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Thursday, September 11, 2008  

Troubles in Great Battalions

Matt writes, on the 9/11/01 attack anniversary:

If you’d told me on the morning of September 12 that seven years later the country would have gone without an additional al-Qaeda attack on US soil, I’m not sure I would have believed you. If you’d told me that more Americans wound wind up dying in Iraq than died in the World Trade Center, I’m almost positive I wouldn’t have believed you. And if you’d told me that seven years later Osama bin Laden would still be at large, I’m sure I wouldn’t have believed you.

This matches up pretty well with my recollections. It took a long time, especially for those of us living and working in very large cities, to see that background noise of fear ebb away. Even on the day itself, I was dreading the revelation of other attacks in progress but yet undetected.

Iraq didn't enter my thoughts. I do remember thinking, either on 9/11 or within a few days, "shit, I'm going to die in Pakistan somewhere." Because back then even I knew that that was more or less where the bad guys were and where the world's potentially most dangerous regime was then teetering. As for catching or killing bin Laden, I would not have imagined it would take this long. I don't know that I thought it would have made the difference, but surely our capacities bent to this one task would have achieved success.

I did, however, expect a curtailing of civil liberties--though not in the shadowly and largely lawless manner in which it has taken place. But that, too, was premised on the imminence of further attacks.

I certainly did not imagine, from the vantage point of the world's outpouring of grief and solidarity, that America would within two years of the attacks be on the road to global pariah-hood. Or that, with a war on stateless terrorists underway, we would seize the moment to ratchet up great-power tensions with Russia and China. Or that allies would start to qualify their law-enforcement cooperation with us on the grounds that we might torture our detainees.

None of this, in retrospect, seems inevitable. We did not have to compound the horror of that day by following such consistently arrogant, destructive, and foolhardy policies. We did not need to drive a wedge between ourselves and some of our oldest allies, rather than between the terror network and its environment. It was not obvious that the "war on terror" would be a great cloak encircling unrelated agendas such as regime change in Iraq and Iran, rather than a call to a consensus of the civilized in opposition to the unrestrained barbarism of a few. It was not ovious that, seven years later, it would be a gaffe for a politician to suggest learning other languages, rather than a lagging indicator of a country that had learned that shutting out the rest of the world was an impossibility. It was not obvious that a candidate with roots in Kenya and Indonesia would be so widely considered un-American, rather than the epitome of America's universally embracing rejection of hatred and intolerance. It was not inevitable seven years ago that international institutions and legal norms, rather than entering a new era of strength and cooperative prestige, would be effectively in ruins.

It's a measure of how badly the last seven years have gone, and how terribly we have failed the victims, that these alternative possibilities sound like the height of fond naivety today. How differently might an Eisenhower or a Franklin Roosevelt have handled these years, I find myself wondering. But it's not merely a matter of having precisely the wrong president at precisely the wrong time. Most of us--including me--validated this spiral of death at one point or another, at the ballot box most consequentially. Changing the awful course of these last years will be a Herculean effort, a matter not just of presidents and senators but of understanding, and changing, how these mistakes have constrained the way they think and talk about a whole range of issues and threats.

I find it a little tasteless that there is a memorial being built to the World Trade Center dead even as we watch the world their deaths ushered in slide further into chaos. The only memorial worthy of the dead--whether civilians massacred or soldiers slain in battle--is to bring the perpetrators to justice and the world to some measure of peace. That not being done, a tower and a museum and solemn observances and politicians' obeisance and everything else is just more of the cheap sentiment that has oiled the machinery of this disaster so far.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:11 PM
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