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Americans in Denial about 9/11

Five years after 9/11, the country still hasn't asked what motives the terrorists may have had in their attacks.
 
 
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So, why did they hate us after all?

We sure blew off that question nicely. As with everything else in this country, our response to 9/11 was a heroic compendium of idiocy, cowardice, callow flag-waving, weepy sentimentality (coupled with an apparently bottomless capacity for self-pity), sloth, laziness, and partisan ignorance.

We dealt with 9/11 in many ways. We instantly dubbed everyone who died in the accident a hero and commissioned many millions (billions?) in mawkish elegiac art. We created a whole therapy industry to deal with our 9/11 -- related grief, made a few claustrophobic two-star Hollywood movies about the bombings, read Lisa Beamer's book and bought that DVD narrated by Rudy, watched Law and Order entertainments about sensational murders committed that morning and left for Jerry Orbach to solve, made bushels of quasi-religious references to "hallowed ground." We made many careers out of assigning blame for the attacks, with the right blaming Bill Clinton, Michael Moore blaming George Bush, and the clinically insane blaming those mysterious demolition experts who allegedly wired the bottoms of the towers with the explosives that "really" caused the tragedy. And we talked about 9/11 -- to death. We blathered on so much about the attacks and whined so hard about our "lost innocence" that the rest of the world, initially sympathetic, ended up staring at us in suicidally impatient agony, a can of kerosene overturned above its head, like the old lady sitting next to Robert Hays in Airplane!

We did just about everything except honestly ask ourselves what the hell really happened, and why.

That process of self-examination was flawed from the start. We were screwed the moment Fareed Zakaria wrote his infamous "The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?" essay for Newsweek a few weeks after the attacks. The question -- why do they hate us? -- was maybe the right question, but that was only if everyone could have agreed on what it meant. For what do we mean by they, and what do we mean by us? I for one am not entirely sure we're clear on these points, even now.

That we couldn't agree on who they were should be obvious by now. To the Bush administration the answers to the they/us questions were, respectively, "Foreigners" and "America." From the outset the Bush crew showed that they were both unwilling and unable to budge from the post-WWII political paradigm they'd all grown up under, and viewed the 9/11 events purely as an attack on the American nation-state by a belligerent foreign power. Their solution to the terrorism problem revolved entirely around a strategy for dealing with those foreign nation-states that were the "sponsors" of terrorism -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea. It was characteristic of the fourth-rate minds in this White House that they not only immediately got lost in the wrong political paradigm in response to the bombing, but picked the wrong country, Iraq, to punish for the crime. If we give them another ten years at it they'll probably end up introducing market reform to Antarctica as a backup plan.

Bush and his buddies grew up in the Cold War, an era where two countries dominated the world and even the scraggliest warlord in the central African jungle was usually a client of one or the other. It was a fun time for the overgrown Risk-playing nerds inhabiting America's think-tanks, who spent half a century describing all human life as an ongoing chess match between life-affirming American capitalism on the one hand and, on the other, the bloodsucking communist religion cruelly foisted upon the world by a conspiratorial bund of grubby German Jews (Hitler was eighty years too late!) and French homosexuals. That was what it came down to: world politics for half a century was a pissing match between two warring factions in the sociology department of the international University of Well-Fed White People. Things were so simple, even George Bush could understand them.

Well, things have changed since then. The operating conflict on earth now is no longer capitalism vs. communism, but one pitting organization vs. anarchy. All over the world, the borders of nation-states are blurring and becoming more and more meaningless. From the north Indian subcontinent, to the jungles of the Amazon basin, to the Middle East, and especially to west and central Africa, nations are fast losing their integrity while local warlords and gangs are taking over.

In some places in the world, authority changes more from block to block than nation to nation. In countries like Pakistan, which last week was forced to sign a humiliating peace accord with belligerents on its own territory of Waziristan, a tribal leader can twist the nipples of a nuclear power and not only keep his neck but come out ahead of the game afterward. In the late '80s and early '90s the Risk nerds squealed with delight over the supposedly unipolar world created by the fall of the Berlin Wall, but actually the change was from bipolar to apolar. There was anarchy and a crisis of international identity on the other side of that wall. Our pole, one might say, turned out to be a lot smaller than we thought it was.

So what happened? We never got that far in our reasoning. The farthest we ventured, before returning to our regularly scheduled programming, was a vague concession that the world was now "different." "All of this was brought upon us in a single day -- and night fell on a different world,' said George Bush in his "Churchillian" State of the Union address that next January. "The United States confronts a very different world today," opined the 9/11 commission report. It was "After 9/11, A Different World," as CBS News put it. Different how? Well, that's the part we haven't really figured out yet.

For the most part, America looks pretty much like it looked before 9/11. We spend most of our time pounding Ding-Dongs and Sonic burgers, watching ESPN, and surfing porn sites, while transnational corporations -- the silent allies of drug cartels and warlords in the dismantling of the traditional nation-state -- install turnstiles in congress and steadily move our entire manufacturing economy overseas. Our culture is a parade of idiot reality shows where ordinary citizens eat caterpillars for money and southern jocks drive moving billboards in a circle at 200 mph in front of euphoric crowds of a hundred thousand. In the intellectual north, our braver political dissidents dress in t-shirts with the face of George Bush morphed onto a pig's body and watch documentaries in which other intellectuals brag about being tricked by the Republicans into voting to invade the wrong country.

So what's changed? Well, we now hang our heads when we remember that dark day, kneel before the appropriate icons (Pat Tillman, firefighters, the flight 93 passengers) at the appropriate times, and periodically make sure to remember the Big Lesson, AKA Anything Can Happen, Even To Those Such As Us. The Monday Night Football crew this week commemorated 9/11 by bringing a firefighter named Tim Buckley into the booth; when asked what was different now, the humbled Buckley said that after 9/11, you have to think about things more when you go out on a call. "You don't know what to expect, after something like that," he sighed, shaking his head.

Somber nods all around to that in the booth, and then, with the snap of a finger; back to the field --- 3rd and 16 for the struggling Raiders...

In this light one could almost view our response to 9/11 as a triumph of the American system. If 20 knife-wielding lunatics blowing a hole in the middle of Manhattan on international television can't even temporarily knock us out of "What, me worry?" mode, you have to feel pretty good about our future chances for remaining just as cheerfully numb through even a more serious disruption of our fantasy existence.

America's response to 9/11 was basically to blow off the entire question of why it happened, change the set-design behind the same old us-vs.-evil commies cowboy-movie worldview, and to patch the hole blown in our self-esteem with a crude mix of stage-managed self-congratulation and sentimental claptrap. Our failure to actually win our subsequent self-declared war on the evildoers we explained away by using a modern innovation, i.e. taking a New-Agey approach to our shortcomings and forgiving ourselves for our little imperfections. In the Dr. Phil age, actual achievement isn't important, so long as you're comfortable with yourself! Make a list every morning, think about the good things in life! Living in Madison Avenue's irony age helps also -- when even Tony Sopranos pours his heart out to a shrink every week, it's not hard to convince Americans that they're still tough, even though Osama bin Laden is still doing bong hits on Al Jazeera five years after we boldly promised to kick his ass.

Whatever happened to actually being tough? What happened to speaking softly while we carry that big stick? Of staring problems bravely in the face, of taking the world seriously? History long ago washed that generation of "us" away, along with the world we still think we live in.

Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone .