It would be impossible to do justice here to the legacy of 9/11 at year five and I'm not going to try. This nation was doubly cursed on this day five years ago; first by the attack itself, and second by the reaction of our dishonest, incompetent and corrupt leadership's exploitation of it for their own naked political and ideological purposes. As every single global poll during the past four years indicates, we are a less admirable nation than we were five years ago. We are more warlike, more arrogant, more ignorant, less compassionate, less generous, less free, and thanks to the Bush administration's catastrophic invasion of Iraq, far less safe.
Think back five years and it's all but unimaginable.
I took a look at the column I did for MSNBC.com five years ago today. I was writing in a state of shock, literally smelling death from downtown, not knowing if I had lost anyone close to me, trying to make sense of my thoughts and emotions. Here's some of it:
The first commandment of any crisis is to be cool. Don't panic. Don't do anything to make it worse. There is plenty of time to assess blame and figure out how to respond in a manner and moment of our own choosing. Nothing could dishonor the dead quite as profoundly than to kill more innocents in the name of vengeance and let the true perpetrators get away with their crimes.
The politicians and pundits who conducted their dreamworld debate about missile defense and space weaponry against as yet imaginary opponents showed precious little interest in these more arcane threats that any number of nations and terrorist groups already possessed. Now we are paying the price for the unreality of our political debate.
Everything about American politics needs to come down to earth. Face it, it does not really matter much what happened to Chandra Levy. It's too bad such a nice looking girl was missing, but she is only one person. Tuesday's attacks demonstrate how much we need to grow up as a nation politics can be even if we prefer not to pay attention. It's time to have a serious debate about the nation's priorities and to make tough decisions involving difficult trade-offs. There is no way to wish away our many vulnerabilities as a society. But we can address them sensibly and democratically, if only we face up to the fact that we never had any innocence to lose. We merely acted as if we did.
Eight days later, to my eternal shame, I suspended my previous judgments about George W. Bush, and allowed myself to be sucked into the vortex of national unity that he would soon exploit to the detriment of this nation and the world. While I did criticize Bush's "foolish" use of "for or against us rhetoric," as well as the speech's lack of specifics about what, exactly he had in mind, nevertheless, following Bush's address to the nation, I wrote:
Whether you voted for him or felt he stole the election, it was hard not to be moved by the president's ability to represent America in all its diversity, imagination and determination before the world in the face of our greatest collective tragedy in more than a generation. The President appeared to hit virtually every note just right. He was not overly belligerent, and did not play up to jingoist sentiments. He paid tribute to the real heroes of the crisis--the cops and firemen and rescue workers--and made frequent reference to the fact that the struggle we now face will require both cooperation and patience.
I look back on that moment when so many of us wanted to trust our president and I wonder:
Who would have imagined in their worst nightmares that these political usurpers would employ the human catastrophe of 9/11 to continue the terrorists work for them? Who would have imagined that they would embark on a course that would eventually kill more Americans than died on 9/11 in wars that do nothing to ensure the nation's security but much to inspire more Arabs to hate us and wish to attack us? Who would have imagined they would dissipate the global solidarity and support the world had offered us? Who would have imagined that, having ignored all of the signs of a certain attack, they would continue to ignore the most obvious steps to protect us against future catastrophe, leaving our ports, our nuclear facilities, our chemical facilities invitingly unguarded? Who would have imagined that they would willingly allow bin-Laden to escape? Who would have imagined they would lie to the rescue workers about the health effects of the air they were breathing. Who would have imagined that they would put the fate of the nation in the hands of a group of lying, conniving, rats like "curveball," Ahmad Chalabi and the INC? Who would have imagined a political campaign in which a man like Max Cleland, a man who lost three limbs in Vietnam, would be branded as insufficiently patriotic by right-wing politicians and pundits who never sacrificed so much as a chicken dinner for their country? Who would have imagined they would use homeland security as pure pork money, doling out millions for Red State fire houses while leaving tens of millions who live near obvious targets--and were attacked last time--unprotected? Who would have imagined they would emulate our enemies, employing methods of torture and massacre? Who would imagine they would force our brave soldiers to die fighting phantoms, without even proper body armor? Who would have imagined they would outlaw photographs of military funerals, or that the president could not find time to attend a single one of them? Who would have imagined they would use the attacks to create a domestic spying regime, a series of secret prisons and tribunals, and the declare the right to abrogate any and all American civil liberties whenever it struck their fancy? Who would have imagined, in other words, that they would exploit these tragic deaths to seek to undermine our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, indeed the very foundations of the same "freedom" that allegedly inspired the terrorists in the first place? And finally, who would have imagined that our vaunted "liberal media" and nonpartisan political establishment would cheer them along the way, failing to ask the difficult questions and attacking the patriotism and even sanity of those with the courage and foresight to do so?
