I was mired in taillight hell somewhere on the 101 Tuesday afternoon as I listened to George W. Bush’s speech on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. When he said we are now fighting in Iraq to “maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations,” I took a deep breath of exhaust fumes to quench a sudden urge to pick up the cell phone, dial the White House and say: “Too late, Bub. Al Qaeda’s already seized the freeways.” The commute from USC to Woodland Hills clocked in at a brain-freezing one hour and 50 minutes.
As I sat in the traffic and watched the temperature gauge rise, I had plenty of time for some slightly more profound musings. Like, if this is L.A. traffic on a normal day, what sort of Dantesque fix would an actual terror attack on LAX or one of our ports plunge us into?
A half-decade after the mass murder at the Twin Towers, does anyone in L.A. really have a viable disaster plan? During World War II, my father was a volunteer air-raid warden in Boyle Heights, not exactly at the top of the Luftwaffe target list. President Bush, meanwhile, now terms the Iraq war, which he has cynically conflated into the War on Terror, “the calling of our generation.” But has the administration funded or organized any attempt for communities like ours to mobilize themselves? Have we been encouraged to meet with our neighbors and come up with some contingency planning? Fat chance. How much do we think the feds will invest in real civil defense when we read this week that the city of Los Angeles has been granted exactly 25 percent of the security funding it has requested? Where I live, for example, the only way out of town is on that godforsaken 101. So I guess I’ll be sitting out any dirty-bomb fallout at the bottom of my pool.
The sordid truth is that the Bushies want to scare us just enough so we’ll vote for them, but not enough that we’ll be discomforted enough to turn against them. The remains of the victims of 9/11 are ritualistically dug up this time every year and brazenly shoved under our noses. We must blindly trust the president and his party and vote for their candidates because, we are told, our very future hangs in the balance, and we wouldn’t want to end up in plastic baggies like those poor folks did in the World Trade Center.
But don’t worry too much. Even though, by the president’s reckoning, we are engaged in a prolonged and generational struggle for civilization, you will not be drafted into this war. Nor will you be taxed. Nor will much of anything, except your vote, be demanded. Yes, you will be stripped of your hair gel and PoliGrip at the airport. But commerce will not be interrupted, and the malls and Wal-Marts of America will continue to hum for your personal shopping pleasure. Of the 12,000 freight containers that flow into our local ports every day, only a few hundred will be X-rayed, and only a few dozen will be inspected by a human. No matter that a small nuclear device planted in one of those shipping boxes could take out tens of thousands of lives and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Alas, as Bush noted, “We are safer, but not safe.” Heaven forbid we ever really feel safe. Then there would be absolutely no reason left to vote Republican.
So here we are five years after 9/11 and, in fact, almost nothing has changed. Only our fears have been escalated. I don’t underestimate the real threat posed to us by the jihadists and the religio-fascists. I only lament that the Bush administration has responded so poorly — squandering our reputation, our blood and our treasure, and only aggravating the danger.
The sole redeeming aspect of September 11 is that it comes but once a year. That’s quite enough. For on that day, the scoundrels hijack and defile our dead in a grotesque pageant of faux-patriotic and nakedly partisan bluster.
The nightmare inflicted on us by a group of murderous religious fanatics five years ago confers no special status on America. In our memorialization and remembrances of the tragedy there should be no room for the sort of treacly self-indulgence that seeps from the presidential podium and floods into CNN’s special coverage.
What happened five years ago in New York and Washington only makes us more like the rest of the world and not very different at all. Our pain was and remains intense, as it should be. Yet it is no different from the horror experienced by the 3,000 Chilean families who lost loved ones as a result of their own 9/11 in 1973; nor from the pain felt by those who died under the rockets and bombs in Lebanon and Israel recently. Nor the hundreds of thousands who are being butchered — as I write today — in Darfur.
Such tragedies as September 11 reveal only our shared, global humanity. And inhumanity.