Let’s face it, everything changed on 9/11. In every way imaginable, the terrorist attacks that occurred that day represented for the United States the most important demarcation point in its history, rivaling even the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entire Civil War. Not even its own successful revolution could compare. This was, for all intents and purposes, a BC / AD moment for the country. For America wasn’t just simply attacked; it was rudely awakened from an almost two hundred year old snooze; a snooze which enabled it to believe that nothing could touch it and that it was, thanks to its natural geographical borders, impenetrable and invulnerable.
Not that America hadn’t tasted the bitterness of defeat, mind you. It’s been more than thirty-five years since the nation pulled out of Vietnam, its tail between its legs. But while it may have been humbling to discover that we weren’t invincible after all, we could revel in the knowledge that, at home at least, it was business as usual. War after war came and went and, despite the economic ups and downs that accompanied each of them – all of them cyclical and expected – the borders were secure, the citizens safe. The stain of war was always somebody else’s mess to clean up: Europe, Asia, Latin America, you name it. Over there wasn’t just a song; it had become the standard operating procedure for a country, which had grown accustomed to not having its collar wrinkled, much less its door broken down.
Then at 8:46 A.M. on September 11, 2001, something new was added to the script; something no one had ever anticipated. America’s collar got wrinkled and its door smashed in all at the same time. Nineteen men were able to pull off what the combined forces of Germany, Italy and Japan had not managed to do in World War II: kill thousands of Americans on U.S. soil, destroy two of the tallest buildings in the world and wreak untold carnage on the global economy. Before that day was over, the United States would know what every other country knew all too well: that there was no such thing as complete security and safety, thousands of miles of oceans could no longer be used as a buffer against the tyranny of evil men and, just like the global market that had connected all the worlds’ economies, geographical borders were ultimately irrelevant.
But there was more to it than mere apathy and sheer arrogance. For the better part of the twentieth century, the United States strutted around the globe as if it owned the joint. Just like the Manifest Destiny it used to build its empire westward in the 1800s, America turned outward in the 1900s, helped by two World Wars that devastated most of Europe and Asia. By 1945, the U.S. had become the number one nation on the Earth. Our hegemony was rivaled only by that of the Roman Empire in its day. And while we danced the night away and celebrated our greatness, unbeknownst to us, parts of the “empire” grew restless. Our foreign policy decisions lacked even a semblance of the laws for which we had become known abroad. Our tit for tat cold war with the Soviet Union exacted a toll on our reputation. While we pronounced ourselves as the deliverers of freedom and democracy, to millions of people around the world we were no better than our opponents. If anything, our high-sounding words seemed shallow and hypocritical.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, far from being a wondrous occasion, actually proved a dilemma for America. With no “evil empire” to contend with, our foreign policy wandered aimlessly like a puppy looking for its master. The unrest that gripped most of the Middle East continued to fester and now, with only one super power to contend with, became finely honed.
The Persian Gulf War – Desert Storm – was seen by Islamic fundamentalists as an occupation of the Holy Land. After decades of propping up dictators who brutalized their own people, e.g. the Shaw of Iran, it was now the United States’ turn to play the role of evil empire to an entire generation of extremists who saw fit to declare a holy war to defeat the “Great Satan.”
Their first attempt to extract revenge in 1993 failed. Yes it killed a few innocent people, but the objective – bringing down the towers – was denied. America’s response? Yes, we awoke slightly, turned over on our side and went back to sleep. The Clinton Administration went after Osama bin Laden, but insofar as believing we were vulnerable, our whole attitude was profoundly wrong. They failed, we prevailed, that was the story line. As far as our intelligence community was concerned, the threat was still “over there.” The U.S.S. Cole attack and U.S. embassy bombing only reinforced our own badly outdated narrative that the world might be a tinderbox, but America was safe. You could bet the rent on it.
And then all of it came crashing down, like the towers themselves, on that early September morning ten years ago. Our hubris and our naïveté ended abruptly and we came face to face with a sobering and humbling reality. With all the technological prowess and military might at our disposal, in the end we were no better off than the rest of the world. We got hit, end of story, period.
But as the ash pile in lower Manhattan continued to burn, our own government began a decade-long series of political and military missteps that only added the insult of overreach to the injury of death. We correctly went after those responsible for the attacks, but the Bush Administration’s decision to plunge the nation into a needless and fraudulent war in Iraq not only cost nearly a trillion dollars to wage, it drove still countless other young Muslims into the waiting arms of the Islamic fundamentalists who now had yet another reason to hate us. Our active engagement in the region, far from making us safer, has fanned the flames of resentment against us. Not even the killing of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks has quelled our fears or vanquished our foes. We are unable to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan and while Al-Qaeda has been badly wounded, the terror threat remains persistently high, as does our hyper-vigilance.