9/11 could have been a rebirth of our nation's civic and political culture, together with a recommitment to use our power to ensure the security and prosperity of a world community that looked to us with sympathy and admiration. "We are All Americans," said Le Monde. Today most of the world is anti-American and understandably so. We have failed the Afghans. We have failed the Iraqis. We have failed our long-time allies, indeed, virtually everyone who trusted us. We will survive, of course, and someday, a more enlightened leadership will be able to undo some of the damage these two curses have inflicted upon us and return us to the values that helped build this great nation. But the opportunity offered by a world united in solidarity with America and its values is almost certainly dead for good. Let the coroner's certificate read: "Cause of Death: Lies, Extremism, Incompetence, Corruption, Murder, Torture, and Hypocrisy, Stupidity, and Even More Lies."
I usually get all teary-eyed on these occasions, paying tribute to my great, unkillable city, which had the good sense to vote against the president in 2004 by a margin of roughly 9-1, thank you very much. I could easily do that again, particularly at a moment when Bush is, per usual, stiffing us on the means to defend ourselves against another attack against America, while using our misfortune as a backdrop for his own attempts to hide his pathetic post 9/11 performance. Instead I'm going to bow to my betters. I finally saw the Public Theater's production of David Hare's "Stuff Happens" in Central Park last week. I had avoided it previously because I didn't think I could stand two and half hours in the presence of its characters, speaking lines I knew were destined to kill tens of thousands of innocent people. I was wrong. It's a terrific play, even if its overly romantic (for dramatic effect) about Colin Powell, and it contains the most precise, concise diagnosis of what's happened to America since 9/11 I've found anywhere. Here it is, and thanks to the Public Theater for all they to do make our city worth defending, whether the enemy be Bush or bin-Laden.
STUFF HAPPENS by David Hare
Brit in New York
'America changed.' That's what we're told. 'On September 11th everything changed.' 'If you're not American, you can't understand.'
The infantile psycho babble of popular culture is grafted opportunistically onto America's politics. The language of childish entitlement becomes the lethal rhetoric of global wealth and privilege.
Asked how you are as President, on the first day of a war which will kill around thirty thousand people: 'I feel good.'
I was in Saks Fifth Avenue the morning they bombed Baghdad. 'Isn't it wonderful?' says the saleswoman. 'At last we're hitting back.' 'Yes,' I reply. 'At the wrong people. Somebody steals your handbag so you kill their second cousin, on the grounds they live close. Explain to me,' I say, 'Saudi Arabia is financing Al Qaeda. Iran, Lebanon and Syria are known to shelter terrorists. North Korea is developing a nuclear weapons programme. All these you leave alone. No, you go to war with the one place in the region admitted to have no connection with terrorism.' 'You're not American,' says the saleswoman. 'You don't understand.'
Oh, a question, then. If 'You're not American. You don't understand' is the new dispensation, then why not 'You're not Chechen'? Are the Chechens also now licensed? Are the Basques? Theatres, restaurants, public squares? Do Israeli milk-bars filled with women and children become fair game on the grounds that 'You don't understand. We're Palestinian, we're Chechen, we're Irish, we're Basque'? If the principle of international conduct is now to be that you may go against anyone you like on the grounds that you've been hurt by somebody else, does that apply to everyone? Or just to America?
