It would be impossible to do justice here to the legacy of 9/11 at year five and I’m not going to try. This nation was doubly cursed on this day five years ago; first by the attack itself, and second by the reaction of our dishonest, incompetent and corrupt leadership’s exploitation of it for their own naked political and ideological purposes. As every single global poll during the past four years indicates, we are a less admirable nation than we were five years ago. We are more warlike, more arrogant, more ignorant, less compassionate, less generous, less free, and thanks to the Bush administration’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq, far less safe.
Think back five years and it’s all but unimaginable.
I took a look at the column I did for MSNBC.com five years ago today. I was writing in a state of shock, literally smelling death from downtown, not knowing if I had lost anyone close to me, trying to make sense of my thoughts and emotions. Here’s some of it:
The first commandment of any crisis is to be cool. Don’t panic. Don’t do anything to make it worse. There is plenty of time to assess blame and figure out how to respond in a manner and moment of our own choosing. Nothing could dishonor the dead quite as profoundly than to kill more innocents in the name of vengeance and let the true perpetrators get away with their crimes.
The politicians and pundits who conducted their dreamworld debate about missile defense and space weaponry against as yet imaginary opponents showed precious little interest in these more arcane threats that any number of nations and terrorist groups already possessed. Now we are paying the price for the unreality of our political debate.
Everything about American politics needs to come down to earth. Face it, it does not really matter much what happened to Chandra Levy. It’s too bad such a nice looking girl was missing, but she is only one person. Tuesday’s attacks demonstrate how much we need to grow up as a nation politics can be even if we prefer not to pay attention. It’s time to have a serious debate about the nation’s priorities and to make tough decisions involving difficult trade-offs. There is no way to wish away our many vulnerabilities as a society. But we can address them sensibly and democratically, if only we face up to the fact that we never had any innocence to lose. We merely acted as if we did.
Eight days later, to my eternal shame, I suspended my previous judgments about George W. Bush, and allowed myself to be sucked into the vortex of national unity that he would soon exploit to the detriment of this nation and the world. While I did criticize Bush’s “foolish” use of “for or against us rhetoric,” as well as the speech’s lack of specifics about what, exactly he had in mind, nevertheless, following Bush’s address to the nation, I wrote:
Whether you voted for him or felt he stole the election, it was hard not to be moved by the president’s ability to represent America in all its diversity, imagination and determination before the world in the face of our greatest collective tragedy in more than a generation. The President appeared to hit virtually every note just right. He was not overly belligerent, and did not play up to jingoist sentiments. He paid tribute to the real heroes of the crisis—the cops and firemen and rescue workers--and made frequent reference to the fact that the struggle we now face will require both cooperation and patience.
I look back on that moment when so many of us wanted to trust our president and I wonder:
Who would have imagined in their worst nightmares that these political usurpers would employ the human catastrophe of 9/11 to continue the terrorists work for them? Who would have imagined that they would embark on a course that would eventually kill more Americans than died on 9/11 in wars that do nothing to ensure the nation’s security but much to inspire more Arabs to hate us and wish to attack us? Who would have imagined they would dissipate the global solidarity and support the world had offered us? Who would have imagined that, having ignored all of the signs of a certain attack, they would continue to ignore the most obvious steps to protect us against future catastrophe, leaving our ports, our nuclear facilities, our chemical facilities invitingly unguarded? Who would have imagined that they would willingly allow bin-Laden to escape? Who would have imagined they would lie to the rescue workers about the health effects of the air they were breathing. Who would have imagined that they would put the fate of the nation in the hands of a group of lying, conniving, rats like “curveball,” Ahmad Chalabi and the INC? Who would have imagined a political campaign in which a man like Max Cleland, a man who lost three limbs in Vietnam, would be branded as insufficiently patriotic by right-wing politicians and pundits who never sacrificed so much as a chicken dinner for their country? Who would have imagined they would use homeland security as pure pork money, doling out millions for Red State fire houses while leaving tens of millions who live near obvious targets—and were attacked last time—unprotected? Who would have imagined they would emulate our enemies, employing methods of torture and massacre? Who would imagine they would force our brave soldiers to die fighting phantoms, without even proper body armor? Who would have imagined they would outlaw photographs of military funerals, or that the president could not find time to attend a single one of them? Who would have imagined they would use the attacks to create a domestic spying regime, a series of secret prisons and tribunals, and the declare the right to abrogate any and all American civil liberties whenever it struck their fancy? Who would have imagined, in other words, that they would exploit these tragic deaths to seek to undermine our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, indeed the very foundations of the same “freedom” that allegedly inspired the terrorists in the first place? And finally, who would have imagined that our vaunted “liberal media” and nonpartisan political establishment would cheer them along the way, failing to ask the difficult questions and attacking the patriotism and even sanity of those with the courage and foresight to do so?
9/11 could have been a rebirth of our nation’s civic and political culture, together with a recommitment to use our power to ensure the security and prosperity of a world community that looked to us with sympathy and admiration. “We are All Americans,” said Le Monde. Today most of the world is anti-American and understandably so. We have failed the Afghans. We have failed the Iraqis. We have failed our long-time allies, indeed, virtually everyone who trusted us. We will survive, of course, and someday, a more enlightened leadership will be able to undo some of the damage these two curses have inflicted upon us and return us to the values that helped build this great nation. But the opportunity offered by a world united in solidarity with America and its values is almost certainly dead for good. Let the coroner’s certificate read: “Cause of Death: Lies, Extremism, Incompetence, Corruption, Murder, Torture, and Hypocrisy, Stupidity, and Even More Lies.”