1,826 Days Later...
Monday, September 11, 2006
Too simplistic? Possibly, but the targets of the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001 were chosen quite specifically though; the seat of financial power at the World Trade Center, the seat of military might at the Pentagon and the seat of political power at the Capital Building in Washington DC (the often presumed target of United Flight 93). In short, there was a message amongst the pointless devestation, if the point was to simply kill Americans, why not barrel those planes into four nuclear power plants near major population centres? The reason: imagery, the pictures of a country thought untouchable being attacked from within; the scene of (predominantly) white Americans running for their lives in terror; the look of smoldering crater on the side of the seemingly monolithic building from which military policy is launched.
An epiphany is not when the world changes but rather when our view of it does. The summer of 2001 was not a bright spot for news and news coverage. Chandra Levy was the face of news that summer, Gary Condit was the new symbol of the self-centred and sexually veracious politician and sharks were the big bad that lurked just metres out to sea waiting for humans to snack on. Despite the fact that dozens of people who aren’t necessarily pretty, young, white, female interns go missing everyday across America and that shark attacks, despite the hype, were actually down according to national averages, these were the stories that the media told us were “important”. Despite the fact that all around the world people were starving, innocents were dying in pointless wars and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, American broadcast networks were closing their foreign bureaus in order to better focus on sex and scandal closer to home.
Perhaps the sucker punch of 9/11 would have been less painful if the mainstream had realized how much resentment there is for the West in all the places of the world where poverty breeds resentment and hate. While the eyes of the world fell on the facetious charge that Iraq was poised to strike with WMDs, Muslim extremists were converting people in Africa by selling them on the notion that the West doesn’t care about them and it’s not like there was a glut of evidence to the contrary.
“They hate us because of our freedom,” was the overly simplified rational behinds the attacks according to American politicians; it was a statement that got easy applause but actually had very little meaning behind it. What is freedom? Is it being able to make a phone call secure in the knowledge that your government isn’t eavesdropping? Is it being given a speedy and objective trial where you are innocent until proven guilty after being charged with a crime? Is it checking out a library book or doing a Google search knowing that your privacy is protected? Freedom is defined by answering yes to all these questions and more, but this is not the freedom that the US government has sought to protect the past five years - far from it.
To expand the idea further look at the term “Muslim fundamentalists” or “extremists”; religious theocracy has always been an undesirable mode from which to rule a society, as is homogeneity in any form. Certainly the government of George W. Bush is against Muslim extremists but he backs other forms of extremism; the doctrine of Christian evangelicals for example. Promote abstinence not sex ed, life begins at conception, an eye for an eye rather than mercy, pro-life with caveats, law based on the Ten Commandments and so on. Lately the nonsensical term “Islamic fascists” has been bandied about, I guess tying together Muslim terrorists with Nazis sells a better product, but it means the same thing – the Powers That Be still don’t get this war.
How can you be for freedom and then constrain it so? That’s one question I’ve never heard the mainstream media ask, but then again, following 9/11 they didn’t ask very many questions at all. The people’s representatives with very little debate approved measures like The Patriot Act, the creation of Homeland Security and the authority to go to war with Iraq. A wide variety of authority was given to a Federal government and Executive Branch that was more than eager to take it. Anyone who believed in measuring degrees, talking about things more or out right being against a government measure to fight terrorism was dismissed as “unpatriotic” or “treasonous”. Instead of saying “whoa” to some of those obviously slanderous remarks, the media often repeated them, and unfortunately, the people were listening.
People were listening as then White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer famously said “we need to watch what we say,” about a comment made by comedian/satirist Bill Maher while making a distinction between physical and moral cowardice on his show Politically Incorrect. This is what Maher said:
“We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.”
Understand the distinction? Maher lost sponsors and saw his show cancelled a year later because of these comments that were hardly the ringing endorsement of the terrorist philosophy that a lot of reactionists would have you think. Maher emerged relatively unscathed but the implications on Free Speech were apparent: correct speech is agreeing with the government view, and wrong speech is disagreeing with policy, especially grievous given the fact that it’s there to protect you and all innocent Americans; the definition of “innocent” being entirely up to White House senior staff.
Normal became the watch word; when were things going to get back to normal? Is anything ever going to normal again? Actually things have seemed pretty normal on the networks for the last couple of years. Sure they do more international coverage, but only so long as it involves American interests like the wars they’re in. If there’s a humanitarian crisis somewhere, the huddle masses better pray that George Clooney or Angelina Jolie drop by, because that’s the only way Western cameras are going to come and document their plight. Just don’t expect anything to come of it though because word’s just gotten in to CNN that some nutcase in Thailand confessed to killing Jon Benet Ramsey without offering a shred of proof or a cogent story. You see, prostituted six-year-old blonde girls in Colorado killed a decade ago trumps black skinned kids starving and being threatened with disease and violence overseas right now.
