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Strange to say, but Washington’s war on terror has bolstered liberalism

George W Bush’s intention after the 9/11 attacks was to strengthen America’s regressive patriotic re

The 11 September era in US politics ended in November 2008 with the election of Barack Obama as president. Among American liberals, certainly, criticism of many aspects of the war on terror has become notably less passionate since Obama took office, though it persists.

This is a sign of how deeply liberals' mis­givings about the course of post-9/11 US politics were bound up with a personal hatred of George W Bush - something that pre-dated the terrorist attacks, going back to the disputed election of 2000. It must have been in spring 2002 that I first heard a distinguished academic comment off-handedly, without fear of contradiction, that the US under Bush was a fascist country - a foolish and self-refuting allegation (in a fascist regime, you'd be too scared to go around complaining that the leader is a fascist).

Fear conquered

By 2008, getting rid of Bush had become more psychologically urgent to many such people than getting rid of his policies - and this includes the members of the Swedish Academy who gave Obama the Nobel Peace Prize strictly on the strength of his not being Bush. It is plain that, in the realm of foreign policy, the United States is still very much in a post-9/11 mode, and will probably remain so until a new crisis compels us to shift focus from the Middle East and Pakistan to another part of the world, probably China.

A good gauge of this is the way Americans debated the Nato intervention in Libya. Before the September 2001 attacks, this war would have been viewed in the same terms as Bosnia, Somalia and Kosovo - as a case of humanitarian intervention by supporters, or nation-building by opponents. Instead, Libya has been discussed largely in terms of "regime change", an Iraq war coinage that reflects current American scep­ticism about the very idea that change could mean improvement.

All this is well known to observers of the US around the world - and one of the keenest lessons of the past ten years, for Americans, has been the revelation of how deeply the world resents the necessity of observing America and having opinions about it. What is perhaps less visible, and I think worth emphasising, is the way the 9/11 era nurtured some of the most admirable traits of American society and culture.

This may sound naive, given how much attention (rightfully) has been paid by the world's media to civil liberties violations and the growth of the security state. Yet, to measure the severity of these evils, it is necessary to recall accurately the emotional and political atmosphere in the US, especially in New York and Washington, after 11 September 2001. The Pearl Harbor comparison was obvious and immediately made, but 9/11 was a more wounding and frightening aggression - unlike Pearl Harbor, it did not come against a background of world war, and it targeted civilians, not a military installation. Otherwise, it would have been natural to fear that the Second World War-era oppression of Japanese Americans would be replicated after 9/11 by a targeting of Arab and Muslim Americans.

That no such thing happened is a testament to the resilience of American traditions of pluralism and ecumenicism. Instead, in the past ten years, the integration of Muslims into American society has continued apace: in 2005, more Muslim immigrants became US citizens than in any previous year. In 2006, Keith Ellison became the first Muslim member of the House. And in 2008 Americans elected a president whose full name closely resembled those of two of the US's most hated Arab enemies.

Ellison represents Minnesota, which is also the home state of Michele Bachmann, one of the Christian rightists who have been trying to inject anti-Muslim sentiment into American politics. Clearly it is not the case that xenophobia has no constituency in the US, yet it remains not just a minority view - a 2010 Newsweek poll found that 61 per cent of respondents had a favourable view of Islam - but an unrespectable one, a clear violation of the American consensus. Indeed, American opinion takes pride in the successful assimilation of Muslim immigrants, especially in contrast to the ghettoisation and strife found in many European cities.

Do ask, do tell

At the same time, the very way that Americans have construed their opposition to Islamic extremism has proved advantageous to certain liberal causes.

The past ten years have brought epochal gains in gay rights in the US, capped this year by the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the passage of New York State's marriage equality law. The sense that sexual autonomy is a valuable element of a free society, rather than an excess that needs to be apologised for, has undoubtedly been nurtured by our conflict with a sexually regressive and puritanical Islam.

This is even more starkly true in the case of feminism, which likewise has become almost a patriotic value in the US - even for conservatives who dread the word. It's no coincidence that politicians such as Bachmann and Sarah Palin combine Christian conservatism with a feminism-in-practice that reads as an expression of American populism. Beyond these headline-worthy but transient figures, the post-9/11 era has led women to achieve unprecedented power in American government - from Condoleezza Rice to Hillary Clinton.

It would be foolish and indecent to argue that the US has benefited in any way from suffering the September 2001 attacks. But I think it is fair to say that things could have been very much worse - and that few, if any, great powers in history, faced with a comparable trauma, have maintained the degree of democratic openness that Americans continue to enjoy.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11