The first shattering scene of the 21st century calls forth a reminder, an observation, and a suggestion.
Remember the Tuesday morning of Sept. 11, 2001, before the terrorist attacks? Crystal clear on the Eastern Seaboard, a brilliant turquoise blue sky. The people of the nation woke up in a generally contented mood--but a bit complacent and fat from seven years of peace and prosperity. The U.S. Open had just been played in New York and lawmakers were settling into work in Washington. In Massachusetts, the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard sparkled in the late summer sunlight. The majority who voted for Al Gore in the tight presidential contest of 2000 were not losing sleep over George W. Bush as the president. And the good times were about to crash.
When three hijacked planes hit their targets out of that blue, we witnessed the burning and falling of the World Trade Center's twin towers, silver symbols of American confidence and might. Yet something else perished with the 3,000 dead. In a screaming flash, we became a nation of fraidy cats timidly hiding behind security blankets, ballasts, and other barriers between a free people. Pearl Harbor brought out the best in us, but September 11 brought out the worst kind of patriotism and unnerved us as a populace. Dissent, a sign of a vibrant democracy, withered on the vine.
Simply put, the world's superpower was undone by 19 Arab men (15 Saudis among them), nine years ago. It was inexcusable for 19 men to defeat our defenses and almost take out the Pentagon. We are still paying the rent on that day. As a result, Bush led the nation into two or three unwinnable wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, and a "global war on terrorism." These trillion dollar wars burnt our 1990s barn harvest. They are the shadows stalking the dismal economy now, make no mistake, along with a host of secret shadowy government programs. Talk about overkill, literally. In the region where war was supposed to be swift—Afghanistan—we are sending door-to-door killers from the Army's elite Special Forces to take out suspected members of the Taliban in the longest war in American history.
Just a reminder: Bush was specifically warned in late August, 2001, that just such a thing would happen. He was on vacation on his Texas ranch and replied rudely to his intelligence briefer. He did not get a bit of blame from the American public, numb with grief and shock. Few knew that truth would become the first casualty of war when weapons of mass destruction (alleged in an ancient land where Bush had a score to settle) was given as the reason to avenge the September 11 attacks.
At home, we were easily led down the garden path by the government--giving a green light to un-American spying and torture methods. We also let little civil liberties get away without a fight, like the right to keep our shoes and socks on at airports and the right to walk up the shining steps of the Supreme Court and enter through the front door. "Homeland security" entered our lexicon as an unlovely phrase that points to something amiss within the walls of our hearts and minds.
Just an observation: We have lost our place in the world as a beacon, thanks to invading Iraq in 2003. That is why the military is desperate to figure out a good way out of Afghanistan, to save our face. However, the Army has taken such a beating over the years that even senior officers speak of the "broken force" with multiple deployments and a rising suicide rate. On our cozy civilian side, it's way too easy to spare pain and declare war with an "all-volunteer" force. As the Vietnam War showed, a draft makes it harder to prosecute an unpopular war. So let's bring back the draft--as a liberal, I'm all for it.
Just a suggestion: That we study war no more and, in so doing, reclaim the optimistic can-do spirit that was our signature character trait. If a sobered America doesn't show the world its best game and values in keeping the peace, no other nation will. That much we know.
And a wish: Call the tragedy September 11, not "9/11," now in vogue. Language matters--so let's not let this lie in memory as an unavoidable accident, but as a preventable (and predictable) event. Just as Pearl Harbor signifies the place, September 11 tells the date, of an unforgettable event after which nothing was the same again.