Earlier this month was the 10-year anniversary of the “9/11″ jumbo jet terrorist attacks, and lots of us here in the US are reflecting on the events, how things have changed since then, and what it all means. I don’t know what it says about me, but my own feelings about 9/11 are different than those I most often read about.
On 9/11/01, I was essentially unemployed. I’d been laid off my job at a dot-com startup company a couple months earlier, and was doing my best to establish a consulting business. But due to the post-dot-com economy, I was having a hard time of it. I first heard about the airliner crashing into the World Trade Center by email from an acquaintance of mine. Initially, I didn’t have any sense of the scale of the issue, so I didn’t turn on the news. Then, later there was another email about the second crash, and that’s when I tuned into the television coverage, which was all over every channel.
I was astonished by the immensity of the disaster. I don’t think anyone expected the buildings to come tumbling down; I sure didn’t. To this day, I doubt even the planners of the attack expected their mission to be so “successful” (I should note that although I love conspiracy theories, I’ve never bought into the “9/11 was an inside job” theory). I remember feeling numb at the time, but also immediately thinking this must be the doing of Osama bin Laden. Anyone who had paid any attention to international news over the previous decade knew that his attacks were getting bigger and bigger. And so the attacks didn’t really surprise me as I think they did some people.
In the following days and weeks, I kept reading about how the American people were so “shocked” by the attacks. But as soon as it happened, the phrase that popped into my mind was “chickens coming home to roost.” If you’re not familiar with the idiom, it means that if you do enough bad things to someone, eventually they’ll do bad things back to you. From the perspective of many of the downtrodden in the Middle East, the USA had done a lot of bad things to them. And eventually, I felt, all the bad karma of how we’ve treated the locals created an environment where bin Laden could easily get recruits and funding for terrorism.
This idea that we – America – had done wrong to any of the locals in the Middle East never did get much attention in the press. It certainly wasn’t politically correct to discuss in the hyper-jingoistic days that followed the attacks. Most Americans portrayed in the media had an attitude more like, “We never did anything to them, so how could they do this to us?” Well, unfortunately, we had a long history of doing bad things to “them” – at least from their perspective. As of 2001, Americans had…
- historically supported Israel over Palestine, which essentially means supporting Judaism over Islam
- exploited local resources (oil in particular) without any compensation reaching the common people of the lands
- put into power dictators (like the Saudi royal family, the Shah of Iran, and Saddam Hussein) who were friendly to our extraction interests, and then turned a blind eye when they brutally suppressed factions of their own people
In short, even though we usually don’t think of America as an empire, we acted pretty imperialistic in the 20th century in the Middle East. It shouldn’t have surprised us, the American people, so much when the local commoners in those empires we created rose up. We have our own history of rebellion against imperialism. And yet, we did act surprised.
Leadership and Divisiveness
Another case of my feelings about 9/11 being way different from my friends is regarding the response of our elected officials. It was terrible right from the beginning and never really got any better. Think back to the week following 9/11/2001. This big national shock and tragedy just happened. The talking heads are calling it the Pearl Harbor of our generation. Gas prices spike wildly, based on speculation that OPEC is going to cut off our lifeline. People rush to the grocery stores to stock up on supplies. The airlines are shut down for the first time anyone can remember. Here is the perfect opportunity for our President to bring America together for a unified goal.
Some great possible goals might have gone like this:
- Our dependence on oil from the Middle East comes at too high of a cost. We as a nation must dedicate ourselves immediately to cutting back. In the short term, conservation. In the long term, develop local energy sources.
- Too long have we ignored the ordinary citizens of the Middle East, and allowed a culture of fear and hatred to develop. America will re-dedicate itself to fostering education, health care, and prosperity to being the people of the region into the modern world, where democracy and free speech are treasured.
But instead we got “America is open for business” and repeated messages that it is patriotic to go out and spend, spend, spend. President Bush could have used this opportunity to kick off a program for Americans to achieve any of a number of great things, but he fumbled the ball. All we got was the message to get back to work, and there’s no need to make personal sacrifices. So we launched these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without any belt-tightening whatsoever.
In World War II, that belt-tightening was part of what brought Americans together. Everyone gave up a little for the war effort – gasoline, rubber, cigarettes, whatever. But after 9/11 nobody had to give up anything. Instead, we were encouraged to go buy an SUV and a bigger TV. That’ll show those Muslim extremists!
As the months rolled on, it became more and more clear that Bush’s strings were being pulled by the Vice President, Dick “conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy” Cheney.
An acquaintance of mine (an accomplished part-time sports journalist named Tom George) posted a note to Facebook:
If there is one happy memory about 10 years ago today, it’s how we all came together as a nation. Yeah…we argue and fight amongst each other about all sorts of different things. But when someone takes a swipe at us, nobody circles the wagons like the USA can. As somber as this anniversary is every year, this one happy memory probably fills me with more patriotic pride than the 4th of July or any other national holiday does.
Sadly, I don’t see it that way. My impression of the past 10 years it that my country’s response to the attacks has divided the country more than united us. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote:
The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.
And a Facebook note from another acquaintance (Jenny Nunemacher) sums up my feelings better than I think I can:
[...]What is most troublesome to me is that the Patriot Act and all those other militaristic actions in the years since have proven that the terrorists got what they wanted. They assaulted our freedom and WE LET IT CONTINUE TO HAPPEN. We may be incrementally more safe, but we are less free.
I’m very proud to be a US citizen. I’m patriotic and would rather be in America than anywhere else. I know it probably sounds corny to some of you, but I tear up sometimes when they sing the national anthem at a baseball game (or a roller derby bout). So I think I lot about America’s legacy. What will my generation be remembered for? Are we going to leave this world better than it was before?
It’s because I care so much about these things that I feel so negative about 9/11 and our response to it.
We could have set a great example to the rest of the world of how understanding and compassionate Americans can be. But instead we went on a witch hunt, rounded up anyone who looked like they might be a terrorist, tortured some of them, and held the rest as permanent prisoners, breaking our own laws and international law in the process. We definitely didn’t take the moral high road.
We could have set a great example to the rest of the world of how wise the one remaining superpower can be. But instead we treated the attacks not as a criminal matter, but as an international “war”.
We could have used this as an opportunity to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. But instead we deployed our military and thousands of mercenaries without regard to budgets or funding.
We could have thumbed our noses at terrorism. But instead we played right into the terrorists’ plans. Why did the terrorists hate us? They hate us for our freedom, we were told. And then we turned around and gave up some of our freedom in the interests of “security”.
Why are they called terrorists? Because they accomplish their political goals by causing terror in their enemies. So to fight terrorism, we should do things to make ourselves less afraid, right? But instead we made ourselves more afraid. Don’t believe me? Go to any airport, and stand in the security line. Ask people as they pass through the inspection process, “Do you feel more afraid or less afraid to travel today than you would have in 1980?”
I really hope that this is all just a pendulum, and that it’ll swing back, especially in my lifetime. In the decade that has passed since 9/11 I haven’t seen any signs of it, but I still hold out hope.