The moments from that day will be remembered by everyone who was aware. The unreality of it. The horror. The anger and sorrow. The flood of stories, many of which turned out to be false - a car bomb in DC, what happened on Flight 93, the streams of people running for their lives from the collapsing buildings in lower Manhattan - seemed to bring us back, again and again, to those fateful moments captured forever as the giant passenger jets, turned in to loaded missiles, approached the World Trade Center.
It was commonplace, after the stunned, silent searching for reasons, to hear "everything changed on 9/11". I didn't want that to be the case. No one did. The last thing most people want is to have their lives, particularly their national lives, defined by a violent attack. Yet, ten years on and we define ourselves, for better and worse - largely for worse - by the events of that horrible day.
There has been little in the years since to celebrate. Two regional wars - Iraq and Afghanistan - with smaller conflicts in Yemen, Libya, the Philippines, Somalia seem to be never ending. A large swath of one of the major political parties seems determined to keep the fear brought about by the events of that day ever before us, reminding us of our vulnerability. As Newt Gingrich said last night in the Republican Presidential debate, there are folks out there who want to kill us.
'Twas ever thus. Which, for some reason, we never really admitted. Collapsing buildings, smoldering wreckage, the silence broken only by the beeping of buried cell phones whose owners would never answer them - this reality seemed to cover over the memory of half a century of Cold War in which the United States and the Soviet Union held the world nuclear hostage because each one feared the other "wanted to kill us".
There are always those who want to kill someone. The Indians and Pakistanis. The Israelis and various of their Arab and Persian and Turkish neighbors. The Protestant and Catholic Irish. White Americans and Black Americans. Intraspecies slaughter is a specialty of homo sapiens, and we kid ourselves too easily we have outgrown it. People who froth at the mouth over the barbaric practices of all those dangerous Muslims out there are blind to our own history, covered in blood, reeking of the mass grave our own history provides as a pedestal from which to look down on others. Forgive me if I refuse to listen to the preachments of bigots and fear-mongers who do not notice the trail of tears we in the west have left behind our religious and political and imperial wars. Few societies have less concern for the life of other human beings than the Euro/American west.
Over the past decade, one moment stands out for me as a single ray of light. In June, 2002, Lisa was ordained an Elder under the old rules of the United Methodist Church. The man who offered the benediction to the service said, among other things, that the only thing in human history that really changed everything was the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I felt like cheering. That was what we needed to hear. That was the message of hope, the word of truth, the promise of true victory over the forces of evil and death that seem, still, to swamp us.
There are abundant resources available to those who no longer wish to live in the shadow of those collapsed towers. Even The Washington Post, not known in recent years for its stellar opinion writing, offers up something worth mentioning from resident pseudo-liberal columnist E. J. Dionne:
After we honor the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we need to leave the day behind. As a nation we have looked back for too long. We learned lessons from the attacks, but so many of them were wrong. The last decade was a detour that left our nation weaker, more divided and less certain of itself.Al Jazeera on-line has a series of articles that are well worth reading and contemplating. Even if one does not agree with all of it, there is much wisdom in these essays.
Like many Americans, I find myself having followed a long and winding road over the last decade, ending up in places I truly never expected, only in recent years coming to terms with what I saw that day. Of course, for many people, the economic crash was like a second attack.
But it is where my country has gone over this past decade that is truly unfathomable. It’s important to remember as the 10-year anniversary approaches that we may have lost our way - but buried beneath many wrong turns is a national character that has been redeemed in the past.
To the extent that the trillion or more dollars of unfunded war costs contributed to the budget deficit that plagues the US today, Bin Laden was able to damage American hard power. And the real price of 9/11 may be the opportunity costs: for most of the first decade of this century, as the world economy gradually shifted its centre of gravity toward Asia, the US was preoccupied with a mistaken war of choice in the Middle East.
A key lesson of 9/11 is that hard military power is essential in countering terrorism by the likes of Bin Laden, but that the soft power of ideas and legitimacy is essential for winning the hearts and minds of the mainstream Muslim populations from whom Al Qaeda would like to recruit. A “smart power” strategy does not ignore the tools of soft power.
[I]t's tempting to argue that we should refrain from political debate on the 9/11 anniversary to honour those who died and to respect those who lost loved ones. I would be willing to do that if the cheerleaders for the US empire would refrain from using the day to justify the wars of aggression that followed 9/11. But given the events of the past decade, there is no way to take the politics out of the anniversary.
We should take time on 9/11 to remember the nearly 3,000 victims who died that day. But as responsible citizens, we also should face a harsh reality: While the terrorism of fanatical individuals and groups is a serious threat, much greater damage has been done by our nation-state caught up in its own fanatical notions of imperial greatness.
Epoch-defining dates like 1989 or 9/11 invoke various imagined histories and geographies. But too often the dates with which we order world politics are curiously Eurocentric. It is European exploration, the French revolution, a Congress in Vienna, and German invasions, for example, which mark out the globe's historical eras: 1492, 1789, 1815, 1914, 1939.
We are thus singularly unable to grasp the global histories and social relations that delivered us to 9/11. Within the conventional terms of analysis of international relations, it is almost impossible to see the great social, political and economic struggles between the global North and South that have driven modern world politics. European imperialism and the prodigious efforts to incorporate ever more peoples and places, ever more domains of life, into the capitalist world system lie at the origins of these global histories.
Ironically, the wars have undermined the United States’ (and the world’s) security, again in ways that Bin Laden could not have imagined. An unpopular war would have made military recruitment difficult in any circumstances. But, as Bush tried to deceive the US about the wars’ costs, he underfunded the troops, refusing even basic expenditures - say, for armoured and mine-resistant vehicles needed to protect American lives, or for adequate health care for returning veterans. A US court recently ruled that veterans’ rights have been violated. (Remarkably, the Obama administration claims that veterans’ right to appeal to the courts should be restricted!)
Military overreach has predictably led to nervousness about using military power, and others’ knowledge of this threatens to weaken US security as well. But the United States’ real strength, more than its military and economic power, is its “soft power,” its moral authority. And this, too, was weakened: as the US violated basic human rights like habeas corpus and the right not to be tortured, its longstanding commitment to international law was called into question.
There are several others, all deserving an audience and further discussion. As we remember the events of that day, let us insist the victims did not die so that we would destroy ourselves through mindlessness. Let us honor those who cannot be here by starting the difficult task of repairing the damage done to our world not only by the terrorists on that fateful day, but by an America blinded by rage and fear in the decade since. They, and we, deserve nothing less.
A week from the day I am writing this, on September 15, my father turns 90 years old. My family is getting together, opening the doors of our lives to friends, former students, colleagues, and anyone else who may want to stop by and wish him well. Lisa and the girls and I are leaving tonight for an overnight drive so that we can be there. We are returning on Sunday so the girls only miss one day of school. So, talk amongst yourselves, check out other stuff I've written, be excellent to one another, always be civil and on-topic, and most of all - no ad homs! Whoever uses them is stupid, and ugly.