I'm already nauseated by the 9/11 memorializing.
Just as I don't need a special day to celebrate Mom, I don't need a 10th anniversary to seek meaning in 9/11 and its aftermath. The more we "normalize" that event - put it in the context of the equally avoidable Hurricane Betsy's devastation of New Orleans in the LBJ era, to pick an example - the more able we are to study it in the detached way that's required.
After all, it was a panicked response to 9/11 that conflated that terrorist attack into the nation-defining episode Osama bin Laden intended, unleashing the dogs of war on innocent people, stripping Americans of basic civil rights, degrading America's military prowess and its public finances, and exposing the U.S. to the world as maladroit, mendacious and belligerent in diplomacy; incompetent at military occupation; inept in the gathering and interpretation of intelligence; and having only a lip-service commitment to the eradication of torture from the world. (I assumed, cynically, that the U.S. would at least bring its own WMDs to plant if it couldn't find any of Saddam's, in the manner of a trigger-happy LAPD equpped with "drop guns" for use when accidentally making widows in South Central LA.)
Journos are exploiting the grim anniversary, or being made to by editors. A glossy 10th anniversary commemorative book from Time-Life went on sale at my 7-Eleven last week. The $19.95 proceeds don't go to a firefighters' spouses fund, but to shareholders and bonus-collecting executives of Time Warner Inc. NPR is similarly devoting the entire week to a misery bath, imparting again things I already know.
The 10th-annivesary print chronicles I've pored through so far are recitations of what was plainly obvious to me and I'm certain many others in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
In an overwrought New York essay, Frank Rich marvels that the further West he travelled that painful fall, the less interest in 9/11 he witnessed. As a Torontonian who spent part of his honeymoon taking in the view from the observation deck of the WTC, I was far more traumatized than the Americans with whom I spoke on business in the days immediately following 9/11 who lived west of the Mississippi. That did not strike me as odd then, nor does it now. How long did the Oklahoma City tragedy hold the collective attention of Americans? Or Columbine? Or Tucson? (Earlier this year, for those who've understandably forgotten if they're among the four million Americans at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure.)
9/11 was conveniently repackaged as a means of turning Bush into a permanent wartime president, I'm now told, a gambit that was screamingly obvious as early as 2002 when Bush, in the second year of his presidency, used a trumped-up "war on terror" to make GOP gains in Congress. By that means, Rove and Bush broke the tradition in which the party that wins the WH traditionally loses seats in the next off-year election. Thanks for the news flash, nine years after the fact.
George Packer's 9/11 essay in The New Yorker sinks to greater depths of assumed ignorance on the part of contemporary observers. Packer, who doesn't bother explaining why he full-throatedly championed the invasion of a sovereign Iraq on spurious grounds (he has since, awkwardly, recanted), has lately discovered that the past decade polarized America. You don't say. Actually, America was becoming politically polarized since Newt Gingrich and the later stolen presidential election of 2000. The exploitation of 9/11 by Rummy, Cheney and Rove began, and was seen even then to begin, in late 2001. But Packer only now finds that America is now "coming apart." For proof, just look at the vilification of Obama and the diefication of Bachmann.
Packer has done his homework. The 20-year decline of the American middle class - the widening gap between rich and poor, and growing sense of futility among the working class - was underway before 9/11, he notes. Thanks for the tip. A dozen progressive think tanks could have informed you of that gathering storm and the bitterness toward, and distrust of, elites in which it would eventually manifest itself, and not just among Tea Partiers.
Like Rich, Packer is astonished that the nation was not united, and sustainably, in shared sacrifice to fight the new "evildoers." Instead, in December 2001, Bush told Americans to not change their way of life and in particular to keep shopping - "or the terrorists win." Iraq was to be the first major U.S. war to be fought with tax cuts that debauched the Treasury, rather than tax increases to properly finance it. Those tax cuts, in 2001 and 2003 and each skewed to the rich, were much-discussed at the time as an act of fiscal lunancy. Majority popular approval of the Iraq invasion was evident in only two countries, the U.S. and Israel. Would Americans have supported the war had their taxes been raised to pay for it? Before it commenced, governments representing 96% of the world population opposed the looming misadventure. All these facts were known - along with warnings from the State Department of the chaos to be unleashed in Baghdad, which Bush chose to ignore - and got a thorough airing in the lead-up to the Iraqi conflict in the first three months of 2003. The facts haven't changed. Why are some observers outraged - or in Packer's case, dumbfounded - now who weren't then?
The answer is that it wasn't merely the Bush administration that was delusional. So was majority opinion, lusting for revenge. One heard then, conspicuously from David Frum, then a WH speechwriter - that Bush had to attack someone post 9/11 or he would have been ridden out of town on a rail. I believe that was Frum's exact expression. In these enlightened times, that mentality no longer prevails even in elementary-school playgrounds. It did then, at the highest reaches of American power, and no facts to surface since have changed the realities of 2003 for those who calmly assessed them when it most mattered, before the war started. How could the U.S. not, to at least some degree, be "coming apart" after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan championed by armchair liberal pundits but fought by weekend reservists who signed up for local flood and hurricane relief work and found themselves, on a third and fourth tour of duty, dying alongside their buddies?