I remember that Tuesday morning and will probably remember it to the day I die; it was that day that comes once a generation and marks a distinctive moment where your view of the world was altered radically: the epiphany I mentioned. I remember seeing the second plane hit the towers; I remember watching them fall in turn, gracefully, like a beautiful nightmare; I remember the confusion as unsubstantiated reports said that it was raining nukes in Israel and Washington and I remember seeing the island of Manhattan obscured in a fog thicker than any Scottish moor.
I also remember thinking (hoping) that maybe things were going to change for the better; like other events in history there was going to be a distinction between the time before 9/11 and the time after 9/11. That the American electorate that had become so polarized internally as the progressive policies of its neighbours isolated it externally, would realize a third path and that there was a world outside begging for attention from “the world’s only super power.”
People evoked Shakespeare’s Prince Hal when talking about US President George W. Bush; a man that emerges from his father’s shadow in the heat of war, to lead a country with exceptional skill through perilous times. Conservative pundits compared his speech from the mound of the World trade Centre to Henry V’s famous St. Crispin’s speech, that we were watching the next great American president bloom before our eyes.
Unfortunately for Bush, the cameras were rolling on 9/11 as he sat in a Florida classroom for seven minutes after getting confirmation that the events unfolding in New York were indeed an attack on the United States and not an accident. Seven minutes in a crisis is a lifetime, but there he was staring blankly into space and mindlessly flipping through My Pet Goat before being whisked off to God Knows Where on Air Force One. His excuse was that he didn’t want to disturb the kids with a sudden departure and staffers later admitted to a degree of shock and I get all that, believe me. But when the White House Chief of Staff tells you the country’s under attack, even if you’re getting communion from the Pope himself, you get out of there and get down to business.
I have yet to see this Henry V figure Bush supposedly became, but I have seen a man willing to use fear to win power, a man who’s managerial impotence contributed to 6000 people dying needlessly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a man that completely disregards or accepts any responsibility for his actions and a callousness man that can wave off tens of thousands of civilian deaths in wars he’s started. Shakespeare’s heroes were fallible, but they were also compassionate, understanding, and occasionally bold, speaking with clarity and wisdom; and despite the propaganda, none of these words come to mind when thinking of George W. Bush, before or after 9/11.
What have the five years since 9/11 wrought us? Certainly a greater degree of morbidity than I would have thought as CNN’s website replays the events of half-a-decade ago in real time. Or Wolf Blitzer’s piercing question to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about whether he was afraid to let his family fly on the anniversary of the attack. “Are you serious?” I thought, “This is the kind of question that a ‘respected’ news’ man asks when he gets ten minutes with the man in charge of national security?” How about asking him why five years later, airport security is still so reactionist that they run to ban liquids at the merest hint of a security risk?
Where’s the better security screenings? Why are all shipping containers still not being checked? Why hasn’t Osama bin Laden, or any of his top lieutenants, been captured yet? All these nitty gritty detail-oriented checklist items more or less fell by the wayside in order to do more glamorous things like reshuffle the bureaucracy and forming the massive yet weak-willed Homeland Security Department or picking on a toothless old lion of a dictatorship because it was the easiest of the country’s enemies to beat up on.
When I think about the attacks of 9/11, I think about those that lost their lives in the buildings and on those planes and if that’s where it ended it’d be enough. But how many more thousands of people died as a consequence of that day, untold thousands that, to the US government, are not worth counting accurately because, and I hate to say it, they weren’t American lives. Perhaps in the moments of silence we can reflect on these lives too, for they are as much victims of 9/11 as anyone who died in the two towers.
By the time anniversary number ten rolls around reconstruction of the Ground Zero site will be nearly complete with the creation of a new office block and the 1,776 foot Freedom Tower. So in the next five years I propose we dedicate ourselves to the following goals: that we demand better leaders with clear vision and quantifiable goals; that we take back the words “elitist” and “liberal”, because those that lead us should be our very best and they should be progressive enough to see that the future can’t be won with old ideas and we should be more understanding.
In the centuries to come historians won’t look back and discuss Natalie Holloway or Jennifer Wilbanks or Jon Benet Ramsey, they won’t even rank as footnotes in the historical grand scheme. What they will look at is how we responded to the challenge laid before us on a serene Tuesday in September and dissect what we learned from it, that is if we’ve learned anything.