In ten years, we have gone from an over-developed sense of detachment to an almost paranoid obsession. The recent Arab Spring, which you would think would be heralded as a confirmation of our values and beliefs, has instead divided most of our leaders. The prevailing sentiment among the skeptics is that democracy brings uncertainty and uncertainty is a breeding ground for radials, and those radicals could end up attacking us again. Convoluted logic has become the rule of the day over the last decade. As if that weren’t bad enough, just hours before the ten-year commemoration at the Trade Center site, intelligence officials were grappling with yet another terror alert that threatens the homeland. It never ends, does it?
But if overcompensation had been the rule of the day for our politics and foreign policy, it was thwarted by what has happened to this society in general. America, for all its high-sounding rhetoric, has never been the open society it portrays itself to be. Without exception, every ethnic group that landed on these shores faced a plethora of slurs and obstacles seldom seen since Biblical times. The Germans, the Jews, the Italians and the Irish bore the brunt of the most myopic and insular society yet created. And when they weren’t catching hell, there were always the fan favorites: African and Native Americans. It seems America never met a minority it couldn’t both exploit and / or discriminate against.
The events of 9/11 had the effect of sprinkling miracle grow on these traits. American society became even more insular and myopic as distrust took root. It wasn’t just our politicians who stirred the pot of fear and loathing, our discourse in the media became hyperbolic. Rather than have an intelligent and informed discussion on fundamentalism as a whole, the nation seems consumed with branding Islam in general as the greatest threat to our way of life. In a mood reminiscent of the McCarthy era, Muslims are being asked to swear an oath of allegiance and denounce any and all connections to Sharia law, despite the fact that it poses absolutely no threat – real or imagined – to the Constitution.
Our laws have been subverted, we’re told, to contend with an ever-growing Islamic threat. Warrantless wiretapping, illegal detentions, and torture have become commonplace and are widely accepted as a necessary evil to keep us safe. And while the Obama Administration has officially banned the use of torture, the wiretapping and detentions continue unabated.
The Constitution, once thought to be sacrosanct and absolute, has taken second fiddle to national security, much to the chagrin of Constitutional scholars and the indifference and complicity of a general population that has traded in their freedoms for a good night’s sleep. The words of Benjamin Franklin, who once warned that “those who trade liberty for security deserve neither,” have fallen on deaf ears.
This is America, ten years after 9/11: awakened, armed, dangerous and dangling precariously over a slippery slope. The images of those planes crashing into the twin towers and the Pentagon have become so indelibly etched into our collective consciousness, that we cannot extricate ourselves from the ghoulish nightmare they represent. Like the victim of a violent assault, we remain imprisoned by it, thus trapped in a vicious cycle that only feeds our rage and justifies our need for vengeance, without any hope of true healing and understanding of what happened that day and why. Without quite realizing it, we have become the perpetrators, thus fulfilling their aims and goals. For the real tragedy of that day wasn’t merely the huge loss of life and the collateral damage, but the way in which America willingly compromised the very thing it cherished most to accommodate the forces of evil in a naive belief it was making itself safe.
And while it may be comforting for some to realize that they have not been caught up in this madness, the sad truth is that they do NOT represent the majority view. The spectacle over the building of a Mosque within a few blocks of the World Trade Center was a national embarrassment. Poll after poll taken revealed a persistent theme: While the majority of Americans supported religious expression, most did not believe that expression should come at the expense of the needs and feelings of those who lost loved ones. In other words, even though the Mosque had no connection with the attacks, guilt by association took priority over the Constitution.
I wish I could say I am hopeful that America will soon wake up from its national nightmare. Sadly, I can’t. It may be quite some time before we are able to adequately deal with the events of that day, process the rage we still hold onto that prevents true healing from occurring, and begin to rebuild a society worthy of our heritage. Only then will we be able to properly mourn the dead and move ahead with our lives. Until that happens, their ghosts will continue to call out from the grave and we will once more rekindle the battle cry of justice and, in so doing, lock ourselves into our own self-imposed prisons. I am no stranger to this incarceration. It has taken me to some of the darkest places in my life.
More than forty years ago, Jesse Colin Young wrote a song that spoke to this very topic. It was called “Get Together.” One verse is worth noting here.
You hold the key to love and fear all in your trembling hand.
Just one key unlocks them both. It’s there at your command.