of the new American outlook: cynical, too self-regarding, and unable to distinguish friend from foe. This blinkered approach licensed the abandonment of the constitution on several fronts – wiretapping without warrants, the suspension of habeas corpus and the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ that were, essentially, torture.

Instead of building on the widespread sympathy which the attacks evoked, the broad strokes of subsequent US policy have projected the image of a confrontational and imperial America, undaunted by shapeshifting foreign adversaries and foolishly ready to fight them on their chosen territories even when this made no strategic sense. Tragically, these misjudgements prevailed at a time when America was unusually well placed take up its putative role as ‘leader of the free world’ far more constructively. The neocon worldview that drove the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was a throwback to Cold War Manicheanism that only Cheney, Rumsfeld and their cohorts could have dragged into the new century. But they did so with such remarkable success that President Obama has largely persisted with their original error, not just with troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, but over the closure of Guantanamo Bay and the repeal of the intrusive powers procured by the executive during the Global War on Terrorism.

At a more human level, the September attacks brought out some of America’s best qualities. Not just in the heroism of the firemen and police who gave their lives to save strangers, but in the spontaneous bi-partisanship that arose in an otherwise bickering political culture. Sadly, many of the first responders have been all but abandoned by the US Congress in their long battle to have proper health insurance for illnesses contracted during the rescue and clean-up of Ground Zero. And opportunists like former Mayor Rudolf Giuliani have done little but seek political leverage out of the tragedy. The Village Voice recently published a comprehensive account of dozens of questionable individuals and groups that have used the events of 9/11 to raise money for themselves. The culprits ranged from old-fashioned confidence tricksters right up to the highest levels of corporate and political life in the city. Beyond this, of course, there are also the many lunatic conspiracy theorists who have persuaded legions of their followers, within the US and abroad, that the government had a hand in the attacks, or that the towers were brought down by covert demolition crews, or that the Pentagon was in fact hit by a Saudi missile.

We are still too close to the events of September 11 to fully make sense of them. The attacks on the twin towers were the most widely filmed and photographed events in human history and in an almost literal sense we are still processing the experience. But in many crucial ways, America has yet to rise from the ashes of Ground Zero, and despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, it has learned the unsettling truth that a few determined madmen can make even a superpower stumble, and spend almost a decade searching in vain for a return to the way things used to be.

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