As The Path To 9/11, the first part shown last night on ABC, illustrates, the world was not suddenly transformed on September 11, 2001 at 8:46 AM. It just seemed that way. Prior to September 11 Americans could go about their lives hearing, and reading, about bombs exploding in far away locations like Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and they could be touched by the tragedy of a terrorist bombing of an airliner, like Pan Am 103. The numbers of dead and injured were tallied, but those numbers were not so overwhelming to shock the public to realization. If you were not related to any of the victims - and there weren't large numbers of them - then you could submerge acts such as those in your subconscious, and get away with it.
The fact is, before September 11, unless you knew of someone killed in these attacks then you may have only been marginally aware of the threat, as if it were a long forgotten fact learned in high school history class. But the sinister activities and awful intentions of those determined to bring death to the 'infidels', as many infidels as possible, had been present for quite some time.
Most of America had the luxury, before September 11, 2001, of going about their lives, traveling on the subway, and on the train, and on airplanes without a second thought about the fidgity character sitting two rows ahead. You could laugh off the xray screening of your bag, the rare occasions when screeners asked to check something inside, and chuckle when hearing that a gun, or a knife, had been confiscated at the counter. A knife. Why would you ever need a knife on a plane? What a moron.
Then on a bright blue-skied Tuesday morning Americans were dragged out of the closet and into the light. Nineteen men with boxcutters took over four airplanes and used them as flying bombs. The full load of fuel, the mass of each plane, and the high velocity collision produced a horrific terror event on our soil, one that could not be brushed aside. Two planes headed for New York City, and contacted each of the two World Trade Center towers. A third plane took a U-turn and hit the outer ring of the Pentagon. A fourth plane, Flight 93, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers took matters into their own hands and started the fight back against this threat.
Americans who hadn't had such concerns before were made to realize that, yes, they could be threatened by this thing called terrorism, this fanatical evil that had replaced the souls of men. Americans were now unequivocally aware of the threat, the threat that had been building for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years. And Americans were ready to fight back.
It wasn't just Americans, though. A French journalist declared "We are all Americans" on September 12, 2001.
In this tragic moment, when words seem so inadequate to express the shock people feel, the first thing that comes to mind is this: We are all Americans! We are all New Yorkers, just as surely as John F. Kennedy declared himself to be a Berliner in 1962 when he visited Berlin. Indeed, just as in the gravest moments of our own history, how can we not feel profound solidarity with those people, that country, the United States, to whom we are so close and to whom we owe our freedom, and therefore our solidarity?
And we were glad to have the world join us. Americans don't cower when challenged, and we didn't cower then. We moved, together as a nation, to fight back against the evil. The paradigm changed, however. The Bush administration, instead of treating the acts and the perpetrators as criminals to be hunted and arrested, decided to treat the terrorists as a foreign army, and their sponsors and safe locations as part of the problem.
You would have thought, in those early weeks and months after September 11, that there would be near unanimity in backing that action. After all, how could anyone expect America not to respond after such an attack? But there were such voices. Author Barbara Kingsolver:
TUCSON -- I cannot find the glory in this day. When I picked up the newspaper and saw "America Strikes Back!" blazed boastfully across it in letters I swear were 10 inches tall--shouldn't they reserve at least one type size for something like, say, nuclear war?--my heart sank. We've answered one terrorist act with another, raining death on the most war-scarred, terrified populace that ever crept to a doorway and looked out.
Last week, filled with grief and sorrow for those killed and injured and with anger at those who had done this, I confronted the solemn responsibility of voting to authorize the nation to go to war. Some believe this resolution was only symbolic, designed to show national resolve. But I could not ignore that it provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war.
We must respond, but the character of that response will determine for us and for our children the world that they will inherit. I do not dispute the president's intent to rid the world of terrorism -- but we have many means to reach that goal, and measures that spawn further acts of terror or that do not address the sources of hatred do not increase our security.
No one who was forced to read 1984 in high school could fail to hear a faint bell tinkling. In George Orwell's dreary classic, the totalitarian state of Oceania is perpetually at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia. Although the enemy changes periodically, the war is permanent; its true purpose is to control dissent and sustain dictatorship by nurturing popular fear and hatred.
To paraphrase Billy Joel, we didn't start the fire. Back in 2001 the opinions above were part of a miniscule minority fringe. Over time, though, this bizarre mindset has proliferated, and I'd say inexplicably. There is far too large a collection of individuals who trust the words of the terrorists over those of the administration. They are so fearful of their own government that they are constantly looking for ulterior and sinister motives for its actions.
I'll be blunt. To win this struggle will take an America with all oars rowing together, and in the same direction. It's fine to distrust the administration on plans to reform Social Security; it's not fine to show such inexplicable distrust in a battle against an enemy who would just as soon cut your head off as talk to you. So you don't think we should have attacked Iraq? Okay, as long as you thought the same before March '03. But it's too late for that. We're there, and we need to be successful. Regime change in Iraq was a policy established in 1998. Saddam was unquestionably evil, and even if it was for what you consider the "wrong reasons" and was done militarily, isn't it likely that the Iraqis will be better off without him if a secure democracy can be established? Why give up? The people causing the trouble are the same ones who will continue to cause trouble if we leave prematurely.
As James Lileks has written, regarding The Path to 9/11:
Just so you know: 9/11 reset the clock for me. All hands went to midnight. I’m interested in what people did after that date, and if the movie shows that before the attack one side lacked feck and the other was feck-deficient, I don't worry about it. It's like revisiting Congressional debates about Hawaiian harbor security in November 1941. Y'all get a pass. The Etch-A-Sketch's turned over. Now: what have you said lately?
September 11 affected all Americans. All Americans. Every single one of 'em, from Cape Hatteras to Monterey. But your clock was reset on that date. We came together as a people, with all oars rowing in unison. Why have so many, with such inexplicable distrust, not only stopped rowing, but dug their oars in to slow the boat? Why is it that so many want to forget, and are willing to return to the mindset that allowed it to happen?
It's been five years. For those individuals, has it really been that long?