This is the first of a 2 part essay.
It will soon be 10 years since the attacks of September 11th, 2001. I lived in the East Village at the time on East 10th street near First Avenue. I watched the whole thing happen from the roof of my building, together with hundreds of my neighbors on the surrounding rooftops. I remember people shrieking and vomiting with horror when the buildings suddenly collapsed. I remember crowds of people walking up First Avenue after the subways closed down, restaurants and bars with radios on blaring the latest news, long lines of people at local hospitals waiting to donate blood, lines of buses parked along the avenues ready in case evacuation became necessary. I had to breath air filled with smoke and dust for days (and I have the resulting asthma). I had to have my passport ready to cross military checkpoints. I remember the smell, like that of a giant electrical fire that lingered for weeks as fires burned at the site into January of the following year. I remember all the apocalyptic nutcases coming out of the woodwork and marching through the smoke filled streets proclaiming doom. I remember fighter planes flying patrols at low altitude over the city. And I remember the haunting spectacle of thousands of notices posted everywhere by people looking for any information on loved ones lost in the catastrophe (the outcomes of almost all of those searches were the worst imaginable).
The men who did this believed themselves to be emissaries of God’s will, executing His judgment. Men who saw themselves as part of a campaign to restore the purity and supremacy of Islam believed that they could murder their way to glory. They believed that all that stood in the way between them and God’s Glorious Reign On Earth was the decadent liberal West and its soulless inhabitants. They convinced themselves that Westerners (and Americans in particular) had forfeited their right to live by forsaking The Way of The Righteous, that they mocked God by their continued existence. There was a certain measure of grievance behind these attacks. The attackers said that they wanted Americans to feel something of what Muslims suffered at their hands since the end of the Second World War (and even further back to the Crusades). But the real motivation was not revenge, but naked hatred born of rage and contempt. They hated the modern world and all that it stood for. Even more than the decadent West itself, they hated other Muslims who made accommodation with it. In the end, their campaigns of terror killed far more Muslims than Westerners.
The September 11th attack was their most brilliant, and greatest success. The whole point of a terror attack is to terrify, and the September 11th attacks did just that brilliantly and thoroughly. The terrorists planned and timed this attack for maximum visibility and publicity. The attacks were a media triumph, the most watched and witnessed criminal act in all of history. The horror and revulsion provoked by the attacks was planned and deliberate. The attacks sent the United States into a tailspin of fear and hatred, convincing many that this was the beginning of a War of Civilizations, or even another religious war, between Islam and Christianity, which is exactly how the terrorists themselves saw what they had started. Many became convinced that the very fundamental nature of the United States as a pluralistic liberal democracy had to be changed in order to meet a new threat (e.g. the NeoConservatives). As they perceived Islam to be monolithic, motivated, and disciplined, so must the USA now militarize its society and its culture.
When Osama Bin Laden died at the hands of American troops this year, the reaction of the Muslim world was largely silent indifference. Pakistanis were more upset by American violations of their territorial sovereignty than they were about Bin Laden’s murder. Before he died, Bin Laden watched his vision and his legacy rejected by the Muslim street, as populations accustomed to being told what to do and what to think by autocratic military and religious leaders for centuries decided to run their own societies themselves as they saw fit. Bin Laden’s vision of grievance, murder, and purified restoration will survive him, but its power is already spent, its legacy rejected by most younger Muslims. In the end, what really defeated Bin Laden was not Western military and economic power, but a single street vendor in Tunisia named Mohammed Bouazizi who refused to pay a $7 bribe. After being harassed and humiliated by contemptuous bureaucrats, he had enough and set himself on fire, starting the huge conflagration of grievance and frustrated expectation that now spreads through the Muslim world. The Arab Spring sweeps across the Middle East, toppling autocratic rulers and dramatically rejecting the very puritanical authoritarianism that Bin Laden and his followers stood for. It turns out that the Arab man and woman in the street wants self-determination, not glory.
In the decade since the September 11th attacks, The United States changed in ways that were unimaginable the day before the event. We crossed a lot of bright hard lines with warning signs that said, “Do not cross!” This country that in 1945 convened the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials to prosecute enemy officers who tortured prisoners of war, the same country that was instrumental in writing the Geneva Conventions to prohibit such abuses, proceeded to torture and humiliate prisoners of war as official government policy after 9/11. Waterboarding, a torture technique invented by the Spanish Inquisition and used extensively by the Japanese on American POWs in World War II, now became an official “enhanced interrogation technique” of the US government. Prisoners were confined in extralegal prisons outside American jurisdiction at places like Guantanamo. Others were detained in secret prisons scattered throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Still others were outsourced to other countries not known for their scruples about abusing prisoners. A number of prisoners of war suffered terrible abuse, and some died while in our custody (at Abu Ghraib, and other places).
This same country that began by proclaiming the sovereignty of the people, and that all are entitled to due process and fair trials to determine guilt or innocence, now suspended the right of habeas corpus for terrorism suspects, and subjected them to indefinite and arbitrary detention. Hundreds of people who were no threat at all to anyone’s security found themselves scooped up in these dragnets. Some are still in detention. There’s nothing anymore to stop a future President from declaring his/her political opponents to be “terrorists” and dealing with them accordingly. As long as those unchecked powers are there, someone will inevitably use them.
The same country that says in its founding documents that people shall remain secure in their persons and property from arbitrary inspection and seizure now has a vast security state that can monitor the phone calls and email transmissions of every single American around the clock.