On September 11th, America changed. Yes, it got much stupider.
End "Stuff Happens"
Quote of the Day, "The great red zone that voted for Bush--is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead--and may well mount a fifth column." --Andrew Sullivan, 9/16/01
P.S., I'm Fired... [permalink]
First, the bad news: I'm fired. MSNBC.com has decided to end its support of "Altercation," and indeed, all of its association with yours truly as of this Friday.
Ok, now, the good news: My friends at Media Matters for America have decided that the cause of continuing "Altercation" in its current, politically independent form to be worthy of their support. So we're not dying, just moving. Our new URL will be www.MediaMatters.org/Altercation and I will also become a MM Senior Fellow.
I am genuinely saddened to leave MSNBC.com. I was hired before the 1996 launch by both the Web site and the cable station, and while the latter association ended in 1998, I have been here at MSNBC.com for ten straight years, writing a column until 2002 and "Altercation" every day, ever since. Permit me to point out that with the help of my contributors and co-Altercators, I've probably contributed more words to this site than any other person, including full-time staff. Well, ten years is a good run at anything. It was the philosophical Beatle who said "all things must pass." I'm profoundly proud of what we've accomplished here, particularly the creation of a community of writers and readers who share a sense of commitment, conscience, and one hopes, consciousness. We've kept to the standards I outlined here four and a quarter years ago--in sadly, the only thing I've ever written that has ever been compared to Proust and I don't think it was a compliment. In any case, I like to think we --the Altercation community-- set a standard of discourse that requires no apologies, explanations nor caveats, which is something, dare I say it, rare and beautiful in the mainstream media. As for MSNBC.com, I want to say that my experience working with my editors, past and present, has been an unbroken and unblemished blessing. When MSNBC.com asked me to start a blog, I had no perfect precedents to guide me. Josh and Mickey, and yes, Andy, had struck out bravely on their own, but no mainstream news organization had its own blogger and let's face it, MSNBC made a less than perfectly safe choice in picking me. I was able to create Altercation with plenty of support but no interference, personal, political, commercial or otherwise. It may sound amazing in the context of the online world for the entire time I did Altercation, I had no idea whatever how many hits this site received. Nobody ever asked me to deal with a topic, much less to stay away from one. And of course, all mistakes were my own.
Whether my termination is, in fact, a product of a political decision at GE/NBC, which according to reports I read and gossip I hear, has lately taken a much firmer hand in guiding the content of both MSNBC and MSNBC.com, I have no way of knowing. I have never even spoken with the Web site's current editor-in-chief, nor has anyone communicated with me beyond my immediate circle of editors. Outspoken liberals in the MSM have long been an endangered species. (From the beginning, a Wall Street Journal editorial page writer attacked the site for "conferring mainstream legitimacy on Eric Alterman.") Even less common, I suppose, are Web sites that feel free to criticize their corporate parents, the pollution they cause, the lying, incompetent, ideologically extremist and corrupt presidents they coddle, and perhaps most especially, the all-but incomprehensible choices they make when doling out cable TV news programs. It would surprise no one if this site caused some discomfort at 30 Rock, if and when they happen to notice it. But speculation is not the same thing as evidence, and the good folks at MSNBC.com and GE/NBC can, I'm sure, give you good reasons why dumping Altercation is the right thing to do from a business standpoint --though the natural speculation that arises is a damn good argument against the kind of media concentration that allows a company like GE to own NBC in the first place. And few decisions in life have only one inspiration, alas. All I can say for sure is that I remain profoundly grateful for the opportunity they gave me and depart with nothing but feelings of warmth and gratitude for my colleagues who made it possible.
Again, beginning a week from today, we can be found at www.MediaMatters.org/Altercation. (Bookmarkers, permalinkers, please note.) As far as I'm concerned, nothing at all will change insofar as the site's content is concerned, and I'm hoping my fellow Altercators will feel the same way. (Maybe Pierce will even come back...) Right or wrong, left or center, Altercation will always be the right room for an argument. Come up and see us sometime.