For a short time a year ago, it seemed possible that the events of September 11 might inspire some kind of national renewal. Beneath the fear and the anger, beyond the bewildered frustration and the sympathy for the victims, there was a shred of hope. The violence had its intended effect-we were terrified-but it had also, for a moment, shaken us out of our complacency and peeled back our defenses.
In the wake of the attack, on the streets of New York, murmurs of compassion were as commonplace as cries for revenge. Americans, regardless of political persuasion, expressed a resolute national pride-not just flag-waving patriotism, but a deeper understanding or belief that whatever our nation''s flaws, we did not deserve this, that there is something good about America and what it stands for. When we think back to that time, it would be a mistake to forget that quickening glow.
Somehow, the seriousness of the event enforced a kind of moderation-from the left, there was only a trickle of America-bashing; from the right, there were few calls to nuke the Islamic world into the Stone Age. A consensus emerged-more cool-headed than cold-blooded-that the first step toward recovery demanded retaliation: the terrorists who perpetrated this murderous act must pay.
In retrospect, there was not enough debate about what, exactly, to do.
To his credit, George W. Bush''s initial reaction was honorable and skillful. For a few crucial days, he avoided hysteria and bombast and calmly plotted a response. But where Bush displayed a modicum of calm strength last September, he now radiates hostile, bitter disdain for world opinion and that of any opponents of his increasingly belligerent plans. His sneer returned long ago.
The official legacy of Sept. 11 thus far is a triumph of cynicism. Looking back, it is apparent that the worm began to turn almost immediately, with the declaration of the War on Terrorism. In a speech before Congress on September 20, Bush declared that the most important component of our new foreign policy would be a total allegiance to war. It would have been bad enough if the president had simply pandered to the American people''s worst instincts for revenge against the attackers. But he took it a big step further.
"Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there," he said. "It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."
Almost a year later, we still do not know what our president meant by those words. Plans to wage this endless global war are being strategized behind closed doors, and the fate of the nation is being decided by a small, secret coterie of right-wing hawks like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
By giving the enemy the vague name of "terror," Bush retained the right for himself and his exclusive cabal-all multi-millionaire executives, classmates of Enron''s Kenneth Lay-to define the term as anything that threatens their interests.
Over the past 12 months, Bush and his team have shown their true colors. The administration has used America''s justified rage as an excuse to launch a wholesale transformation of national policy. The USA PATRIOT Act rolled back decades of civil liberties legislation (see page 16). The Economic Stimulus Package (which delivered $43 billion to Bush''s corporate friends), along with subsequent tax cuts, will continue to funnel money into the coffers of America''s oligarchs.
Most dangerously, a massive remilitarization has already helped destabilize the economy and to disrupt foreign relations.
Not long ago, America celebrated the end of the decades-long Cold War and began to move into a new future-one in which the threat of war played a smaller role. Accordingly, the nation''s military spending was slashed. This had an immediate positive effect on the national economy (remember the Clinton years?), but more importantly, it provided a balm to the American psyche-many of us can remember what it felt like to live with the specter of war. George W. Bush has brought the beast back to life.
In the coming fiscal year, we will devote almost $500 billion to the military. Over the next 10 years, $2.1 trillion will be spent on fighter-bombers, bombs and bullets. Other federal programs that benefited from the "peace dividend" will go begging. Combined with the massive corporate tax breaks that began with the so-called Economic Stimulus package, this pro-military, pro-corporate economic policy could rob a generation of the promise of prosperity while massively enriching the corporate allies of the Bush administration.
This renewed commitment to militarism could also lead to world war.
The war in Afghanistan was certainly justified. The United States had every right to seek out and destroy the enemy that perpetrated the crimes of September 11 and to topple the government that harbored that enemy. This moral justification was strengthened by the fact that al Qaeda and the Taliban represented a hateful ideology and a threat to the people they claimed to represent. But none of this means that the war was necessary or wise, or that it was fought successfully.
It is understandable that alternatives to war were given short shrift-the horrors of September 11 were bound to end in violence. But it is foolishness to contend that the war resulted in victory, or that, in retrospect, it was the smart or right thing to do.
Undoubtedly, the people of Afghanistan, especially the women, are better off now that US troops have sent the Taliban back into the hills. But it is entirely possible that that end could have been achieved without destroying the landscape, the infrastructure and at least hundreds of innocent civilians.
In any event, bin Laden probably escaped, as did almost all of the leaders of al Qaeda. The political situation in Afghanistan now deteriorates daily. And the hateful worldview that our enemies espoused-that America is nothing but a heathen global bully-has spread and grown. The war did nothing to defeat it.
Our refusal to recognize that this war was a failure threatens to make every American complicit in what is bound to come next.
Again, no sane and educated person would defend the corrupt regime of Saddam Hussein. But again, it is neither sane nor smart to trust that problems can best be solved by unleashing massive military violence in a region already suffering intense internal pressure.
With the exception of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, virtually every global leader has said, clearly and loudly, that a U.S. attack against Iraq would be a bad mistake. By shunning their advice, Bush is turning the United States into the enemy of the world. The long-term consequences of this foreign policy appear bleak-unless one believes that it is America''s destiny to simply dominate the world by might. The short-term consequences could be more painful.
We have all seen the doomsday scenario laid out, but it is worth considering again: Sane, smart people fear that the minute we attack Iraq, Saddam will bomb Israel, as he did in the Gulf War. Maybe this time his attack will include dirty bombs or anthrax. This time, Ariel Sharon has vowed, Israel will immediately retaliate. It is a safe bet that this retaliation will provoke a counterattack from other Arab nations. At that, all holy hell will surely bust loose.
Maybe it won''t happen. But what''s the best that could happen?
Maybe we''ll go in with such overwhelming force that Saddam will just crumble. Maybe we''ll have already stong-armed the rest of the Arab world into looking the other way. Maybe it''ll all be over in a couple of days. Maybe the world will understand, once again, that you can''t mess with America.
But will we be safer? Will we have doused the fires of 9/11 or poured gasoline on the smoldering coals?
We have a right to feel betrayed. Those of us who feel any love for America are watching the principles of our nation abused by insults like the PATRIOT Act and by this cynical call to arms. For the better part of a year, the nation has capitulated to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld-men most of us did not even elect to lead us. Only very recently have we begun to wake up.
Maybe some part of us was shaken out of a slumber on September 11. Maybe there is still hope for a national renewal. Maybe that flag really does stand for something. Maybe we can remember, together, what America means.