Arrogance, Ignorance, and Cowardice: Lessons from 9/11

By Robert Jensen

Published in Monthly Review Zine · September, 2008

A version of this essay was delivered to the “Struggle for Global Justice” film festival organized by the student group Azaad at the University of Texas at Austin on 11 September 2008.

Given the disastrous decisions made by U.S. officials in the seven long years since September 11, 2001, it would be easy tonight simply to catalog those many mistakes and condemn the bipartisan depravity of the Republican and Democratic politicians who — starting almost immediately after the towers fell — manipulated people’s anger and fear to build support for illegal and immoral wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It would be especially easy for those of us in the anti-war/anti-empire movement to feel self-righteous and say, “We told you so.” By the end of the day on 9/11, many of us saw where the nation was heading and tried, in vain, to argue for a saner strategy. For example:

It need not be said, but I will say it: The acts of terrorism that killed civilians in New York and Washington were reprehensible and indefensible; to try to defend them would be to abandon one’s humanity. . . . But this act was no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism — the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes — that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime.

Let us not forget that a military response will kill people, and if the pattern of past U.S. actions holds, it will kill innocents. Innocent people, just like the ones in the towers in New York and the ones on the airplanes that were hijacked. To borrow from President Bush, “mother and fathers, friends and neighbors” will surely die in a massive response.

[I]f we are to be decent people, we all must demand of our government — the government that a great man of peace, Martin Luther King Jr., once described as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” — that the insanity stop here.

With help from friends in my political circle, I wrote those words late in the day on September 11, 2001. The full essay was posted on the web the next day and appeared in the Houston Chronicle on September 14, prompting a flood of angry responses from people who thought that the piece was outrageous and that I was a traitor. Yet analyses like this, which were so controversial at the time, seem rather unremarkable today. In a recent report, the establishment think tank Rand Corp. concluded that the United States made a fundamental error in portraying the response to 9/11 as a “war on terrorism” and that “the U.S. strategy was not successful in undermining al Qa’ida’s capabilities” (Seth G. Jones, Martin C. Libick, “How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida” ). Looking back at the statements and writings of the anti-war activists who spoke up right away, I think it’s fair to say that in general we were honest in our assessments of history and accurate in our projections of what was to come. We shouldn’t feel too cocky about that, however; predicting that an imperial power will act like an imperial power is no great accomplishment.

So, tonight I want to do more than review the crimes that the Bush administration committed with the cooperation of Democrats, and to go beyond self-congratulation. That would be the easy path, but the easy path is rarely the most useful. Instead, let’s focus on ourselves and our fellow citizens. Let’s try to be honest about who we are and who we have been, in the hopes we can learn lessons that will be valuable in the future.

I’ll start with the rule of thirds, assuming it can be helpful to divide any human population roughly into thirds on any particular question. Based on the past seven years, how would we describe 21st century Americans in political terms? I would suggest that 9/11 showed us that we the people of the United States are arrogant, ignorant, and cowardly. About a third of us are arrogant and proud of the United States’ aggressive posture in the world. Another third of us are ignorant and hide behind the excuse that we don’t, or can’t, know what’s really happening. And the final third — the group in which I would place myself — are cowardly, avoiding the moral consequences of what we aren’t willing to do.

That may sound harsh, but these are irrefutable claims — and I have the pop songs to prove it. Of course songs lyrics do not an argument make, but I will illustrate my points with the work of popular musicians, whose story-telling reflects the society from which it comes.


Let’s start with Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which he wrote a few days after 9/11 and which appeared on his 2002 CD, Unleashed.

Keith articulates a desire to strike back that is easy to understand. This reflex to respond violently to a violent attack is part of being human; we all have the capacity for such action. But that does not mean, of course, that military responses are always morally justified. We may feel a desire to strike, but such a desire should be examined in the light of history and contemporary politics. Let’s consider one of Keith’s verses:

Oh justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U S of A
‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way.

Was justice served when the United States rejected diplomacy and launched an illegal invasion of Afghanistan? Has the United States ever advanced the cause of justice in the Middle East and Central Asia, especially during the post-World War II period of its unparalleled dominance? Do U.S. policymakers go to war only when our cage is rattled? Or, in fact, has the United States consistently used war to extend and deepen economic dominance, especially in that post-WWII period?

