I was going to post about something entirely different today, but when I read my Facebook feed this morning I was struck by the volume, intensity, and, often, the thoughtfulness of posts about the 9/11 anniversary. I was flooded with my own memories of that day and its aftermath. I remembered the horror and fear, the latter of which extended for weeks. I was slated to give a paper at the ASA that fall and, for the only time in my life, I cancelled out on a conference. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax letters that followed them, going to our nation’s capital for an American Studies meeting felt incredibly risky. And following the immediate fear and shock, American culture and politics entered the ugliest years of my lifetime. All of these things are worth remembering – need to be remembered – and in much greater detail than this sketch.
But those of us who felt out of step with the militarized patriotism of those years too often blamed a handful of men in Washington for a sickness whose roots were much deeper and whose effects were much broader.
A friend of mine posted to much acclaim on Facebook the following set of observations today:
Many people are posting versions of “never forget.”
So let’s review, shall we?
1) The 9/11 hijackers were funded by rich people in Saudi Arabia, none of whom have been punished for it.
2) President Bush had ample and direct warnings that Al Queda was a threat yet failed to take them seriously.
3) One security technology could have prevented the hijackings — secure and solid cockpit doors. The airlines fought FAA proposals for them for decades.
4) Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks but more than 10 years later more than half of Republicans still believed it did.
5) For one brief moment almost the whole world was united in horror about the slaughter. Yet our government dissolved that unity within 18 months.
6) The mania that gripped the White House in the wake of 9/11 generated massive violations of US and international law, significant violations of human rights, and a squandering of the moral high ground.
7) If the Supreme Court had allowed the voters to choose the president in the 2000 election we would have had sober, moderate, law-abiding, knowledgeable adults running the country and things would be a lot better now.
8) President Bush not only failed to defend us against Al Queda before 9/11, he let Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora and ceased serious efforts to capture or kill him while he shifted U.S. resources to a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.
Yeah, I am still angry.
You should be, too.
I certainly don’t think that we should let the Bush-Cheney Administration off the hook. They made matters much worse in many ways. But the mania extended far beyond the White House. Only a single member of Congress – Barbara Lee – voted against the extraordinarily broad language of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that preceded the invasion of Afghanistan. To this day, the sixty words at the heart of that measure constitute a blank check for the misuse of American power by the executive branch. Only sixty-six Congresspeople and one Senator voted against the USA PATRIOT Act. The authorization to invade Iraq garnered majority support from both parties in the Senate. And it was a supposedly more moderate and competent Republican, Rudy Giuliani, who, at the 2004 Republican convention, engaged in arguably the single most shameless attempt at exploiting the attacks politically.
Outside of government, less than a month after the attacks, Andrew Sullivan warned darkly of Al Qaeda fifth columnists among the “decadent left enclaves on the coasts.” He didn’t need marching orders from George W. Bush or Dick Cheney to formulate that statement. Nor was Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” written at the behest of the Bush Administration. We were undoubtedly ill served by a truly terrible presidential administration. But it was not the sole source of ugliness in American life in those years.
And as the more perceptive critics of the Bush administration, like Andrew Bacevich, pointed out even at the time, there were deep continuities between the military and foreign policies of the Bush administration and those of its predecessors.
The horrible events of 9/11 and the ugliness that followed are now fading into the past. We are as far from 9/11 as the Carter Administration was from the Kennedy assassination. A large majority of this year’s high school freshmen were born after 9/11. And yet, in many ways, I still think we’re too close to those events to draw sober historical conclusions. At least I think I am too close to them to do so.
So instead, let me propose what I think ought to be some of the guiding questions for future historians who will set about understanding 9/11 and its effects on this country and the world.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, commentators placed great emphasis on how much America had been changed by them. Some of these claims were trivially false: irony (really sarcasm or snark) did not die. Nor did this country achieve a durable unity of purpose (and the unity of purpose it achieved in the short run was not entirely admirable). But 9/11 still feels like a watershed event. But in what way was it really one?
What really changed on 9/11? How and why did these changes happen? And how durable were these changes, for good or ill?
Those are the big questions that I hope we’re able to provide better answers for in the future.