American resolve formed around the twisted steel ruins of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan in 2001, like 15-ton concrete blocks around re-bar. Our determination to avenge the acts of September 11 was certainly not a question. What should have been questioned at the time and wasn’t, was how we would react as a nation, after the shock, after the dust, after the sun rose on the twelfth and there were holes in the New York City skyline, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in rural Pennsylvania.
Hearts began to heal, even then, for those of us who were not directly affected by loss of a beloved family member, though as a nation, for weeks, palpable sorrow rode over us in waves, like bands of a fading hurricane. We had weathered the eye of the storm, and though buffeted by its aftermath, we would have found our own way to heal. Still, the government sought to intervene on our grief, distract us from our sorrow. They told us to behave as if nothing had happened, nothing to worry our pretty little heads about. Like a father who doesn’t want to bother his young children with difficult realities, we were told to “go shopping.”
At that point, the wall of American resolve segmented. Our willingness to stand together as a nation of guaranteed Constitutional liberties was broken. Instead of one, united wall, standing on the shoulders of our founding fathers, of the greatness of our Republic, our leaders gave in to the inevitability of war, the justification of hate, the easy propaganda of a public willing not to have to understand what happened.
“A great people has been moved to defend a great nation,” George W. Bush told the country that night. “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.”
But if one were to ask Osama bin Laden why he organized the attacks, he would not have said, “I wanted to extinguish the freedom the infidels represent.” His motives were more political than cultural. Having characterized the attacks that way, though, Bush made it possible for our government to begin dismantling those very freedoms of which he spoke, and blame it on the terrorists. His administration could then characterize its subsequent freedom squashing actions of torture, rendition and wiretapping, of invading Iraq, as a godly fight against “evil-doers,” and necessary.
President Bush and his administration’s springboard reaction was predictable, and the enemy who attacked us was counting on it. Though the world stood with us as brothers against the wanton destruction of lives, and the disruption of commerce the events of 9/11 brought, there were concerns that, in its reaction, a power as great as the United States could potentially abandon the concept of America as “guardian of liberty,” and engage in some wanton destruction of her own.
European newspapers were saying, within a week of the attacks, that although the old world saw the coalition building Bush was engaged in as a good sign, “The ‘war against terrorism’ is no licence to kill,” and “that even in Europe there are reservations about the US’s policy.” Unchecked, a military power like ours, combined with our immaturity as a nation, had the potential to subvert the peace of the entire planet.
Our elected representatives, afraid of appearing dovish, authorized two wars and the liberty limiting Patriot Act. Our check on political power, the radio, television and the newspaper agencies, afraid of appearing as unpatriotic outliers, asked only who we were going after and when. Few asked why.
Those who questioned our leadership’s course of action were quickly blackballed, black listed, really. Less than a week after the attacks, comedic pundit Bill Maher’s ABC-TV show, Politically Incorrect, was cancelled shortly after he called President Bush out, for calling the attacks “cowardly acts.”
“We have been the cowards,” insisted Maher, “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, that’s not cowardly. Stupid maybe, but not cowardly.”
Bush and Dick Cheney have said many times that “history will decide” whether their administration’s policies were necessary for the country and good for the world. This anniversary is not just a time to reflect on the tragedy of what happened on that bright, Tuesday morning, ten years ago. It is a time to ponder the tragedy of what has happened to our country since: increasing intolerance; attacking the construction of mosques in communities where Muslims have lived for decades; the rise of Christian Dominionism; anti-immigrant paranoia; candidates who would have been considered part of a lunatic fringe twenty years ago are suddenly mainstream; and we continue to fight the longest wars in our history.
“While fighting a war with al Qaeda, America has waged a political war with itself,” the Rand Corporation‘s terrorism experts observed in a report released this past July. “This is nothing new in American life…[b]ut the shadow of 9/11 across America has exacerbated the internal conflicts. Fear may lie at the heart of much of America’s response, just as the terrorists intended. But the terrorist attacks have…if anything…magnified the extremes within America, from the isolationist impulse to go it alone to the internationalist impulse to remain a beacon of freedom for the world, from the reluctance to engage to the desire to sort things out. In what could be the final legacy of 9/11,” the Rand report continues, “the terrorist attacks have compelled America to become an exaggerated version of itself, with its own internal contradictions heightened and intensified.”
History, then, will not only judge the merits of our leaders and where they took us; it will also decide how far we allowed our country to be taken from the ideals in which the founders of this country believed, and for which, generations of Americans have fought and died. Who stood? Where did they stand? What did they do when they stood there?
On September 11, 2001, members of Congress stood on the steps of the Capitol and sang, seemingly spontaneously, “God Bless America,” in unison. It was, arguably, the high point of national unity that horrible day. We all stood with them.
Where did you stand, and what are you willing to do now to restore America as a beacon of liberty?
- The Deafness Before the Storm (nytimes.com)
- The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s Response to Terrorism (rand.org)
- The Guardian: Memories are still vivid, but we need to declare the end of the 9/11 era | Jonathan Freedland (guardian.co.uk)
- What it Means to be American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years after 9/11 (lawprofessors.typepad.com)