Sadly, the only thing Keith gets right is the recognition that violence is the American way. From the moment Europeans landed in the Americas, they acquired land and resources through the kind of barbaric violence that is all too familiar in human history and a consistent feature of the American story. However, basic moral principles suggest that’s not something to celebrate.

Keith claims that the song has been misunderstood, that it was more patriotic than pro-war, and his claim is easy to believe — in the United States patriotism is often fused with an assumption of dominance and the inherent righteousness of U.S. violence, which is precisely the problem. But before we write off Toby Keith as part of some reactionary fringe, let’s remember that “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” was a popular song that advanced his career. Also consider the fact that he’s supporting Barack Obama in the current presidential race. Last month Keith, who has said “me and Michael Moore would agree on a lot of things,” offered this analysis:

There’s a big part of America that really believes that there is a war on terrorism, and that we need to finish up. So I thought it was beautiful the other day when Obama went to Afghanistan and got educated about Afghanistan and Iraq. He came back and said some really nice things.

There is nothing inconsistent in Keith’s song and these comments. The arrogance that is at the heart of his song has been expressed by Democrats and Republicans alike since 9/11. The assertion that the United States fights for justice in its wars abroad is routinely made across the conventional political spectrum and echoed in corporate commercial media. The fact that all of contemporary history refutes that assertion is irrelevant, because we live in a country in which ignorance can be celebrated.


This brings us to Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning,” from his 2002 CD, Drive.

Rather than critique the sentimental self-indulgence of Jackson’s song — since everything is always about America, it’s hardly surprising that in the dominant culture what’s most important is how Americans feel — let’s focus on this verse:

I’m just a singer of simple songs

I’m not a real political man

I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference

in Iraq and Iran

But I know Jesus and I talk to God

And I remember this from when I was young

Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us

And the greatest is love.

What does it say about the culture when a popular entertainer, who has ready access to as much information as he needs to understand the world, cannot distinguish between Iraq and Iran? He can’t tell the difference between the two most important regional powers in the most strategically crucial area of the world, home to the lion’s share of the planet’s petroleum, a place on which the majority of his country’s military power is focused? Through six decades in Iraq and Iran, the United States has been directly responsible for widespread death and incredible misery as a result of covert operations, direct attacks, and support for brutal dictators in each country. Yet even though he goes to the trouble of watching CNN, Jackson still is uncertain about which is which.

This is “willed ignorance,” the product of a conscious choice not to know what could be easily known and what one has a moral obligation to know. Again, Jackson is not idiosyncratic; I would suggest this stance is the norm in the United States. Rather than being embarrassed by his ignorance and taking steps to correct it, he offers it up as an indication of higher virtue, evidenced by his understanding of the centrality of love. I agree that faith, hope, and love should be central in our lives. But having faith, hope, and love doesn’t require ignorance. Knowledge is a good thing, too, something we can seek out ourselves and help each other acquire.

However, we also must recognize that knowledge won’t change the world unless we also have courage.


I have never been a fan of Toby Keith or Alan Jackson, and I don’t listen to much country music. I’m more of a Neil Young kind of guy. So, let me illustrate the cowardice of the American public by looking at Young’s music.

That may strike some as odd, given that Young’s 2006 Living with War CD was a direct challenge to the Bush administration and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. But the key to my criticism is the year — 2006. An anti-war record three years into the war should not be cause for uncritical accolades for a musician who claims to be a dissenter. We should be asking Neil Young, “Where were you in 2001?” The answer: He was writing and recording “Let’s Roll,” which was released on his 2002 CD, Are You Passionate?

That song is a tribute to the United Flight 93 passengers who intervened in the 9/11 hijacking of that plane and forced it down in Pennsylvania. One of those passengers, Todd Beamer, is said to have uttered the famous words, “let’s roll,” as they took that action. Even if we want to interpret the song apolitically, as a simple tribute to human courage, it adds to the cultural mythology about U.S. heroism, which contributes to U.S. arrogance and does nothing to correct the ignorance crucial to engineering people’s consent for war. Beyond such a tribute, the song suggests a need for war:

No one has the answer
But one thing is true
You’ve got to turn on evil
When it’s coming after you
You’ve gotta face it down
And when it tries to hide
You’ve gotta go in after it
And never be denied
Time is runnin’ out
Let’s roll.

