The long-term significance of that baleful day will long be debated, and the present-day reams of commentary reveal just how little historical distance, and thus interpretive perspective we have gained over this decade. How it was transformative remains very much at issue – has the US fundamentally changed or, more credibly, is the world experiencing a revolution in the nature of threats to our security, namely global, non-state actors such as radical Islamic terrorist groups? Beyond dispute is the following: The US of today has a new and sobering understanding of its vulnerability, and an awareness of the depths of resentment so fatally instrumentalized against it under the guise of radical Islam.
September 11, 2001 was a day of immense grief and solidarity; at the same time a fierce debate had its origin at a lecture in Berlin. It was the week of Susan Sontag's residency, and that evening we had planned a discussion of "the role of the public intellectual." When we decided to close our doors and disinvite well over 100 guests, most were understanding. Only Susan thought we were being "politically immature," foreshadowing the debate she would incite. Two nights hence, she prefaced a reading (fittingly, from "In America") with a searing critique of America's media and political leadership, and warned against the potential instrumentalization of the tragedy: "Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy – which entails disagreement, which promotes candor – has been replaced by psychotherapy."
Her talk provoked a conflagration of acrimony. Some people left the room, others called to protest, and the controversial discussion between the American fellows never abated, even after Susan returned to Manhattan. Her talk was both unbearable and prescient. It underscored the importance of facing up to realities, however uncomfortable, with a clear-eyed historical awareness. Similarly, the aftermath of 9/11 demonstrates the indispensability of understanding the United States in today's world. The decline in European cooperation during the last decade reflects a loss in knowledge that the Atlantic community cannot afford. When the notion of "humanitarian intervention" provokes such confusion as in recent months, then our normative framework as well as our historical memory are endangered.
As the Academy heads into its fourteenth year, its raison d' être remains our commitment to the ideals of transatlantic dialogue. Ideas matter, and they only flourish well in the soil of open, spirited discussion. The personal interaction we experience here shows us again and again how ideas can grow beyond what was foreseen of them. In times when media images flicker to dictate the parameters of national discussion, a place for sustained dialogue and tranquil contemplation is all the more necessary. Such interaction challenges the present and lays the intellectual groundwork for the future.
Gary Smith is the Executive Director of the American Academy in Berlin.