Related: Civil & Human Rights, In the Media, Political Issues, Politics, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues

From September 11 to Crazytown


Satellite view world trade center destruction(NASA satellite image of New York showing smoke from World Trade Center 9/12/2001)

Reluctantly, the calendar turns once more and we are forced to confront the legacy of September 11 anew.  Seventeen years after that terrible day, America and the world still tremble with the aftershocks.  Families will forever mourn the loved ones so cruelly murdered in that evil moment.  First responders are still dying of the awful cancers caused by the toxic dust clouds of the obliterated World Trade Center.  The longest war in American history still slogs along in Afghanistan.  Osama bin Laden is long gone but new generations of terrorists vie for demented versions of power and glory won through horrific crimes against humanity.  The exploitation of rogue actors by various nation states is an unfolding story as yet not well understood, but surely part of the ongoing Russian sabotage of electoral systems and societies worldwide.  Terrorist cells cannot operate for long without the support of more powerful and wealthy patrons.  Bin Laden did not really operate alone.

And today the government of the United States suffers a paroxysm of astounding deceit, debasement of fundamental rules of governance, grotesque self-dealing, cruel and inhumane treatment of immigrants, Constitutional manipulation and outrageous presidential behavior that led one high ranking official to call the White House “crazytown” as reported in a new book by renowned journalist Bob Woodward.

The events of the week of September 3-7, 2018 are not separate and apart from the long ripples of September 11, 2001.  In too many ways, the spectacle we beheld last week — the hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh with specific threads related to 9/11, the release of Woodward’s book on the first year of the Trump presidency, the publication in the New York Times of an anonymous op-ed by a high-ranking administration official revealing internal duplicity at the White House —  last week’s events were yet another sad illustration of the consequences of the terrorist acts that ripped through the American soul that day so long ago, triggering levels of vengefulness, hatred and political upheaval that have warped and severely harmed American society.

September 11, 2001, did not cause the deep racism and ethnic hatred that emerged in the years thereafter, nor did it spawn the tendency toward tyranny that has always lurked beneath the surface in some corners of American life.  Certainly, for more than two centuries, American society has suffered deep fissures on the issues of race and ethnicity, nationalism and culture.  These roiling fissures are not unrelated to the 230-year-old struggles over the ruling class, presidential power and the balance of Constitutional powers, reaching back to George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison who had profound disagreements about the legal framework of the nation they founded.  Above all else, to our sorrow even today, they could not resolve the moral and legal challenge of slavery in American life, and they fought equally hard over the question of whether America should be a true self-governing democracy or have a more monarchial form of government with a powerful leader, and their fears and prejudices about race were central to their corrupt solution for allocation of votes in the new democracy.   They made a terrible immoral compromise on slavery, determining that slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a person to determine Congressional apportionment, thus dooming the nation to an eventual Civil War in the mid-19th Century and a subsequent century of racial oppression and discrimination in the decades that followed.

The Founders made a more reasonable compromise in rejecting the Federalists’ desire to concentrate power in the president, instead crafting a Constitutional framework with a balance of powers among the President, Congress and Judiciary.  Their intent with the balance of powers was surely to keep a check on the presidency and guard against dictatorship.  They clearly did not anticipate the political events of 2016-2018 and the character of a president who so provocatively and without conscience delights in trashing the fundamental behavioral expectations of an office and form of government created by like-minded gentlemen at the end of the 18th century.

September 11, 2001 exposed anew all of the old racial hatreds this nation struggled so hard to overcome through the progress of the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th Century.  Convulsed in fear and anger in the face of the horrific acts of terrorism at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the American people gave into primal fears of “the other,” especially persons of Middle Eastern ethnicities, Muslims, and soon, persons who just seemed “foreign” in the judgment of those fearmongers stirring the cauldron of hatred, including black and Latino Americans in particular.  Some citizens were all-too-willing to sacrifice basic liberties in the quest to improve security; the rise of the metal detector, being treated like cattle at airports and large audience venues all became acceptable as necessary for security.

