The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were not the worst thing that ever happened in American history, but we the people let them define and darken a devastated decade. We've seen the 21st century through a glass, darkly (with a short streak of euphoria in 2008).
We went from the best of our times--peace and prosperity in the Clinton years--to the worst of times. All in a day. Just like that, shattering, screaming steel flashes fell out of a crystal morning sky, its unearthly blue beauty for miles seemed to taunt us, grieving on the ground.
Now let's hope the nation makes peace with the salt sea of tears caused by the attacks and the wars fought in their name. We've picked up the pieces from the smoldering wreckages and memorials shall stand sentry at the three sites. Let's do the same within our own body politic. Let's go forward into the future without casting haunted looks back to that part of the past.
Being American, let's take away a self-help life lesson from the tragedy. Friends and foes alike, let that cruel day go, with a note to selves: never fight a war without a reason. By sundown, network news anchors were virtually declaring war and in a surprise, the president was not far behind. We let a simple president define the whole storyline of September 11 for years, a tale full of sound and fury. Skepticism deserted us; and soon the dogs of war were all over the desert of Iraq squandering our good name. If we really believed in that war, we should have had a draft.
Nineteen Arab men (15 Saudis) armed with boxcutters defeated our defenses in a catastrophic fashion. That was inexcusable, but President Bush swaggered over to the crime scene of New York's fallen towers like Marshal Matt Dillon. By then he was a "war president"—and we pretty much went along with that boast. He was never asked by Congress, the press, or the people how the whole thing happened on his watch.
It's up to us to reclaim the singular national character, missing since that day. The best traits America is famous for: optimism, can-do capability and an open embrace to the rest of the world, as a nation made of immigrants.
All of these are under siege as we feel discouraged about still living the 20th century American dream of upward mobility. At the same time, we've been encouraged to be a society suspicious of strangers in public places. Can we change this shift in our cultural sands? It would sure help if we had a trillion-dollar infusion into the economy, but that money's long gone on the war(s). Remind me again, did we win or lose? Did it take an Army to hunt down Osama bin Laden? Was it worth it, after all?
Just as seriously, our proverbial light to the world was dimmed by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations giving "evidence" of Iraq possessing WMD—yeah, right. He was the chosen one to make the public case for the grudge war that Bush and his advisors were dead set on—with September 11 as the perfect pretext. The dark side of our war-mongering was yet to hit home: enhanced interrogation techniques, a.k.a. torture.
Asked yesterday on "Left Jab," a Sirius XM radio talk show hosted by Mark Walsh and David Goodfriend, if it was one of the nation's worst decades ever, I said yes. The dispirited Bush years keeps company in the basement with the bitterly divisive 1850s, leading up to the Civil War. The 1860s of course beat all with the worst violence, yet that was winning a just war, if there ever was one.
Goodfriend and I, from Wisconsin, said the country surrendered civil liberties too meekly in these times and got too easily spooked by the government. In Madison, our hometown, dissent and protest was the stuff of life, even for children. Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold was the one and only senator to vote against the Patriot Act. A profile in courage.
Profiles in courage on the day of September 11 were largely civilian, those who acted magnificently to help and comfort each other. A huge volunteer flotilla of boats rescued fleeing New Yorkers to ferry them across the water to Brooklyn. We know roughly 40 passengers and crew saved the Capitol by wresting a doomed aircraft out of four Arab hijackers' control. Aboard their flight longer, they had just enough time for a plan with fellow travelers. Above all, their story is a priceless gift and debt of gratitude for each and every one of us.
As for leaders and authorities in officialdom, not so much. The mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, heightened panic by estimating 20,000 casualties. He also bears the brunt of blame for locating the city's emergency command center in the World Trade Center itself. Unbelievably, the New York police and fire departments couldn't communicate with each other, much as the FBI and the CIA refused to share information about terrorists. The second World Trade center tower to be hit should have been completely cleared as soon as the first tower was hit, but the Port Authority assured everyone the coast was clear and told them to go about their business at their desks. Many at the FAA sounded half-asleep on the job when they received calls from people who had mere moments to live. And military fighter jets were nowhere near. Simply stated, the death toll did not have to be as high as it was: nearly 3,000.
Often overlooked, the Pentagon did well that cruel day. The best in military spirit came out in the blaze. They had an organized command center and finished a meaningful memorial three years ago. The brick fortress had far fewer casualties than the World Trade Center, but its force as a symbolic icon seemed to carry similar weight—or is that because I'm a Washingtonian? When I witnessed the scene at sunset that week, several of us sitting on a hillside, a man stood up alone and saluted the scarred building before he left. Enough to make you cry. Catharsis is necessary.
Now it's time for us to move forward "right away," to borrow a phrase from President Obama when he spoke to Congress on jobs. "Forward" is the Wisconsin state motto. It's a good one for a country, too.