Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media's midweek podcast. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, amid the deluge of coverage of the Israel–Hamas conflict, following Hamas's surprise attack on October 7th, a certain historical analogy keeps coming up.
Dan Senor: What Israel experienced was the equivalent proportionately of seven 9/11s.
Gilad Erdan: This is our 9/11, this is our 9/11. We are--
Michael Herzog: This is unimaginable. This is, as someone said, our 9/11.
Ron DeSantis: Yesterday was Israel's 9/11. It's the worst of humanity.
Brooke Gladstone: In the immediate aftermath, the analogy seems apt as journalist George Packer wrote in The Atlantic, "The facts are different, but the feelings are the same, profound shock, unbearable grief, humiliation, rage, and solidarity." Certainly, October 7th will be remembered as a moment of national anguish like 9/11 that in that case, marked a turning point in how Americans saw their security, and consequently, their place in the world, but the legacy of 9/11 is every bit as important as the events on that single day, the mistakes made in their wake, the lessons learned.
How much can we really invest in analogizing 9/11 to October 7th, because we just don't know what'll happen over the long haul? David Klion is a contributing editor at Jewish Currents, and writes for many publications including The Nation, and The New Republic. His latest article was about the 9/11 analogy. He wrote it for n+1 Magazine, and it was called, Have We Learned Nothing? David, welcome to the show.
David Klion: Thanks so much for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's talk about the analogy. As George Packer, and you yourself observed, the horror is comparable, but the scale isn't. Packer went on to say the thousand or more civilians butchered on Saturday by Hamas are, relative to Israel's population, a lot more than 3,000 killed in the US by Al-Qaeda. The proportionate number of dead on 9/11 would have been close to 40,000. Although Al-Qaeda had the ability to strike terror anywhere in the world, it couldn't destroy the US.
Hamas, he said, can threaten Israel's very existence both in principle and in practice if it allies with more powerful entities like Hezbollah, Syria, Iran. Why should we consider 9/11 in the midst of this conflict? What does it teach us?
David Klion: Packer and I don't agree on everything, but one thing that we do agree on is that the fallout of 9/11 was basically folly, that the US started a series of wars around the world that were enormously destructive, and continue to be in many cases. Suspended civil liberties in various regards, set up torture camps around the world, they spied on American citizens and people around the world alike, and for what, basically?
The war in Iraq is widely understood to be a disastrous failure that never should have happened. The war in Afghanistan though, I think it made sense to a lot of people in the beginning, went on for 20 years, and ended in basically total defeat and the collapse of the US-backed government in Kabul. The lesson there is that cooler heads might have prevailed in the first place after 9/11, and no one wanted to listen to them.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote that you couldn't remember a time since 9/11 when emotion and bloodlust overwhelmed reason as thoroughly as they do now, including among liberal elites, and media, and politics. You likened it to the 9/11 attacks inducing a kind of collective psychosis.
David Klion: I was living in D.C. at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and I was about to move to New York, so that was my world, D.C. and New York. It's I think maybe hard for younger people than myself to fully understand just how lockstep so much of the liberal conventional wisdom was in favor of a militarized response. People experienced the attacks very viscerally. It's not just that they were shocked and traumatized by the horror itself, but their entire sense of security, their sense of immunity was so badly shaken.
I think that in order to understand what Israel is going through right now, people have to consider that the basic premise of the Israeli State is that it will protect Jewish life, and that's what it failed to do. The basic premise of so many American Jews who feel connection to Israel is that Jews will be safe there. There's a certain cruel irony in the fact that the biggest massacre of Jews on any day since the Holocaust took place, not in the diaspora, but in Israel because of the failures of the Israeli State to protect its civilians.
Brooke Gladstone: That would be another 9/11 analogy, wouldn't it? The scale of the intelligence failure, the George Bush administration didn't pay attention to pretty explicit warnings. In this case, the failure seems to have been because of Netanyahu being very distracted by the schisms in his nation, and in his need perhaps to duck the actions of a court regarding corruption.
