This first anniversary of 911 marks not only a horrific tragedy, but also a year of tragically missed opportunities — for both the right and the left.
For the right, September 11 offered the possibility of transcending a national case of smug insularity. I had hoped that the crumbled twin towers, like any near-death experience, would have generated some soul-searching reflection. The unprecedented attack against civilians on our own soil could have led to a realization that we, indeed, are not so different from those suffering peoples we read about “over there” or “out there”; that Americans — like Somalis or Rwandans — can also die senselessly and in massive, shocking numbers.
September 11 granted the opportunity for the American right to take a less jingoistic, less selfish, more internationalist view of the globe. Not that we had to apologize for the cowardly attack on New York, nor that we somehow provoked the assault. But rather a deeper comprehension that America, while more powerful and prosperous, is just one more country among many and in no way exempt from the travails and sacrifices that too many thought happened only in places whose names we cannot even pronounce.
The possibility existed, on the right, to at least review, if not revise, American foreign policy in the Middle East. There might have been some understanding that traditional U.S. support for autocratic, undemocratic regimes from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, while in no way justifying or producing the 911 attacks, allows them to resonate sympathetically with angry and desperate millions.
Domestically, the attacks produced a spontaneous outpouring of mutual solidarity and community compassion. People were ready to sacrifice and to give selflessly. Twenty years of Reaganite individualism appeared to melt overnight as millions of Americans seemed to once again believe that collective solutions could and should work — that caring could even occasionally trump greed.
Not that I expected a political conversion of the conservative right, any en masse desertion from the ramparts of the free market. But maybe some sort of public-works program? Maybe rebuilding parts of our crumbling urban infrastructure or an accelerated public-health program for 50 million uninsured — if for no other reason, at least in the name of disaster preparedness or homeland security?
None of this, of course, came to pass. Instead we got more tax breaks for the wealthy, and piggish corporate handouts to the airlines and insurance companies. (Illinois Congresswoman Jan Shakowski told me that lobbyists for the airlines were worming their way through Capitol Hill a mere 24 hours after the World Trade Center attacks.)
And when the world extended its heart to a wounded America, the Bush administration turned its back. You‘re either with us or against us. And either way, we really don’t care. The neoconservatives who dominate the administration saw an opening to advance a unilateralist Pax Americana and have given that project their all.
The ABM treaty was ripped up, and accelerated NATO expansion — under U.S. tutelage — was shoved down the Russians‘ throats. (And now we are shocked to learn that President Putin is cutting long-term deals with the Iraqis.) The Strangelovian chorus around Don Rumsfeld revived the macabre principle of nuclear first strikes. Real arms control is off the table. The green light for one more binge of military spending flashes brightly.
We demanded that the entire world submit to our concept of the war on terrorism, but the U.S. has gone AWOL on the war for the environment. The Kyoto accords are just one more victim of September 11.
The just and measured military response to the attacks, the absolutely necessary move to dismember al Qaeda and to deny it further sanctuary by the Taliban, somehow slid into an undefined and unaccountable endless war. With the Middle East now at a volatile tipping point, the administration cannot find its voice to so much as criticize Israeli settlers’ developments on occupied land, but instead aims to toss matches at gasoline by launching an unprovoked and unjustifiable war against Saddam Hussein.
What the political right has learned in this last year, then, is only to cynically wrap itself in the flag, to further advance its narrow political agenda at home and its reckless hegemonic vision abroad by keeping Americans shrouded in fear.
Unfortunately, the political left has also shirked its responsibilities and just as equally avoided learning anything from this catastrophe.
September 11 revealed America, for once, as victim instead of victimizer. The left‘s Manichean view that only two forces — American imperialism and appropriate reaction against it — shape world events was no longer viable.
The left might have seen that American military deployment is not a priori evil. Virtually none of the dire predictions the left made about the war in Afghanistan have come to pass. The U.S. has not (unfortunately) occupied the country. Millions were not driven out or killed or forced into famine. American ground troops have not been dragged into a Vietnam-like quagmire. The regime we have put into power is not worse than — or the same as — the Taliban. It’s backward and corrupt, but it‘s better. Civilians were killed — as they are in all wars. (The Salvadoran guerrillas — heroes to the left — once boasted of their successful assassination of dozens of civilian mayors of poor rural towns.) But there was no targeting, no carpet-bombing, of Afghan civilians.
If it wished, the left could have seen an America that had matured and progressed over the last 50 years. It could have taken pride in an America that didn’t lock up millions of Arab-Americans, where the level of hate crimes barely flickered upward. And while Attorney General Ashcroft has strained to stretch and snap constitutional guarantees, a resilient American civil society and a democratic, if flawed, court system have offered effective resistance. Two American citizens have been stripped of their legal rights and declared enemy combatants. That‘s two Americans too many. But it is only two. This is not martial law. This is not fascism. This is not Chile or Argentina or East Germany — not even close.
Especially for the left, September 11 a offered a unique opportunity to come back home, to find commonality and identification with a society from which too many progressives and radicals have felt alienated and estranged. In the suffering of September 11, the American left might have taken the hand of its fellow Americans and together searched — at least for a moment — for what unites rather than divides us.
But American leftists are surprisingly ready to brand those who depart from their views as “fascists.” The left, already tiny and isolated, has too frequently derived its industrial-strength self-righteousness from its own marginality. The left actually fears engagement with the broader society around it. It chooses self-loathing. Or, better, the loathing of all those common folk in whose name and interests it claims to be “struggling.” So when millions of ordinary Americans, shocked and frightened by September 11, and moved by the scale of the human tragedy, and wanting to do something, put out a flag, the American left responded too often not with compassion, but with scorn.
What has been truly staggering over the past year has been the dogmatic refusal of much of the left to simply say “yes.” Yes, America was attacked. Yes, we unequivocally mourn the unprovoked death of 3,000 fellow citizens. Yes, the window washers, the cooks, the secretaries and, yes, even the stockbrokers who were incinerated that morning a year ago were guilty of absolutely nothing, except showing up to work on time.
Instead, from the left, we get a steady stream of “yesbuts.” Yes, to all the above — but we killed more people in Vietnam. Or yes, but we created Osama bin Laden (a patent lie). Or yes, but we starved more babies in Iraq. Or yes, but . . . well, you fill in the blank: But what about the oil pipelines? But what about covering for the Saudis? And so on and so forth ad nauseam. Every possible explanation from the left except the one obvious and true explanation right before our eyes: that a conspiracy of highly educated, religiously motivated zealots — as opposed to impoverished and oppressed freedom fighters — ruthlessly massacred 3,000 of us a year ago. And would have just as easily killed 10 times as many in the same barbaric onslaught. Period.
On this anniversary of September 11, without guilt or hesitation, I mourn their deaths. And I mourn a political culture whose moral compass has been driven awry by ideological rigidity from all sides.