Friday, September 08, 2006

What have I learned from/since 9/11

Monday we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The media is awash in efforts to mark the occasion with something of meaning. I hear lots of “ordinary” Americans weighing in with how 9/11 affected them. One, not so ordinary, I suppose, is the President, who keeps saying the attacks changed fundamentally how he looked at the world. He says it gave him a new appreciation for the dangers that threaten us (I guess from abroad). The President’s rhetoric on this seems to me to be essentially a mask for the huge wave of guilt that must wrack his bones every day, knowing that this not only happened on his watch, but was in no small part due to his flippant attitude toward this threat. It speaks volumes to me that he shows no trace of humility, just hubris, condescension and thinly-veiled contempt (redirected away from himself, I’ll bet).

I hear other people talk about how 9/11 affected them mostly by making gas more expensive, or their business or jobs less stable or secure. I hear people say they, like the President, have a new-found fear of violence. Others profess a new-found hatred for Islam, or Arabs, or “extremists” or foreigners.

It seems the time has come once again for me to tell you What To Think, so here goes.

9/11 will be seen as a watershed event in both American and world history. (The two strains of history to undoubtedly merge at some distant point, much like Mercian and Cambrian history is now just early British history.) However, the effects caused by the terrorists – the deaths, injuries, damage – are negligible compared to the effects caused by our own fearful response. Perhaps the fate of thousands of Iraqis was sealed in November of 2000 when the US Supreme Court awarded the Presidency to George W. Bush. There’s a considerable body of evidence that he planned a military toppling of Saddam Hussein long before he was appointed to office. It may be that had 9/11 never occurred – had an alert security guard made a lucky call, had an FBI supervisor made an extra call, had a conspirator chickened out and gone state’s evidence – Mr. Bush would have found some other pretext for invading Iraq. And perhaps it was always part of his thinking that Afghanistan would have to be invaded also to ensure their cruel regime was a threat no more. Truly, a what-if scenario ripe for a talented alternative-history author to exploit.

I have learned since 9/11 that many of my fellow Americans can be cowardly, self-centered, childish and utterly rule by fear. I have learned that the deaths of thousands of innocents count for nothing if they are far away, not white, and not presented visually. I have learned just how far Ronald Reagan’s Culture of Me has permeated huge swaths of our society.

I have learned that the fundamental lessons of life – for individuals as well as societies – must be continually relearnt. We have allowed the powerful free rein in ordering our society’s affairs, with the not-too-surprising result that their share of our wealth has risen steadily at the expense of everyone else.

I have learned that powerful and corrupt people can use people’s natural fears as a most unnatural tool to deprive them of their security. And I have learned that resisting these people is a struggle without end.

I have also learned that terrorism is fundamentally a police matter. It is combated not through invasions or rockets or tank battalions. It is fought via intelligence, interrogations, taking precautions.

As grave a threat as terrorism is, it is on a par with other crimes – serious indeed, but no basis on which to organize our society. I write from Lower Manhattan, blocks away from the New York Stock Exchange. It’s fears for its security has led it to turn several blocks around it into an armed encampment. A variety of barricades block the streets and sidewalks. Meantime, the effects of 9/11 in this neighborhood are apparent in the nearly empty sidewalks, many fewer lunch spots, the surplus of seating in the parks.

And the future is being built, make no mistake. Under the guise of “re-building,” the ancient transport infrastructure is getting a face lift and a series of undistinguished office buildings are being built. A huge memorial is planned, that will add even more dead space to a part of our town that is already swimming in memorial spaces. The design of the "towers" says nothing to me so much as “cowering.” Where once the height of an office building was an unabashed metaphor for a society’s dreams, now the height of the office building is a signal that we must not raise our heads above the crowd for fear that a terrorist will lop it off.

In yet another alternative universe, our political or business leaders (remember when captains of industry had moral force in society?) would have stoutly called for defiance in the face of fear. “Letting the terrorists win” would have meant building exactly the kind of demure buildings we are now planning, and not failing to keep your Visa card near it’s maximum, as Mr. Bush has it.

By our ignorance and apathy, we have come, once again, to live in a dangerous time. Politics seems to so many of us an a minor annoyance, kind of like sports but not as engaging. But the truth is the actions of state actors like Mr. Bush and his Russian, British, Iranian, Afghani, Pakistani, Israeli and Iraqi counterparts are the stuff of which conflagrations are made. It is not the actions of murderous crooks like Osama Bin Ladn, or the man who killed Crown Prince Ferdinand almost a century ago, that cause massive devastation and tragedy.

We live in a democratic nation, as do many others around the world. We are often reminded that we have a civic duty to vote and read the paper. It’s kind of like the cajoling to eat healthier and exercise more: it’s undeniably good advice, but failing to heed it has consequences that are quite remote and quite easy to dismiss. But like the oft-ignored health advice, our failure to adequately supervise our government can over time have disastrous, even life-threatening, consequences.

What I’ve learned since 9/11 is that too many of my fellow Americans seem unprepared for the awesome responsibility of self-government. It may be that the ominous storm warnings will be enough to bring enough of them around to create a kind of tipping point. Our history has been, however, that Americans allow the government to get too far away from them before asserting their will, with fairly uniformly disastrous consequences. I’m just not sure that the disaster level is kicked up high enough for enough Americans to reassert their authority. Come this November, we’ll find out.

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