While Young was writing that song, the anti-war movement was trying to counter the country’s hyper-patriotism, warning where it would lead — to more U.S. aggression in the service of empire, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to death and destruction, to the policies that Young eventually would oppose in “Living with War.” When the movement could have used an eloquent musical voice, Young was on the other side.

My goal is not to single out Neil Young, but to ask us all to reflect on how easy it was for so many to fall in line with that hyper-patriotism after 9/11, and how easy it might again be in the future. The task of responsible citizens in the empire is not to critique illegal and immoral wars when they go sour, but to resist those wars of aggression from the start. With that in mind, Young’s 2006 lyrics from “Living with War” ring just a bit hollow:

I join the multitudes
I raise my hand in peace
I never bow to the laws of the thought police
I take a holy vow
To never kill again
To never kill again

Courage requires taking risks. Most of the liberals who now are vocal in their opposition to the war did not take risks right after 9/11; most ducked and covered, claiming that America was too emotionally vulnerable for politics at that moment, as the politicians kept right on pushing their politics of empire, driving an arrogant and ignorant public to war.

My cowardice

Again, while it’s always easy to catalog the flaws of others, it’s far more useful for all of us to attempt honest self-reflection, including those of us who opposed both wars from the start.

While I have worked hard over the years to learn about the Middle East and Central Asia, I recognize that it has been relatively easy given the resources and privileges available to me as a professor, and I also am aware of how much I still don’t know about those regions and about other parts of the world. I struggle for humility and try to learn more, though there’s ample room for criticism of me on those counts. But the virtue in which I feel most deficient these days is courage.

I have no problem defending the decision I made to speak out immediately after 9/11 and to contribute to anti-war organizing; at the time I thought those were the right things to do, and none of the criticism of those decisions — from conservatives or liberals — has ever offered a coherent moral or intellectual case against those actions. I am haunted not by what I did but by what I didn’t’ do, by my own cowardice. Why did those of us who opposed U.S. policy not take more risks and push harder? It’s fine to be right in one’s analysis; it’s better to be right and effective. And, in retrospect, the only thing that might have been effective in impeding the mad rush to war was for those dissenting from that madness to take real risks, to put our bodies in the path of the war machine. Mario Savio, one of the leaders of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, articulated this so passionately on the University of California campus in December 1964:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

Activists in the anti-war movement are sometimes accused of being cowards, of being afraid to fight. That is a slur designed to derail the anti-war movement’s honest critique of (1) the violence of the powerful, (2) the propaganda the powerful use to persuade ordinary people to support the violence, and (3) the economic motives of the elites whose wealth and privilege depends on that violence. But those of us in the anti-war movement should ask ourselves: Have we built a political culture that provides the support we need to act with courage? Do we have the real courage necessary to undermine the U.S. empire? While people suffer and die around the world as a direct result of U.S. military and economic policies, what are we doing to stop the machine? Are we willing to put our bodies upon the gears, the wheels, the levers? If forced to choose between our relative affluence and real sacrifices that conscience might demand, how do we choose?

This is not a question on which I have standing to pontificate. The answer is simple: I have not done enough. We haven’t done enough, because the machine is still grinding away, still grinding down people at home and around the world. Perhaps if anti-war activists had upped the ante and we had put our bodies in the way of the machine, the world would look very different tonight. Or perhaps all that would have happened was that we’d be in jail or dead because the machine would have rolled right along and rolled over us. There’s no way to know.

But I do know this: In the months after 9/11, when the political stakes seemed so high, I never really seriously considered putting my body on the gears and I never heard others in my political circles seriously discuss such options. We had not built movements and a political culture in which that question was on the table for most of us. When I think about that today — not that I didn’t do something more drastic, but that I never really considered it — I feel ashamed. That recognition doesn’t lead me to want to rush out and risk my life to prove something, but rather reminds me that I should rethink the strategies with which I’ve grown comfortable.

