There are many of us, on both the Left and the Right (mostly the Libertarian Right), who have become somewhat uneasy regarding the legacy of 9/11. And today, while we remember the victims, and grant the surviving friends and family due solemnity, there seems to me no more appropriate time to voice this disconcerting ambivalence. For it is often in our darkest moments that we allow ourselves to forget the lessons of the past.
When 9/11 first happened, I think it’s fair to say that all of us were confused. What appeared at first to be a terrible accident to most of us was clearly an intentional attack once the second plane hit. And then of course, Flight 93 and the Pentagon. I think once everyone realized what was happening, everyone was scared shitless. Where would the next plane hit? How many were there? Should I run and hide in a bunker somewhere? Are we being friggin’ invaded?
Once enough time past, we realized that four was the final number. Four planes. One for each WTC tower, one at the Pentagon, and one that was intentionally grounded by its crew members before it could reach its desired destination. It was, in its own way, a small sigh of relief to know that this was the extent of the attack with some certainty.
Then of course, we watched the first tower collapse. A horrifying moment. In many ways, the towers themselves were a monument to the greatness of our civilization: engines of both private and public ingenuity in the center of American Capitalism. One brings to mind the designs of cathedral architects, who built high, daunting spires in an effort to bring humanity closer to the kingdom of God. Perhaps that intention still resides in the subconscious of those who build our highest skyscrapers, whatever their religious beliefs may actually be.
So much more the horror, then, when these Jacob’s Ladders were seen to fall and crumble, taking with them not only the lives of those still within, but spreading clouds of detritus throughout the immediate area, poisoning and choking every innocent bystander that did not have the good fortune or sense to flee the area in time.
And this is where the legitimate memorialization of 9/11 exists, in my mind: innocent people died. Whatever the cause, people who were just minding their own business, trying to live their lives as they saw fit, died. That is tragic, and within that tragedy there is cause for reflection and solemnity. Surely we can all agree that the massive expropriation of innocent life deserves to be recalled and memorialized. There is no skepticism or disconcert that can be applied to this aspect of the Legacy of 9/11. Those that lost family and friends have a right to grieve, and their grief should be expected.
If the legacy of 9/11 stopped here, it would never be suspect. It would be merely a show of respect for the survivors of victims; a national day of unity in which we pause to respectfully recall the pain that entered so many peoples’ lives in one terrible, brief window of time.
But this is not where the legacy of 9/11 stops. In fact, the grief of the survivors is perhaps the smallest, most straightforward part of the legacy of 9/11. It is everything else that happened afterwards that corrupted our national character, and continues to subtly invade many celebrations of the victims, even those that are well-intentioned and non-partisan.
9/11 was a national security breach of unprecedented character. Not only was it the most Americans who’d ever died in a violent act of political character, it was the first time we’d ever been successfully attacked on American soil since WWII. The Atlantic and Pacific seawalls no longer provided the implicit protection that we had always relied on. Americans could always count on the fact that, if anyone wanted to attack us, they’d have to cross an ocean, regardless of the direction they came from. And unlike Pearl Harbor 1941, Pearl Harbor 2001 would easily be prevented and foreseen with modern technology. And given that our neighbors to the North are amicable, and our neighbors to the South are reliant on us, our geographical position was superior in terms of national security. 9/11 punched a hole in that confidence.
Unfortunately, that hole was and is likely to be a permanent one.
The sense of national unity in the aftermath of 9/11 was probably not unlike what happened after Pearl Harbor was struck. The stories of suffering that emanated from Ground Zero proliferated quickly, and we all found ourselves wondering what there was that could be done. People volunteered for rescue and clean-up duty. People lined up to give blood. People gave money. Business owners offered their resources.
And for a brief moment, we forgot about political parties. We forgot about the things that divided us. The political polarization that has haunted relations between the Left and Right for so long dissipated, and for a short period, we stopped hating each other.
Yet that political unity cost us dearly in the ensuing aftermath, as our sense of America’s Exceptionalism gave rise to a sense of duty. And that duty demanded we answer two important questions. First: who did this? Second: how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again?
The answers to these questions comprised the proverbial gate of Hell through which the Dante entered the Inferno. America, with its hand held by a Congressional Virgil, strode confidently passed Cerebus, and began its descent into the mires of the Abyss.
First, who did this? Al Qaeda. 13 hijackers from Saudi-Arabia, it turns out. What do we do about it? We need to hold someone responsible. President Clinton’s work in Afghanistan gave us pre-existing knowledge of the fact that the Taliban was harboring terrorists, openly and willingly. So that would be our first stop. Even though Saudi Arabia also has tied to terrorism, we can’t attack them because we get too much oil from them; and at any rate, the then-President’s father had private business relations with the Saudi royal family. So that was out of the question. What was not out of the question was attacking a poor, backwards country run by religious fundamentalists which had driven back every foreign invader that has ever tried to conquer or subjugate it; first Alexander, then the British, then the Soviets. But none of that mattered. We are America, we were attacked, and SOMEONE must pay. The first question has been answered.