That America's foreign policy elite and liberal chattering classes that backed the Iraq war - including Canadians like Michael Ignatieff and Margaret MacMillan - were accelerating America's decline, at a time when the U.S. should have been dealing with problems at home, was evident in 2002 as Condoleeza Rice coordinated the PR campaign of speeches by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to sell the war. The world was primed for an illogical American response to 9/11. After all, the Americans had just for the first time installed in their presidency the loser of a presidential contest. Those folks can't run an election, and now they're telling us they have evidence sufficiently compelling to cause upheaval thoughout the Middle East? And their frat-boy reaction to sound advice from traditional allies is to start serving "freedom fries" in the Congressional canteen?
Current events may not bear me out, but I swear if you were paying any kind of attention in 2001-03 you will not learn anything from the outpouring of manufactured grief to plague us over the next week or so. Worse, every word and image you see will displace one that should be devoted to crisis-solving over a shrinking middle class, the backbone of America's supremacy; to the continued deprivation among the working class; to a growing population of poor (36 million Americans live below the poverty line); to a comparatively ignorant American adult workforce (global ranking in math: 35th); to a country that is foreclosing on a prosperous future by laying off teachers and closing schools today.
In an ideal world, robust debate about those issues would be the means of commemorating 9/11. Have we not already shed buckets of tears over a freak event, when every ounce of American ingenuity, persistence and resolve should now be dedicated to the crises at hand?
But no, we're to have another distracting weepfest. Gary Younge in the Guardian can't be the only one asking, "Can the U.S. move beyond the narcissism of 9/11?"
As the Iraq war floundered unity gave way to the acrimony, mistrust and mutual recrimination that characterises US politics today. The response to 9/11 did not create these divisions – a year before the attacks the presidential election was decided by the courts – but it deepened, broadened, sustained and framed them for more than half a decade before the economic collapse. It was the central issue in the 2004 election and cast the 2008 election in terms of hope – Obama – against fear, McCain and Palin. Internationally Obama's victory marked the country's belated, more nuanced, more enlightened response to 9/11, signalling America's readiness to meaningfully re-engage with the rest of the world and the treaties that govern it.
I've shed my tears over 9/11. Two dozen Canadians died that day; and our only neighbor and best friend was savagely attacked for maximum traumatizing effect. But by a band of thugs, with a $500,000 budget. The Germans dealt with their Baader-Meinhoff atrocities, the Italians with Red Brigade assassinations, and the Brits with a long-running IRA war that nearly claimed Thatcher's entire cabinet in a botched mass-assassination attempt on her cabinet in Brighton. Those nations and peoples all have long since moved on.
And well they have, since economic crisis now grips Europe no less than America.
What can we learn from 9/11 a mere decade out? Very little we don't already know. Two hundred years out, perhaps quite a bit. Only now, for instance, looking back at the French Revolution, can one see simply by looking at a timeline of French history that the republic has been in decline ever since. Civil wars marked life in France after the Napoleonic defeats, followed by French military humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War* of 1871 and the two world wars of the 20th century, the punishing retreat from Indo-China (as it was then called), the interminable conflict in Algeria, and now the almost studied ineptitude in integrating immigrants of color - not that the French elites are making a genuine effort. (Neither, to be fair, are the Norwegians.)
On a cheerier note, I expect that Main Street America has largely put the horrors of 9/11 behind it, having the more recent ones of Joplin, Mo. to rightly preoccupy it. Had 9/11 occurred in Miami or Seattle, rather than the English-speaking world's media capital, I expect we'd be having a brief, dignified memorial at this time.
I do have the sense that 9/11, unmasking an intellectual bankruptcy in the foreign-policy and media elite, necessitates for them a ceaseless agonizing over their unbearable lightness of sagacity. For these folks not only failed to anticipate Sept. 11, 2001 or react to it with calm, sound contemplation of a new enemy in new times, they turned an incident properly addressed with construction crews and sustained detective work into eight lost years of chasing shadows. And they did so at fantastic expense at the very time America most needed to get a start on confronting systemic dysfunctions in private-sector governance, income inequality, urban decay, the integration of 12 million undocumented immigrants, and the replacement of Civil War-era schoolhouses - in short, the harnessing of America's strengths to set right its shortcomings, all of them fixable.
That's what I now weep over.
On Remaining Sane In The Face of Terrorism. (James Fallows, Atlantic)
It is precisely because people and societies can panic about terrorist threats -- and often did ten years ago -- that both the threats and the panic are worth doing everything possible to minimize. Anyone who has ever thought about the long-term effort against terrorism realizes that the threat of attacks will never completely go away. If a society is large, open, and diverse, that is simply impossible. It's like 'eliminating' crime, or evil. Or like eliminating the chance of another Columbine-style schoolyard shooting, which is 'terrorism' in every way except the conventional name. All of these deserve the best possible preventive efforts, but 'best possible' will never mean perfect.
Therefore the next step is to avoid magnifying the terrorizing effects of a murderous attack, and instead to do what we can to keep it in perspective. Parents send their children to school every day, even though we know that some day there will be 'another Columbine' (or 'another Virginia Tech' or, away from the schoolyard, 'another Tucson'). School shootings are absolute evil, which we should take far more urgently than we do. But when they occur, the usual response is to try to dampen rather than intensify a reaction of generalized fearfulness and panic. That is how we should react to something called 'terrorism' as well.
*An earlier version referred incorrectly to the "Anglo-Prussian War."