I’d love to engage in a good, heartfelt retrospective today. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. This is not merely the 10th anniversary of a terrorist attack or the death of 3,000 people. It’s the anniversary of the beginning of a very dark era of American history that now after 10 long years is the new normal. It’s hard to even remember the feeling of optimism of the 90s anymore.
You can’t take 9/11 out of its context. Ten years after Pearl Harbor, the loss and tragedy of that day were redeemed by the victory in the war, the liberation of Europe, the destruction of the Nazis, and an America that was getting fairer to all classes and races. Ten years after the Oklahoma City bombings, the perpetrators had been brought to justice, Timothy McVeigh had been executed and the right-wing militia movement was dormant (for the time being). Ten years from the first shots of the revolution, the new country had its independence secured by a treaty with the great powers. Ten years from Fort Sumter, the Civil War was over.
But I think Pearl Harbor is really the example most people compare 9/11 to. It is not an apt comparison. It really comes from the adult generation having learned so much about World War II and, perhaps, as George Packer wrote in The New Yorker, a case of generational envy.
World War II was fighting the good fight. Never mind the Nazis. America even naively stuck to its anti-imperialist guns and didn’t allow the British and French to continue their imperial systems. And 9/11 is directly connected to that idealistic decision, because the Wilsonian ideals of the Atlantic Charter were applied to the Middle East that became a battle ground between Pan-Arabists, Pan-Islamists, Radical Islamists, Arab Socialists, military dictators with no ideology, and confiscatory multinational oil companies. States were created based on half-promises made to strong men with no real regard for the people whom they would rule. Add to volatile mix the State of Israel.
Without even whispering the word “Africa” it is hard not to wonder in retrospect if the imperial system was so bad.
But, again, 10 years after Pearl Harbor, America had beaten the Nazis and established a new world order based on the inviolability of the nation state. Even if it wasn’t a perfect order, it was one established through the lessons of millions of deaths over centuries of great power conflict. It allows nation-states to get away with far too much within their own borders, but, perhaps it is the international order that is the worst except for all the others.
Ten years after Pearl Harbor, America had won the war, yet America still felt a sense of purpose. Much of the world had come under control of a different kind of totalitarian regime, the communist one. In the 103 years between the revolutions of 1848 and the tenth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, communism had been corrupted from a radical movement to secure workers rights to a totalitarian movement enveloping the world. The Soviet Union, then Eastern Europe, then China. But we were up to this challenge.
At home we had proved to ourselves that we could come together and give everyone a square deal and a chance at the American dream. Work hard, and you’ll have a home and your kids can go to decent schools. This promise was eventually extended to Americans of color.
But the spirit created by Pearl Harbor—of national purpose—was not absent from the Civil Rights movement. The idea that black-Americans had the right to the American dream and that a national movement should deliver on that promise embodied that spirit. The Spirit of Pearl Harbor put a man on the moon. The Spirit of Pearl Harbor eventually contained the growth of Totalitarian Communism, and then outlasted it until those under its boot couldn’t hold their breath anymore. When World War II finally ended completely in 1991 with the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Soviet Union, we all exhaled a little bit. Perhaps a little bit too much.
Maybe on December 7, 1951 people knew that would be the result, or at least had reason to think the same way they had on December 7, 1941: that we would overcome.
But I can’t say I share that feeling on September 11, 2011.
I feel like we were defeated on September 11, 2001. Not only were 3,000 Americans killed, but the rest of us were sent into a kind of collective paranoia that caused a serious degradation of civil liberties, but worse (to me at least) the pointless folly of the Iraq war and the at least 100,000 deaths it entailed, which caused our national sense of mission to suffer—not just our national prestige, but our raison d’etre. We’re not the young and idealistic but naive strong nation trying to move the benighted people of the world out from under the boot of fascism, Nazism, and communism anymore, in the eyes of the world. We’re just the latest self-centered empire sucking the rest into a vortex of decadence. Rumors of our demise at the hands of the latest Yellow Peril may be overinflated by plastic pundits like Tom Friedman, but the fact of our impurity is undeniable.
If “they” really did hate us for our freedoms, they struck a blow on September 11 that we have not recovered from. A president whose “election” was dubious at best had the chance of a lifetime to unite the country behind a special purpose—an opportunity that former Presidents who were not elected by wide margins were able to make something of, like Kennedy and Lincoln. Instead, he became the most right-wing President in our history, the most divisive, and one of the worst. He could have governed from the center and made sure the people of our military were well taken care of, more well taken care of than the corporations looking to profit from the conflict. He could have persisted in Afghanistan until Bin Laden was killed or captured before seeking other wars and seeking none against irrelevant states who were not aiding Bin Laden. He could have preserved the bipartisan economic consensus of the Clinton era, when our economy boomed—and not always in a bubble as in 2000, but was able to recover from shocks softly as in 1995 and 1998. Instead, he ran men who lost their limbs in Vietnam out of office by questioning their patriotism.
And the parallel on the home front shows as well now as it did then. After Pearl Harbor, we rolled up our sleeves as a team. After 9/11, we didn’t ask why we were all getting less, we said I alone should get more. And the government was completely asleep at the switch—and why not? The government is—they thought—the problem, after all. So a hurricane destroyed New Orleans because government was the problem and no need not to put cronies at FEMA, and a financial crisis destroyed the middle class because government was the problem and we don’t need the SEC. Or whatever.
By the time Hurricane Wall Street hit, the negative vibes of the 00s had transcended orange alerts and spread into all aspects of life. Even the election of a president who we thought could get us back on track could not cancel this negativism. Not even the killing of Osama bin Laden could do much. Bin Laden’s death is just another in a series of bright media orgies that flare out in at most a week along with such frivolities as the Charlie Sheen meltdown.
We were defeated on September 11th and we know it. No one will admit it, but we know it anyway. Our actions betray it. The event showed our decadence, our narcissistic belief that everything we do has messianic importance, our arrogant belief that our way of life is so perfect anyone else would envy it, our pernicious belief that our whole society need not be watchfully preserved but can be be benignly neglected (a legacy of the boomer generations inheritance, not of its labors), our ignorance of the rest of the world, and our belief that the only part of our government that should do anything is the one with bombs, and our belief that “freedom” is a mere slogan—an increasingly Orwellian one at that—and has nothing to do with civil liberties or civil rights.
I imagine that this feeling might find an echo in the 10th anniversary of great defeats. Perhaps this is how Germany felt on the 10th anniversary of the Versailles Treaty. Or how the French felt 10 years after Waterloo.
But until we admit that we were bested, we will continue to feel this malaise.