Let's Put 9/11 Behind Us and End the Blank Check it Has Become for America's Endless Wars
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The facts of 9/11 are, in this sense, simple enough. It was not a nuclear attack. It was not apocalyptic. The cloud of smoke where the towers stood was no mushroom cloud. It was not potentially civilization ending. It did not endanger the existence of our country -- or even of New York City. Spectacular as it looked and staggering as the casualty figures were, the operation was hardly more technologically advanced than the failed attack on a single tower of the World Trade Center in 1993 by Islamists using a rented Ryder truck packed with explosives.
A second irreality went with the first. Almost immediately, key Republicans like Senator John McCain, followed by George W. Bush, top figures in his administration, and soon after, in a drumbeat of agreement, the mainstream media declared that we were “at war.” This was, Bush would say only three days after the attacks, "the first war of the twenty-first century." Only problem: it wasn’t. Despite the screaming headlines, Ground Zero wasn’t Pearl Harbor. Al-Qaeda wasn’t Japan, nor was it Nazi Germany. It wasn’t the Soviet Union. It had no army, nor finances to speak of, and possessed no state (though it had the minimalist protection of a hapless government in Afghanistan, one of the most backward, poverty-stricken lands on the planet).
And yet -- another sign of where we were heading -- anyone who suggested that this wasn’t war, that it was a criminal act and some sort of international police action was in order, was simply laughed (or derided or insulted) out of the American room. And so the empire prepared to strike back (just as Osama bin Laden hoped it would) in an apocalyptic, planet-wide “war” for domination that masqueraded as a war for survival.
In the meantime, the populace was mustered through repetitive, nationwide 9/11 rites emphasizing that we Americans were the greatest victims, greatest survivors, and greatest dominators on planet Earth. It was in this cause that the dead of 9/11 were turned into potent recruiting agents for a revitalized American way of war.
From all this, in the brief mission-accomplished months after Kabul and then Baghdad fell, American hubris seemed to know no bounds -- and it was this moment, not 9/11 itself, from which the true inspiration for the gargantuan “Freedom Tower” and the then- billion-dollar project for a memorial on the site of the New York attacks would materialize. It was this sense of hubris that those gargantuan projects were intended to memorialize.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, for an imperial power that is distinctly tattered, visibly in decline, teetering at the edge of financial disaster, and battered by never-ending wars, political paralysis, terrible economic times, disintegrating infrastructure, and weird weather, all of this should be simple and obvious. That it’s not tells us much about the kind of shock therapy we still need.
Burying the Worst Urges in American Life
It’s commonplace, even today, to speak of Ground Zero as “ hallowed ground.” How untrue. Ten years later, it is defiled ground and it’s we who have defiled it. It could have been different. The 9/11 attacks could have been like the Blitz in London in World War II. Something to remember forever with grim pride, stiff upper lip and all.
And if it were only the reactions of those in New York City that we had to remember, both the dead and the living, the first responders and the last responders, the people who created impromptu memorials to the dead and message centers for the missing in Manhattan, we might recall 9/11 with similar pride. Generally speaking, New Yorkers were respectful, heartfelt, thoughtful, and not vengeful. They didn’t have prior plans that, on September 12, 2001, they were ready to rally those nearly 3,000 dead to support. They weren’t prepared at the moment of the catastrophe to -- as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so classically said -- “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”