David Klion: That's basically right. Israeli society has been deeply divided over the past year because Netanyahu was convicted of corruption charges. In order to avoid accountability, has formed a coalition government with extreme right-wing pro-settler parties whose language toward the Palestinians is elimination as it's genocidal, who also don't really believe in the ideal of Israel as a liberal democracy. Netanyahu has been eroding Israel's independent judiciary cynically to protect himself from accountability.
Israeli society, Israeli liberals in particular, have taken to the streets for months in large numbers to protest him. That's what was going on at the eve of this attack. The other thing that was probably distracting Netanyahu and the Israeli defense force, the IDF, is that his policy prioritizes expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, and encourages what are essentially [unintelligible 00:06:24] by West Bank settlers against Palestinians living there, which have been happening all year.
In order to protect these settlers, and their ability to do that, Netanyahu has deployed large numbers of IDF reserve units to the West Bank, when in hindsight, probably they should have been protecting the border against a potential incursion by Hamas.
Brooke Gladstone: You also observed, again with regard to 9/11, that it wasn't that American elites were unaware that the US had committed injustices in the Middle East, or that 9/11 could be construed as a kind of blowback. It was that 9/11 had given them permission not to care.
David Klion: There was panic and fear and anger after 9/11, and you're seeing a lot of the same thing now in Israel, and in the US government, and in the American Jewish community writ large. In the context of that panic and fear, and there are significant factions in Israel, including serving in Netanyahu's government, and in the American Jewish community that I think want to expel Palestinians from their homes in even larger numbers, and to annex and settle their land.
This is the explicit goal of some of Netanyahu's cabinet ministers. For them, I think that their horror of the attack is matched with a sense of opportunism, which is somewhat analogous to how, for instance, neoconservatives in the wake of the 9/11 attack who had already been planning a US invasion of Iraq as their imperial fantasy suddenly had the chance to make it real, and did. Iraqis and the whole world suffered consequences from that.
Brooke Gladstone: Can you compare and contrast how the politicians, the public, and for our purposes especially, the media reflecting all of that, behaved after 9/11 and now?
David Klion: As much as I see now as a scary throwback to the post-9/11 period, I do think that there are a lot of ways in which things have improved too. In part because we have the memory of 9/11 and a generation that's been learning lessons from it. There is more room than there had been in the past for good faith, critical voices against Israel, against its occupation more than it used to be.
We also have a democratic president who, I think, has at least a vague inclination to listen to some of those voices some of the time, which is something to work with. For all that, I think there's been a real climate of repression in the last week or so. Reportedly, MSNBC pulled its three Muslim anchors out of prime time spots.
Brooke Gladstone: They're back now.
David Klion: There were a lot of protest, and this was covered very aggressively [unintelligible 00:09:04] we've seen, I think, attempts to delegitimize the left writ large based on the incendiary remarks that were heard at a particular rally in Times Square that are essentially being cast on the entire democratic socialist movement in this country.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's talk about another echo of the analogy, which is that Israel, like the US after 9/11, had no endgame. I heard the Israeli intelligence ministers say on the BBC, I've heard it elsewhere too that what happens in Gaza is tomorrow's problem. I think that's pretty significant.
David Klion: Yes. I think that Israeli society is deeply destabilized right now, both domestically and internationally with this acute trauma it's just endured. You're absolutely right, that the open-endedness of the US war on terror and of the specific wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was a huge strategic liability that some people warned about invading beforehand, and is why those wars dragged on as long as they did and produced as many unintended consequences as they did.
Any sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis would require a much bolder strategic vision than any Israeli leader in at least the past two decades, more than that, I'd say, has been willing to seriously consider. Instead, I think there will be lashing out, there will be violence and generational reprisals. It's hard to imagine any positive endgame at the moment.