Facing Difficult Realities

This rethinking requires facing some difficult realities, that lead me to these recommendations:

  • Drop the arrogance and face a painful truth: The troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are not fighting for our freedom or for justice. Whatever the individuals who serve in the military believe or do — and I realize that many believe they are defending us, and I know that many regularly act in compassionate and humane ways in the field — the U.S. military is not a defensive force or a humanitarian institution. It is an offensive force that destroys vulnerable people in other societies to entrench the power of a small U.S. elite and deliver the short-term material benefits that come to middle- and working-class people in the empire.
  • Reject the ignorance and face a disturbing truth: The institutions that claim to help us understand the world (schools, universities, and the corporate commercial media) are key components of a propaganda system that encourages ignorance on these vital matters. Whatever the individuals in these institutions believe or do — and I realize that many believe they are part of a noble tradition, and I know many do challenge the conventional wisdom — these institutions are not fundamentally educational in nature. They are ideological factories that the elite use to undermine critical thinking about how power operates.
  • Find the courage to resist and face some obvious truths: The crises we face in this country and the world — economic, political, cultural, ecological — will not be fixed by electing a new president, nor will the culture be turned around by traditional progressive political strategies. I will vote, and I will continue organizing. But I do not believe that the oppressive systems that structure our world can be dismantled through those methods. We need to think creatively, and we need to come to terms with the likelihood that until those in power believe that those of us who want to challenge power are willing to take serious risks, the machine will continue grinding.

These problems we face are not the result of an idiosyncratic moment in history or of one particularly thuggish group of politicians in power at that moment. We are dealing with the predictable consequences of a world shaped by patriarchy, white supremacy, nationalism, and capitalism — systems of coercion and control that are at odds with goals of justice and sustainability. That’s not easy to face, but it can help us break out of the insular self-indulgence that is so tempting when one lives in the most affluent society in the history of the world.

So, the crucial question isn’t, “Where were you when the world stopped turning?” The world didn’t stop turning. The violence of 9/11 should be understood as another ugly episode in a relentlessly violent period of human history. Let’s never forget that around the world people suffer 9/11-level violence on a regular basis. If that violence continues — the visible violence of war, the quiet violence of economic inequality, and the deeper violence of humans against the living world — it’s not clear there will be a world left, at least not a world we would want to leave to our children.

So, let’s ask another question: “Where are you as the world keeps turning?” As the violence continues, as the machine grinds on, where are we? What are we learning? What are we saying? What are we doing? What risks are we taking?

This is a time to realize that the dominant political institutions offer nothing beyond a tweaking of the same failed systems; in the middle of this presidential campaign, none of the major players are acknowledging the fundamental problems, let alone proposing meaningful changes in policy to acknowledge the problems. It’s also time to realize that old approaches to progressive political organizing don’t seem to be working; large scripted street demonstrations may have some benefits, for example, but they aren’t significantly advancing the goals we claim to want to achieve.

Where do we go from here? I have no well-developed plan to present tonight. My gut feeling tells me that while we prepare to vote in this election and continue traditional organizing in the short term, we have to think about a long-term strategy focusing much more on local, small-scale endeavors that will foster solidarity during the empire’s decline and could provide a soft landing when the empire is over. It doesn’t mean giving up our obligations to the larger world; the 500 years of imperialism that helped create this affluent society impose a clear moral obligation on us to work for global justice. But we also have to recognize that the world in which we live is going to change dramatically in the coming decades, and we need to build new institutions and networks that can help us cope with those changes.

Some may find it depressing to focus on how often we have failed and the consequences of those failures. But that analysis also reminds us that we are moving into a potentially creative period. Letting go of the things with which we have become familiar is difficult, but it also opens up possibilities for something new, and that can be exciting. To have the courage to act on what we can know, with humility, is the only way to imagine bringing the imperial phase of U.S. history to a humane close and creating the conditions that could make justice and sustainability possible.

Let’s return to the meaning of this day, September 11, which for so many evokes deep sadness and painful memories. Facing these harsh political realities and asking these questions does not dishonor those who died that day or trivialize the pain of their loved ones. It simply asks us to expand our moral circle, to recognize a common humanity and a common fate. To do that, we have to put aside our arrogance, correct our ignorance, and find our courage. That is hard, but that is the only way to imagine stopping the machine.