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The comparison is apt. Israel should see this as a warning not to fall into the same trap.
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Where were you on 10/7? When you first heard about Hamas’ massive attack on civilians across southern Israel? When the scale of it sunk in? When you saw the first searing images of the devastation in Sderot, at the trance music festival?
Richard Hecht, the IDF’s International Spokesperson, joins with a thousand tweets in calling it “Israel’s 9/11,” and the comparison feels right. The only parallel I have in my life is of being a teenager in New York City when the Twin Towers were hit and knowing (in ways I couldn’t even begin to imagine) how drastically the world was about to change.
Some are using the comparison to 9/11 as a way to give Israel carte blanche for retaliatory strikes in Gaza, or even the wider region. But the real lessons of 9/11 are more subtle. The full story of 9/11 wasn’t just the attacks themselves. It was also about how American society shifted over the course of several years, culminating in the invasion of Iraq.
The temptation is almost overwhelming to see the attack in existential terms, as the negation of all possible politics. And that’s the critical line that all actors involved need to be wary of. The shift in a society is inevitable. What’s essential—and this will play out in the months if not years to come—is to not lose all sense of proportion, to not veer into narratives of existential conflict.
Commentators have cast 10/7 as illustrative of trends that go far beyond the conflict in the Middle East. In The New York Times, David Leonhardt, bringing together phenomena as disparate as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s bellicosity towards Taiwan, and India’s illiberalism, writes, “All these developments are signs that the world may have fallen into a new period of disarray.” Another New York Times op-ed, by Georgi Derluguian, implicitly pairs Nagorno-Karabakh with the attack on Israel as “harbinger[s] of the coming world disorder.” Some in the Israeli press have, not surprisingly, taken on an even more Manichaean perspective; at the most extreme, an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post called for the destruction of Hamas’ “warrior society,” invoking the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II and the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s hard for me, seeing these pieces, not to be reminded of the moment after 9/11 when a brief, astonishing period of national unity curdled, when the whole American mindset shifted to something harder and meaner. The rhetoric turned to “the axis of evil,” to “you’re either with us or against us.” This was George W. Bush, but Bush was also channeling the national mood.
What was lost was any sense of the normal dynamics of politics. In time, 9/11 was no longer about a small group of Al Qaeda terrorists nor even about the Taliban regime that was hosting them. We came to believe—and, as a teenager, I took this in—that what was involved was a battle of good versus evil, of order versus disorder, with the fate of the entire Middle East at stake.
With 10/7, Israel has now lost what the Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan calls the sense of “omnipotence,” which sustained it for, at this point, close to half a century. As Dayan said in The New Yorker, “This is the trauma that we haven’t even started to grasp.” In its trauma, Israel is bound to undergo a shift in its national identity. What would be unfortunate is if, in the process, Israel loses the shrewd political sense that Israelis have always prided themselves on.
Avoiding the mistakes of the post-9/11 period means recognizing that these acts were carried out by a limited number of people; that politics does continue even in the midst of war; that we’re not suddenly in a fight to the death between “order” and “disorder”; that the world isn’t quite as simple as an axis of Russia, China, Hamas, and illiberal India (!) all bent on nihilistic disarray.
I have no idea what will happen next—if Israel really will carry out its planned ground attack on Gaza, possibly leading to an occupation without a clear exit plan. But I do know that the responses to a catastrophe say more about a nation than does the catastrophe itself. And the American lesson is that an incredible mental toughness is required—not just toughness in the ordinary military sense but a toughness in being able to see straight, retain a sense of proportion, and exercise restraint where needed.
I realize that it is almost an insult for anyone undergoing trauma to be reminded of “a sense of proportion.” But nothing will be more critical as the country responds to the terrible terrorist attack perpetrated by Hamas and a perilous regional war looms.
The real story of 10/7 will play out over the coming weeks, months, even years, and what it will depend on most is Israelis and their ability to act with a wisdom and perspicacity that I only wish could have existed in America in 2001. As Yossi Klein Halevi movingly writes in The Times of Israel, “A war against evil is fought with fierce determination, but without blind hatred for an entire people, let alone an entire religion.”
Sam Kahn is an associate editor at Persuasion.
A version of this article was originally published in Castalia on October 14th.
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