Brooke Gladstone: Just an anecdote. The Intercept had two headlines last weekend. One was, Yes, this is Israel's 9/11. The other was, Not Israel's 9/11, but a prison riot.
David Klion: There's some truth to both of those framings, I think. Obviously, I have an inclination to defend the first one, but there is a level in which it's a prison riot and Gaza is an open-air prison. I want to be wary of language that would justify Hamas itself or the atrocities that it committed. There are voices here and there, though I don't think very many prominent ones that have attempted to do that. I don't want to do that, but I do think that it's imperative to understand the conditions that Israel maintains in Gaza and has maintained for decades in Gaza that have allowed Hamas to entrench itself and to have some legitimacy.
Those conditions include overcrowding, they include Israeli control of water, fuel, electricity, internet, all of which Israel has cut off at various points in the last week. They include periodic bombardments, and we're also talking about a place where half the population is under the age of 18. Innocent children are spending their entire lives under these conditions, and are shaped in many cases into people with a lot of hatred toward the State of Israel.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's say this 9/11 analogy, though not perfect, is at least instructive. I've noticed that it's being used in two disparate ways. The first being your take. Don't go crazy. Don't let this horror give us a license to ignore history and context, or a license not to care about innocent lives. The second being that since this is 9/11, there is no response too small. The latter was echoed by George W. Bush last week. He said, "My view is, one side is guilty, and it's not Israel."
David Klion: Well, in a way it was almost vindicating to see George W. Bush say that because here's a president whose instincts after 9/11 caused a lot of problems that we're still dealing with. For him to essentially reiterate the exact simplistic Manichean worldview that he so famously had after 9/11, tells you something about the dangers of this moment and the examples to be avoided.
Brooke Gladstone: You think that the comparison to 9/11 could inspire restraint?
David Klion: I hope so.
Brooke Gladstone: Was there a particular moment that inspired you to write this piece?
David Klion: I wrote this piece because the publisher and co-editor of n +1, Mark Krotov, and I were having a conversation. He's an old friend. I had only written for him once before. We were having a conversation about how distraught we felt and how distraught so many people we knew felt and how insane a lot of people we knew felt. This was only a few days in. To quote the old poem that, "The best lack all conviction and the worst were full of passionate intensity."
Brooke Gladstone: "The center will not hold." William Butler Yeats.
David Klion: Yes, exactly. We felt that what was needed was less of a policy prescription, that kind of op-ed, and more a piece that would capture what it feels like to live through these times to know that this has happened before. The helplessness that you feel knowing that terrible things are going to happen, that you can call out and demand to not happen and you can and you will, but you know on some level it's not going to work, that some of it is unavoidable. That sense of deja vu, I guess.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm wondering whether you would read the last paragraph of your article. It starts with the remark of a campus anti-war activist on the night that Bush announced that the US had begun bombing Iraq.
David Klion: Certainly. "They're already dead," I recall a campus anti-war activist saying to me on the night that Bush announced that the US had begun bombing Iraq. He was right. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were about to die in Bush's folly, their fates already decided. At the time I understood and somewhat appreciated what the activist was saying, but I also was parochial enough to wonder whether he even cared about the Americans at ground zero who were literally already dead, never mind that Iraq had nothing to do with what had happened to them. Today, though, his words echo in my head, as I think about the Palestinians in Gaza, and the agony of knowing that they're already dead, no matter what any of us feel or think or say.
Brooke Gladstone: David, thank you very much.
David Klion: Thank you. I'm really glad I could do this.
Brooke Gladstone: David Klion is a contributing editor at Jewish Currents and writes for many publications, including The Nation and The New Republic. His latest article for n + 1 is, Have We Learned Nothing. Thanks for listening to this week's midweek podcast. Be sure to tune in to the big show which posts on Friday, wherein we try to assess the sources and significance of what we're seeing and hearing from there and from here in the continuing coverage of October 7th's aftermath.
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