Second, what do we do to make sure this never happens again? First we observed the intelligence failures that led to gaps in knowledge which created an opening for the hijackers to carry out their operation. We responded to this with the USA-PATRIOT Act, whose letters don’t even stand for “United States of America,” which is perhaps the most fitting irony that its authors could have mustered.
The PATRIOT Act, perhaps more than any other response to 9/11, is a permanent symbol to how far afield we fell in responding to 9/11. The most corrupt piece of 9/11’s legacy. It was the imposition of a larger, robust, more powerful Security state. It gave law enforcement at all levels unprecedented power, the abuses of which my readers are already no doubt familiar with. Suffice to say, this single Act of legislation, which was passed with only a single dissenting vote, captures perfectly the words of Justice Brennan which I quoted at length recently:
[A]s adamant as my country has been about civil liberties during peacetime, it has a long history of failing to preserve civil liberties when it perceived its national security threatened. This series of failures is particularly frustrating in that it appears to result not from informed and rational decisions that protecting civil liberties would expose the United States to unacceptable security risks, but rather from the episodic nature of our security crises. After each perceived security crisis ended, the United States has remorsefully realized that the abrogation of civil liberties was unnecessary. But it has proven unable to prevent itself from repeating the error when the next crisis came along.
After the PATRIOT Act, we saw the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Then came the Military Commissions Act of 2006. In-between came the War in Iraq, which we were told was necessary for WMD. Then when WMD wasn’t found, we were told it was necessary to fight terror. Then when Saddam’s connections to terrorism were found to be tenuous, we were told it was to free the Iraqi people from a dictator. Ex Post Facto justifications, however, should never serve as a basis for sound policy.
And then we started torturing people. It became ok. We opened Black Site facilities all across the world, turned Guantanamo Bay into an “enhanced interrogation factory,” and when we didn’t want to torture people ourselves, we extradited them to other countries who we knew would. Waterboarding, an act which used to be solidly in the Torture category under the regimes of the Third Reich, the Inquisition, Stalinist Russia, and the Khmer Rouge, was now simply a form of “enhanced interrogation.” We were told that it wasn’t torture because we weren’t actually doing physical harm to them, despite the fact that American soldiers killed 26 people in the Philipinnes using what was then known as the “water cure.” We were told nobody died, until OPR memos came out in 2010 in which we discovered that yes, some detainees had actually died after being waterboarded.
Underwriting all of these unprecedented, inhumane expansions of American power was an undercurrent of Nationalism. A sensibility which can only be described as Jingoist swept across our nation. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the treatment of critics of the Iraq war. Many of us who came to oppose the war were equated with those who gave aid and comfort to terrorists. Simply by questioning the official story, we were not Jeffersonian patriots (misattributed as the infamous quote may be). We were in fact the exact opposite. Critics of the war were also accused of not supporting the Troops. That being opposed to their mission was antithetical to their well-being. In these “patriotic” exhortations, the words of Herman Goering rang with a frighteningly familiar echo:
Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
The language of Patriotism, of course, was a familiar trope within one of the nation’s two dominant political parties. And the use of 9/11 as a bludgeon to politically attack those who began to criticize our policy reactions to 9/11 was entirely predictable. There is nothing new under the sun, as they say. Or in this case, the ominous gap left by the absence of the Twin Towers in our national conscience.
And now it’s 10 years later, and our descent into the Abyss continues. The provisions of the PATRIOT Act which were supposed to be used to help us ward off terrorism are now used for drug raids and rarely have anything to do with terrorism. We have tortured people. American citizens can now be assassinated by the President without Due Process so long as he suspects them of terrorism. We have cast aside Habeus Corpus, and people on American soil can now be indefinitely held without charge. We have created an underclass of political prisoners who have been cleared of wrong-doing, yet have no place to go because the countries we tore them from will not take them back. The TSA can now legally and literally sexually assault you, to the point of inserting their fingers into your vagina, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And of course, Muslims have now become Public Enemy #1, between opposition to the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and the latest hysteria over the non-existent threat of Sharia law; and all this despite the fact that many Muslims died inside the Twin Towers, and American Muslims have given their lives in service to this country, comprising the very Troops which the Jingoists claim to be such avid supporters of:
The list goes on, and on.
And this is what weighs on me every time our nation gathers to remember the victims of 9/11. My genuine sorrow for the emotional suffering of those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks is stained by the ugly patina of jingoism, overreaction, and trenchant authoritarianism that has come to define the post-9/11 policy world. The terrorists took a lot more than life and stock market gains when they hit those planes. They took a part of our national character. And we willingly gave it to them. That is what I grieve more than anything on the anniversary of 9/11. And I don’t know if we’ll ever get it back.
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