Our leaders used the attacks of September 11th to justify the invasion and occupation of a country uninvolved in the attacks, a conquest sought by some ideologues since the mid 1990s. They cynically used 9/11 to further partisan ambitions, claiming a kind of copyright on the attacks, and accusing all opposition, all critics, all dissidents from its stated policy goals and ideology to be traitors (“Why do you hate America?”). They successfully cowed the press and Congress into active collaboration in their designs. In consequence, the United States today is perhaps more polarized than at any time since the Civil War.
For the first time in its history, the United States used mercenary soldiers (“government contractors”) in both of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fearful of public reaction to a reintroduction of the draft, our leaders needed a way to supplement existing numbers of troops. Another way was through a “backdoor draft,” military reserves and recently discharged soldiers were called back into service. Those in service were sent on multiple deployments, around 5, sometimes 7 or 8 tours of duty. As in the Vietnam War, there was a strange disconnect between those doing all of the fighting and suffering, and the rest of the country, which experienced nothing of the war directly.
The United States became the very first country in the history of the world to cut taxes while fighting 2 wars costing billions of dollars. Those tax cuts primarily benefited the very wealthy while forcing the government to borrow large amounts of money to finance 2 already very expensive wars made even costlier by the use of mercenaries, and by the high numbers of severely injured soldiers returning home. Our leaders cynically calculated that they could maintain public support (or tolerance) for those wars if only less than 10% of the whole population bore all of its costs. The citizen military saw itself reduced the role of the hired help, sent into the Middle East to try to clean up after 5 decades of clumsy and cynical foreign policy in the region.
Meanwhile, the combination of unfunded tax cuts and fighting 2 expensive wars on borrowed money caused a government budget surplus to become a rapidly ballooning debt.
The United States is the only country in the developed world that has a politically powerful religious fundamentalist movement. The only other countries with fundamentalist movements of comparable power and influence are Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The country that once boasted the world’s largest and most prosperous middle class now has a shrinking and hard-pressed middle class, a small top class that owns almost everything, and a rapidly expanding bottom class with legions of the newly poor and downwardly mobile. The United States (with the UK) now has the highest rates of infant mortality and children living in poverty in the developed world.
And before I continue with this J’accuse, I should make a mea maxima culpa. It’s easy for me to look back in horror now at the anti-Muslim hysteria that is so very strong in many quarters today, but in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, I certainly felt it. I cheered attacks on mosques and Muslims. And the worst part is that I knew better. I’ve had Muslim friends for most of my life, not just friendly acquaintances, but old and dear friends. My knowledge and experience of Muslim religion and culture is much more than what I hear on teevee. I deeply regret betraying those friends. It was only by struggle and God’s grace that I was able to break that spell of evil enchantment. All the things I described above, I was definitely in on and behind, not for long, but for a while. I played my part, wrapping myself in the flag and demanding bloody vengeance. I made my contribution to all the ugliness I describe above.
I understand the fear and anger that drives too much politics these days because I felt it. I know that we are at our worst when we are frightened and angry because I was at my worst.
We should remember Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23 year old NYPD police academy cadet originally from Karachi, Pakistan who perished in the 9/11 attacks. The local press unjustly vilified him, accusing him of being a collaborator in the attacks until his body was recovered weeks later holding an EMT bag. He died trying to rescue people trapped in the burning buildings. The City of New York later officially recognized and honored his sacrifice.
My friend David Kaplan always said that the USA went a little funny in the head during the Vietnam War. Since September 11th, we’ve lost our minds.
We traded in our founding principles, our national soul, for expediency. In our fear and anger, we forgot how to be Americans. Nineteen guys armed with nothing but box-cutters succeeded where Hitler and Stalin with their vast armies failed. They succeeded in forcing us to forsake our democracy, to remake ourselves according to their designs, to become the very frightened paranoid empire they wanted us to be. They got what they wished. The very country that described itself as the Home of the Brave was told by its leaders to be afraid, to be very afraid. A country that built transcontinental railroads, created history’s greatest mass prosperity, and sent men to the moon now sits parked and idle, a fat resentful paranoid empire afraid of the world outside its frontiers, populated by people prepared to burn down their own houses rather than see other “undeserving” people get anything.
It didn’t have to turn out this way. In the immediate wake of the attacks, New Yorkers living in a city famous for ruthless Social Darwinism became amazingly generous neighbors and friends to otherwise perfect strangers. When subway and bus service shut down, people took those stranded into their homes, sometimes creating enduring friendships. People eagerly volunteered their services wherever they were needed. Differences were forgotten in the wake of a common disaster. East Village punk bands staged fundraisers for the families of firefighters and rescue workers killed in the attacks. Chefs all over town volunteered their services for firefighters, spending months cooking in firehouses. Even masseuses volunteered their services to rescue workers at the WTC site. People were eager to help, and happy while doing so. People wanted to pull together and help out. The flags that sprouted all over town from the Woolworth Building to the shopping carts of homeless people were expressions of mutual solidarity as much as patriotism.
Instead, we were all told to go shopping.
We lost a big opportunity to build upon that rediscovered sense of citizenship, and the happiness that comes with it. I thought about that when the Prime Minister of Norway declared that his country would stick to its democratic principles, and its historic openness and tolerance despite their recent massacre. I wish I had heard something like that 10 years ago on September 12th.
What September 11th really sounded like without editing, background music, or commentary: