‘Why do they hate us?’ This question haunts US 20 years on
Published: Sep 01, 2021 06:40 PM
A US Chinook helicopter flies over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday. Helicopters are landing at the US embassy there as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound as the Taliban advance on the Afghan capital. Photo: VCG

A US Chinook helicopter flies over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday. Helicopters are landing at the US embassy there as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound as the Taliban advance on the Afghan capital. Photo: VCG

"You can't wake a person who is pretending to be asleep." This saying has been repeatedly come into my mind as the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches. 

I can still recall an exhibition of children's artwork that debuted at the Museum of the City of New York on the first anniversary of the attacks way back in September 2002. 

I still vividly remember how an 8-year-old named Kevin Fegurola stood in front of his painting and stared at it. In his picture, a small soccer field was next to the World Trade Center wrapped in black smoke. There is sadness in his eyes that no child of that age should have.

Fegurola said the following words to talk about his thoughts behind his creation: "I remember it was a year ago when my mom took me to walk past those two tall buildings. I suddenly noticed a small soccer field not far from these buildings. From then on, my friends and I often took the subway to play soccer there. We never lost our way, because as long as we saw those two tall buildings, we would find the field. But one day, those two tall buildings suddenly disappeared. If we can't see them, how can we find our soccer field?"

On the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Fegurola, together with many young New Yorkers, sent their works to the museum for display. The theme of the exhibition was, "The Day Our World Changed."

After the 9/11 attacks, one of the words New Yorkers used the most to describe the two skyscrapers was "Ground Zero." The word originally meant the point on the ground directly below the detonation of atomic bombs, but it can also be used to refer to the center of any large-scale explosion.

However, when Americans use this word, it has another meaning: "landmark." When the landmark ceased to exist and became the center point of an explosion, the world in the eyes of Americans changed. The polling data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2016 shows that 42 percent of Americans feel that the US is less safe than it was before the terrorist attacks in 2001, while almost 90 percent believe that terrorism is likely to be a part of life at least to some degree in the future.

Some people like to compare the 9/11 attacks to Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. They argue that the terrorist attacks were the first time since World War II that a foreign enemy had attacked the Contiguous US. But the psychological impact of the 9/11 attacks on Americans was clearly much greater. That's because the tragedies in 2001 occurred at a time when the world had entered the age of television and internet. When Americans witnessed the landmarks of New York collapsed live in air, their hearts collapsed as well. At least 2,977 people lost their lives in the terrorist attacks, while the death toll at Pearl Harbor was 2,403. Moreover, 9/11 attacks were aimed at civilians, while the Pearl Harbor attack was directed at US military targets.

"Why do they hate us?" This question was commonly repeated in the US after the 9/11 attacks. Some Americans believed the attacks were a war against American civilization, the American way of life, and American democracy. Fury obscured Americans' perception of the world and themselves following this. Policy makers in the White House were lost in the pursuit of vengeance. Since then, counter-terrorism has become the most important foundation for a US president to rule.

In the eyes of Washington, fighting terrorism, changing regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and forcibly implementing American-styled democracy in the region are part of the transformation project. They believed that reshaping the Middle East and Islamic civilization will guarantee the US absolute security. 

However, the US' defeat in Afghanistan proves that Washington's goal is a mission impossible. As Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, recently wrote for the Economist on why the US failed in Afghanistan, "The military objectives have been too absolute and unattainable and the political ones too abstract and elusive." But such analysis is still too shallow. 

If the US really makes moments of introspection and tries to learn a lesson, then it should ask why the successive presidential figure made an impossible goal as a strategic focus for the past 20 years. 

Stephen M. Walt, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, published on an article Tuesday in the Financial Times entitled, "The Biden doctrine will allow America to focus on bigger goals." But the question is, hasn't the goal that the US strived for over 20 years in Afghanistan been big enough?

Maybe the Americans should think about this question carefully: "Why do they hate us?" 

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina