To me, the most disturbing thing about 9/11 is that it has made us into a republic of fear. There was a time in the world when Americans were known for our courage, originality, and daring. That’s not true anymore. Now were are known for living behind the high walls of our nation of privilege and sending our poorest young men and women out to kill other poor people overseas.
We are officially the biggest crybaby country on the planet.
(And who better to carry that message to the world than our own Ambassador Squeakywheel, John Bolton, Mr. World’s Shortest High Horse? Everything that’s wrong with US foreign policy is embodied in that angry little bowling-pin of a man. I hope that it’s true that his nomination for a second term has been scrubbed.)
But that’s not what I came here to talk about tonight. I came here to talk about fear and the cynical manipulation of it, and to point out how much our national soul has been eroded away in the last five years. Let’s go first to the ever-formidable James Wolcott:
Even if The Path to 9/11 were politically pure, its raison d’etre would be suspect. How many times and how many ways must the adrenaline be pumped, the tragedy replayed, and the suffering exploited? The fall of the towers has become a ritual fetish, an annual haunting, that doesn’t exorcise fear, but replenishes it.
"What has changed, grotesquely, is the aftershock," Simon Jenkins writes in The Guardian, delivering a splash of cold reality. "Terrorism is 10% bang and 90% an echo effect composed of media hysteria, political overkill and kneejerk executive action, usually retribution against some wider group treated as collectively responsible. This response has become 24-hour, seven-day-a-week amplification by the new politico-media complex, especially shrill where the dead are white people. It is this that puts global terror into the bang. While we take ever more extravagant steps to ward off the bangs, we do the opposite with the terrorist aftershock. We turn up its volume. We seem to wallow in fear."
(I strongly recommend that Simon Jenkins article, by the way.)
Every time the Bush administration snatches away another piece of your privacy, the terrorists win again. If Osama Bin Laden’s goal was to fragment our society and force us to live in fear, then that’s the only Mission that’s been Accomplished in the Great War on Terror.
When will we have won the War on Terror? When the government can peer into the living rooms of every person on the planet? Because that is what it will take to stop all the terrorists in the world. The whole hallmark of terrorists is that they work outside of governmental systems. There could be terrorists anywhere. They are secretive. They are largely invisible until they strike, which is why they are only defeatable through the efforts of law enforcement. You cannot fight terrorists with the military. Armies are made to fight other armies. We are seeing the futility of fighting terrorists with the military playing out every day in the horrors of Fallujah, Kabul, and Tyre. Thousands of civilians die while the actual perpetrators melt into the scenery and regroup elsewhere.
But that doesn’t suit the NeoCon sense of theater. They have to bring mighty armies to bear, spend lavishly in blood and treasure, and (most importantly of all) turn a profit in the process.
And that is the disgrace our nation will bear well into the rest of this century. When faced with extraordinary circumstances, we responded in a deeply unextraordinary, C-student way.
Salon editor Joan Walsh says in her essay "What We Lost":
The number of Americans who died that day at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa. — 2,873 — has been surpassed by the number of American soldiers who’ve died in the so-called global war on terror, the vast majority — almost 2,700 — killed on the utterly unrelated battleground in Iraq. Add in almost 30,000 U.S. military casualties and a reported 46,307 dead Iraqi civilians, according to Iraq Body Count, and the tragedy is staggering — more than we, or the Iraqi people, should have had to bear. The quick victory in the Afghan war against the Taliban, which had broad national and global support, now seems on the verge of being reversed; every week brings more killing, more repression. This week alone the New York Times reported that the Afghan city known as Little America is now the capital of Taliban resurgence and opium production. Global sympathy in the wake of the attack has turned to global distrust and disdain.
That’s something that daily fills me with dismay. There was a moment there after the attacks in 2001 when the whole world was united together. And the Bush administration squandered that like a drunk with his first paycheck.
This is from an essay I recorded on Friday for the State Roots Project:
The thing that I think most of us forget is the days immediately after, the three or four days when everything stopped. Businesses closed. Flights were grounded. People stayed at home with their families as we all struggled to come to terms with what had just happened. "We’re All Americans Now" read a headline in the French newspaper Le Monde, and for a few days, we were. For just those three days, the world drew back in horror from the smoking holes in the ground in Pennsylvania, New York City, and Washington, and we were all united in the conviction that this must never happen again.
And I miss those three days. Not for the horror and shock, but for the peace. For that short amount of time, everything was silent, and for a breathless moment, I believed that maybe now the US government would drop its deadly myopia concerning world events and see that everything we have done in the Middle East for the last half-century had brought this to pass. I had glorious visions of a world united to overcome the kind of brutality and rage that had been unleashed upon my country on Tuesday, September the 11th, 2001.
Back to Joan Walsh:
Since that time, though, we’ve seen hubris beyond imagination. We’ve watched an unbridled executive-branch power grab, warrantless wiretaps, the curtailing of privacy rights; a pervasive smog of secrecy descended to obscure our government. Outrage about torture, rendition and secret prisons here and abroad is dismissed with a flippant "We don’t torture" from the president. And all of it has been shellacked with an ugly culture of bullying in which dissent equals treason, shamelessly, five years after the attack. Last week it was Donald Rumsfeld comparing war critics to people who appeased Hitler; this week we had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying they’re the sort who would have ended the Civil War early and let the South keep its slaves. Their intimidation is meant to say that the very freedoms worth fighting for — the right to dissent, the right to question our government — might have to be abridged while we fight. Politically, that truly is more than we can bear.
Still, we’ve seen nothing so brazen as the president’s "war on terror" victory lap this 9/11 anniversary week, three speeches to tell us he’s made us safer though there’s still more to be done, and pay no attention to the carnage in Iraq. Bush’s 2006 anniversary shtick is an eerie inversion of his first anniversary shtick in 2002, another election year, when he used the sad occasion as a platform to sell the Iraq war. Back then, you’ll recall, he’d changed the subject from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein at least partly because we’d blown our chance to capture the al-Qaida leader at the end of 2001.
In 2001, we lost nearly 3000 Americans to a vicious attack by an extremist group. That same year, we lost a chunk of our national character. Part of what made our democracy great was the understanding that freedom takes some courage. In a free country, it’s more likely that bad things will happen. It’s one of the risks we take in not offering up our privacy and autonomy unconditionally to an all-powerful Authority.
Republicans hate us for our freedom. They pose a direct and immediate threat to our way of life. Fight back against the fear-mongering. Be brave like a real American.
We will not forget.