But metal detectors and security lines were not enough to assuage the hatred that September 11 unleashed in parts of the American body politic.  All along, brewing just beneath the surface, a streak of white supremacy and acceptance of power consolidated in the president was gathering steam.  Oh, sure, for a brief time this country seemed to rise above the pain, and the election of Barack Obama was once seen as inaugurating a “post-racial” society.  It was nothing of the kind.  Obama’s election was a landmark for racial equality, yes, but it also was a reaction to the dark slog of the Bush years; citizens craved the “hope and change” that Obama promised.  But even as Obama won two elections, the forces of reaction were gathering steam, and provocateurs laid their plans for a different, darker and more socially destructive revolution.

Historians will surely see the arc across the first two decades of 21st Century America as bent by a profound struggle between the hopeful, more progressive view of a modern society embodied in Obama’s rise after the Bush years that were necessarily shaped by the 9/11 attacks, and the dark, isolationist and nationalistic presidency of Donald Trump.  In an alarming way, Obama’s presidency fueled the fires of white supremacy burning beneath the surface of American life, and Trump has exploited that racist heat to his political advantage.

Trump has used all of the fears and hatreds exposed in the September 11 tragedy to gain and consolidate his own power.  His incessant demeaning language about immigrants, his travel ban on persons from Muslim countries, his constant use of “the wall” as a talisman about national protection, his “America First” rhetoric, his embrace of neo-Nazis and refusal to condemn white supremacists, his blatant race-baiting rhetoric directed toward NFL players who demonstrate against police brutality, his refusal to condemn police brutality against black men in particular — all of these behaviors find roots and branches in the September 11 tragedy.

Of greatest concern, however, is his desire to consolidate power through by-passing all legal and constitutional norms.  The creation of a powerful American dictator with a weak Congress refusing to check him is the ultimate victory for the terrorists.  The Founders expected a balance of powers, not a collapse of Congressional spine nor a takeover of the Judiciary through the nomination of a candidate for the Supreme Court whose track record indicates that he may not hold the president accountable for lawless conduct.

President Trump overtly and routinely attacks fundamental norms of this democracy, calling the press “the enemy of the people,” routinely threatening actions that would violate the First Amendment protections on free speech, press and religion; encouraging violation of the 14th Amendment due process and equal protection requirements; refusing to demonstrate even basic respect for persons of color and persons who are different from the white majority; rolling back voting rights; praising murderous dictators abroad while trashing longstanding and productive American allies; enriching himself and his family in violation of the emoluments provisions of the Constitution with impunity; repeatedly failing the most basic tests for honesty and truthfulness even as he goes off to rallies to whip up the fervor of a “base” that seems mostly devoted to hatred of others.  As the author of the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times wrote, “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”

But calling out Trump’s amorality, which is not a news flash, does not exonerate the anonymous author from culpability in further debilitating democratic norms.  The idea of a rogue staff in the White House working behind-the-scenes to stage some kind of a soft coup is no more comforting than the spectacle of the president ordering the full force of the Justice Department to find the author of an article that criticizes him.  This is what we’ve come to:  “crazytown” — a mad king ranting and dishing impossibly destructive orders, a staff trying to soothe him while doing whatever they please.  Congressional leadership plays into this by refusing to stand up to the president, and even going so far as to use props to flatter him in meetings rather than confronting his dysfunctions.

Is there any hopeful path forward in this dark and dangerous moment?  Yes.  In order for our democracy to work, we have to use the tools of democracy well.  The most important step any citizen can take is to VOTE.  Too many citizens fail to participate.  VOTING is essential for our nation to move forward.  A consequential mid-term election will occur on Tuesday, November 6, 2018.  What can you do to make your statement about the future of our nation?  You can, you must VOTE.


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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
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