Looking back upon what we could have learned from 9/11, Greg Olear sees only opportunists of many stripes using the events to further their agendas.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
—Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”
“SOMETHING WITHIN ME,” the novelist and critic J.B. Priestley once wrote of Christmas, “resists the calendar expectation of happiness.”
I feel the same way about the calendar expectation of mourning and solemn reflection. But here we are on another sunny Tuesday, on the 11-year anniversary of the attacks, and mourning and solemn reflection are what is demanded of me. Even if I skip the obligatory pieces in the newspapers and magazines, 9/11 will be another excuse for President Obama and the campaigning Democrats to bring up Osama bin Laden (as if, after last week, they needed one).
I was in New York when it went down—close enough to acutely feel the sense of violation of the place I called home, but not close enough to claim any right of prolonged grief. No one I knew died. No one I knew was hurt. My life has moved on.
But others did die. Others were hurt, and others did not, cannot, move on.
I’d like to see some evidence that those deaths, and the unquantifiable suffering those deaths caused, were not in vain, that some silver lining can be limned from the black clouds gathered over lower Manhattan 11 years ago. I do not. Instead I see opportunists of all stripes using the events to further their agendas, which often have little to do with the actual attacks.
(I include myself among the opportunists. I tend to regard 9/11 through the novelist’s prism, parsing the peculiarities of the events—and there are many: the unexplained collapse of Building Seven, the absence of airplane wreckage around the Pentagon, the metallurgical fact that the heat from jet fuel is insufficient to melt steel, to name but three—to determine what really happened, so I can write a work of fiction about it. I haven’t made much headway with this. I can’t assume the detachment required to do the research for any sustained length of time; it’s just too depressing to think about.)
How else to explain all the crazy shit that’s gone down since 2001? Without the unmoved mover of 9/11, there is no Patriot Act, no Gitmo, no Abu Ghraib, no debates about waterboarding and full-body scanning. Maybe Gore runs in ‘04. Maybe there’s no second Bush term; maybe there’s no Obama administration (not necessarily a bad thing); maybe Sarah Palin remains in Alaskan obscurity. Probably the deficit doesn’t reach critical condition, and the Tea Party—the American Taliban, in Aaron Sorkin’s elegant and accurate phrase—likely remains on the lunatic fringe, where those agents of ignorance and hatred belong. Probably there’s not a double-dip recession. Certainly we don’t invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ah, love, let us be true to one another: If the last 11 years were a round of historical solitaire, we’d hit the “new game” button and start over.
If we must pause today and reflect on 9/11, we should reflect on this: that the United States has been reeling since the moment the first plane hit the tower; that our nation’s response to the attacks has been more self-defeating than anything al Qaeda could possibly have hoped for; that, if world economic history is any indication, America is on a fast track to revolution unless our distribution of wealth, exacerbated so badly by our ill-conceived military forays in Iraq and Afghanistan and delusional insistence not to raise taxes to finance them, stabilizes; that, 11 years later, and beyond the watery grave, Osama bin Laden has, for the moment at least, won. After 11 years, the score stands at UBL 1, USA 0.
Look around. Look what we’ve become. We are a nation of drone strikes. We are a nation of torture. We are a nation of detention without charge and without trial. For all our righteous bluster about liberty, we lead the world in incarceration rate. About the only freedom that hasn’t been quietly eroded since 9/11 is the right to bear arms (and carry them into movie theaters). We are a nation of extreme income inequality, where 90 percent of the people are in debt to the other 10 percent, where the most important policy plank of one of our two major political parties is to gut welfare programs to benefit the megarich. We are a nation of massive consumption, of waste, of high-fructose corn syrup, of short attention spans. We are a nation of soundbytes, a nation that fails, time and again, to grasp nuance. Worst of all, we are a nation of apathy. We are 300 million self-interested individuals who, with few exceptions, can’t be bothered (again, I include myself in that number). Which is exactly what our “leaders” want.
To borrow the President’s phrase: You did this. You did this, I did this, we did this.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, it’s in our power to make it right.
Reflect on that.