The 9/11 attacks comprise one of those events that you remember where you heard of it and how, like the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was for old-timers and JFK’s assassination was for middle-timers.
I had recently retired (for the first time) and was sitting at an outdoor café in Bethesda, Maryland. A stranger came up and said: “A plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.”
I immediately thought of that time decades before when a plane had plowed into an upper floor of the Empire State Building in a fog. This had to be some version of that.
“What a terrible thing,” I said.
I have a gift for understatement. As the morning wore on the bad news mounted. Another plane hit the Trade Center. Thousands dead. The Pentagon itself hit. There were reports of a fourth hijacked plane, possibly on its way to Washington, that crashed in Pennsylvania.
At the end of the day, although we didn’t realize it at the time, we had become a different nation — one less confident and more fearful than the one we’d been on September 10, 2001.
It was, as much as we hate to admit it, one of the greatest, most effective sneak attacks in the history of modern warfare. A handful of Islamic extremists armed with box cutters — box cutters! — in one swift strike had reduced to rubble the reigning symbol of American capitalism, set ablaze the headquarters of our military establishment, and come oh so close to putting a flying bomb into our nation’s political heart.
Our days as a fat, dumb, complacent democracy were over.
Within months we’d gone to war in retaliation for the attack, even though the ghostly nature of our attackers made a coherent war — one in which you were absolutely sure who your enemy was — impossible. That was followed by another war, that one absolutely incomprehensible to many of us.
In the meantime we subjected ourselves to an ever-increasing level of surveillance redolent of East Germany and a surrender of privacy more Orwellian than Jeffersonian. We became aware that modern warfare now includes the torture of prisoners and that the murder of civilians was part of its “collateral damage.”
And while there were protests, we as a nation accepted all of it. Which is where we sit right now, 12 years on, no safer than we were but more of a police state.
I had been very much against the presidency of George W. Bush. He was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was happy when, at long last, the public picked Barack Obama, a much smarter fellow, to replace him.
Obama, alas, has been a disappointment. Rather than reverse the bellicose foreign policies of Bush-Cheney he has adopted a course I call “Bush Lite.”
He’s a master of the half-measure. He repudiates wars but lets them go on a while because they are difficult to unwind. He tries to help friendly forces in the Middle East in their battles with oppressive regimes but not too much because, after all, who knows how friendly they really are?
Most of all, he refuses to make his case. Take his health care plan, for example. You have heard 100 times more from the Republicans about what a bad idea it is than you have from Obama about its virtues. Most of what the Republicans are saying about it is nonsense but he doesn’t take the trouble to point that out.
So now he finds himself out on a limb, virtually alone, trying to sell his plan to punish Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for using poison gas — except that I don’t know what the plan is. So far as I know, no one does.
He’s reduced to reaching for a rescuing hand from that loathsome slug, Vladimir Putin. Such is the legacy of 9/11.
OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.