Did “everything” really change on September 11? Seven years ago, on that terrible day and for the many awful days that followed, commentators filled the air with mournful profundities about the transformative power of that horrific terrorist attack on the United States. “Everything is now changed” they intoned. We nodded glumly at our television sets and pulled the covers tighter.
But, soon, after a decent interval, Leno and Letterman returned to their jokes, the Spears and Hilton girls returned to the tabloids, and Redskins fans returned to grilling brats and guzzling beer in the parking lots at Fedex Field.
Meanwhile, more than 4,000 American troops, and, by some counts, nearly 1 million Iraqis are dead in the War on Terror. More than 30,000 troops are wounded, and unknown numbers of people in Iraq and Afghanistan are maimed. For these citizens of our global village, everything, indeed, changed after September 11, 2001.
Today, we remember most especially the 3,000 people who died in the terrorist acts of September 11. At the Pentagon, today’s dedication of the memorial plaza will ensure a permanent tribute to those who died there. Other memorial ceremonies will take place in New York and Pennsylvania. But apart from the families of the dead and their friends and co-workers, and of course, the standard massing of elected officials on such occasions, who will remember, who will pause to contemplate the true cost and ongoing impact of September 11 on our lives? This date is already in danger of becoming just like December 7 — that other “Day of Infamy” when the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Too few remember who were not directly affected.
We cannot afford to stop paying attention to September 11, and all that it has meant not only for this nation, but also for the global community. We should be studying more carefully the research and analysis of the events that led up to the attacks, and the choices our leaders made in response to them. There are powerful disjunctions between the evidence of responsibility for the attacks and the decisions to strike back. “September 11” is too often invoked to justify policies and practices that are, at best, vaguely related to the actual sources of the tragedy. The abuses of power in the name of national security are a threat to the very freedoms we must protect.
Recently, I read two excellent books related to the September 11 tragedy. Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 provides a rich analysis of several major threads in this complicated tapestry: the rise of fundamentalist Islamic groups, the development of Osama Bin Ladin’s fanaticism as a result of his education and association with such groups, and the catastrophic effect of deadly internecine competition between the CIA and FBI that blocked analysis of suspects and communications in a timely way before September 11. Could we have prevented the attacks? It’s unfair to speculate on such a consequential question. However, the failures of our own governmental agencies to act on obvious evidence of the threats are now well documented.
Another book worth reading is Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens. Coll documents the 20th Century rise of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the role of the Bin Laden construction company in building much of the infrastructure (which also made the family quite wealthy), as well as the role of American companies and our government in supporting the development of the oil empire. The Bin Ladens rose from poverty to become international jet-setters —- except Osama, one of Mohammed Bin Laden’s 50 children by many wives, a son whose radical fundamentalism made him grow apart from his family in dangerous ways.
Even as this most dangerous of terrorist leaders, Osama Bin Laden, and his fanatic followers remain hidden in caves in Afghanistan or hiding in plain sight in cells all over the world, the major candidates for president of the United States are arguing about lipstick.
Lipstick. The new surrogate for substantive debate on war and peace, economic policy, abortion politics, education reform. Personality trumps policy. Celebrity over substance.
Did anything really change after September 11?