Looking back over the past five years since the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., it’s hard not to feel a tremendous sense of regret. The sadness stems not just from the multiple failures of government, so ably documented by the 9/11 Commission. There were plenty of missed opportunities to prevent this horrific crime, to avoid the appalling loss of innocent life. (How can we ever forget the ignored August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”) But the deeper tragedy is what came after. Perversely, the 9/11 attacks presented a chance for the nation to grow stronger, both domestically and abroad.
In the days after 9/11 the world opened its heart to America. Even the French, notoriously prickly and provincial, declared: “We are all Americans.” All too often other nations view American foreign policy, which our leaders portray as enlightened self-interest, as simply self-interest—the selfish actions of an imperialistic bully. In an increasingly interconnected world, hostility toward America is felt everywhere from trade to tourism to terrorism. What happened on 9/11 conveyed on the United States a moral authority in the eyes of the world we had not experienced since World War II. We witnessed immediate results from this in the wide support for the invasion of Afghanistan. Then came the unilateral decision to attack Iraq under false pretenses, the administration’s vocal support for torture, and the Guantánamo Gulag. Last spring, a poll by the Pew Research Center of citizens from 15 nations found a steep decline in positive attitudes toward the United States.
After Americans watched their fellow citizens jump from the Twin Towers in a desperate attempt to avoid the flames, suddenly the petty differences that divide us by race, class, and ideology didn’t seem quite as important as they did the day before. Americans everywhere were ready to sacrifice to help each other, to build a stronger and safer nation. There was and is plenty to do: failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, a broken healthcare system, and rising inequality are at the top of a long list that grows longer by the day. How did the Bush-Cheney administration respond? Tax cuts for the wealthy and the implementation of a national security state.
Bush and Cheney had a choice. They could govern from the center and unite the country. But since neither man has any familiarity with compromise or sacrifice, they instead chose to hew to their far-right agenda. The administration’s promotion of selfish greed as a civic virtue further isolated us from each other, each household locked in its own materialistic cocoon, connected to the outside world primarily through the superficial pablum emanating from the television set. We were told that we had to cede some of our civil rights so that the nanny state could protect us, further infantilizing the citizenry. And the Bush-Cheney cabal adroitly used fear as a campaign tool to secure narrow electoral victories, strengthening fundamentalism and divisiveness within our society. The result is a nation that is completely unprepared, both mentally and physically, for the next terrorist attack.
Ron Suskind reported in his book The One Percent Doctrine, that the CIA’s top analysts at Langley were convinced in the run-up to the 2004 election that Osama bin Laden wanted the Bush-Cheney ticket to win. More than likely, bin Laden was thinking about how useful it is to have an opponent who is reactive, predictable, and self-isolating. One has to wonder if bin Laden doesn’t also take pleasure in our willingness—even five years out—to discard our civic virtues in response to the fear he instilled in us on that September day.