Friday, September 12, 2008

9/11 @ 7

NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME, the Philadelphia City Paper shouted on the day after. That expression of fatalism, that statement of reality and unreality has come to be a foundational truth for this country, in everything from its government to its economy, from its politics to its media rhetoric to the shoes you have to remove at the airport before you board a plane.

When the two jets knifed into American certainty on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, followed by an attack on the Pentagon and an almost-certain attack on the U.S. Capitol, the acts orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants staggered the imagination. For some time, we were bereft at the daring of the plot, its agonizing simplicity.

Even the date itself in shorthand — 9/11 — seemed like some vast, cruel joke: Using the numerals the nation had known for years as the phone number to call to report emergencies was, by intention or accident, a deeply poisonous way of imprinting the events of that day in the national consciousness forever.

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The events of 9/11 were first and foremost a failure of our national leadership. The pre-attack intelligence that was ignored, the action items that couldn’t be read on the golf course — these represent a collapse in the attention span of the administration, the obvious first responders to an emergency, but also the presumed anticipators of an emergency. It would be easy to say the Bush administration took its eye off the ball; there’s every reason to believe, with benefit of seven years of hindsight, that its eye was never on the ball to begin with.

The events of 9/11 and those that followed were to become a failure of our national politics. Sept. 11 would become another kind of malign shorthand — used particularly by the Bush administration and the Republican Party generally as a populist dogwhistle in the service of domestic politics. In a special comment on MSNBC’s “Countdown” last night Keith Olbermann pretty much nailed it, observing the administration’s use of Sept. 11 as “Nine-eleven TM,” a geopolitical branding device, a shibboleth against opponents, real or perceived, national or international, in a war of convenience.

But 9/11 and what’s happened since then are also a failure of our national outreach. Our sense of me-first insularity had already been increasing since the end of the Cold War, the rise of the domestic economy, and the stabilization of relations with Russia in its reach toward Western-style capitalism, and a smugness about Moscow’s embrace of consumerism. The election of George W. Bush, an incurious man whose experience or knowledge of life overseas almost didn’t exist before he took office, was merely symbolic of our willingness to look inwards, to look tolerantly (if not approvingly) on the idea that, globally speaking, there was America and there was everywhere else.

The events of 9/11 pierced that sense of relative invulnerability Americans have had for generations, a sense of invulnerability that should never have been there in the first place.

There’s no concrete wall, no physical barrier big enough to wall off this nation from the world this nation purports to lead, and there shouldn’t be. For generations now, the immigrants that make America what it is have come to these shores. They bought into that fragment of an Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. They remember it, they live it today, even if some in the nation seek to reinforce the things that separate America from the rest of the world, rather than eliminating them.

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To the degree that the United States should presume to lead the world, it must accept the need to be a part of it — not on the basis of convenience, picking and choosing which treaties of global impact (from various environmental standards to the use of mines in warfare) it will honor and which it will ignore, but on the basis of a shared experience and a realization that, in a world shrunk to almost insignificant periods of time between one nation and the next, what touches one country eventually touches every other country.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, were horrific in scope, fiendishly brilliant in their execution, grievously wounding in the way they have resonated in the national psyche in the seven years since.

In slightly more than six weeks, the nation will elect a new leader. Whoever it is, he will turn a page in the national experience vis-à-vis 9/11. The decision to begin a new chapter in a disastrous geopolitical playbook or to close that book altogether will be a defining one, not only for this country but also for the mirror, the kaleidoscope, the looking glass this nation holds up to the 192 United Nations member-states that comprise this fragile, fractious world. We hold the key to what they will see. Come Nov. 4, we hold the key to what we will be.
Image credit: World Trade Center: Jeffmock, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Bush: Public domain. Crash sequence: © 2001 CNN. Skyline lights: © 2004 Genesun Han, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

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