Friday, September 08, 2006

9/11 Has Not Changed Us Enough

Five years later, my memories of September 11, 2001 are as crisp and bright as was the sky that day. I remember not just the beats of the day—the unfolding national horror of it and my own personal dramas—but I remember the emotions, the sorrow and fear and rage. If I think too hard of it, my eyes still well with tears.

I was working at an office just outside the Washington Beltway. I had forgotten my cell phone that day. Friends couldn’t reach me. I couldn’t reach friends—I didn’t even have the number of the one person I knew who worked in the Twin Towers. I thought she worked on the 80th floor of Tower One, right where the first plan hit. Later I learned she worked on the 8th, and had not even made it to work before the attack.

I remember the drive home, NPR filling in details of the day. And I especially remember the small group of men and women standing at an intersection near my home in the heart of Washington, DC. They held up homemade signs reading “No retaliation.” I was shocked. As these people’s own neighbors lay dead and burning in the Pentagon, their first instinct was to call for restraint.

Restraint? I wanted bombs to rain on Afghanistan that night. I wanted vengeance, not just because we deserved it but because our future security depended on it. I couldn’t fathom how even the most ardent pacifists would react to such a day by asking that we spare the evil bastards who planned these attacks.

That was the moment that my sturdy, unquestioning liberal beliefs began to crack. More fissures would appear in the days to come as I read articles in The Progressive and at online leftist sites that blamed American policies and economic imperialism for the attacks and demanded we refrain from retaliation. Instead they wanted a UN police force to go into Afghanistan and arrest Osama bin Laden.

These writers were wrong, of course. Not just strategically, but morally as well. I stopped reading The Progressive, stopped visiting the leftist websites. But the transformation from unquestioning leftist into a question-it-all centrist was not immediate. I’ve paused and taken stock of my beliefs many times over the last five years. I ask myself all the time: is what I think I know right? Do I believe this because it is true or because it fits tidily into a nice little ideology?

Unfortunately, I do not think many Americas have changed or even adjusted their outlooks and beliefs since 9/11. On all sides of the political spectrum, people have failed to stop and rethink the world. They’ve simply taken the new realities and crammed them in to preexisting and ill-fitting ideologies. Blue. Red. Left. Right. Everyone righteous and angry. But no one is right. The “answers” are hollow.

On the 5th anniversary of 9/11, the day itself still resonates with a resounding crash. But we ourselves are, for the most part, mere echoes of what we were that day. United. Committed. Brave. Compassionate. It has washed away.

Yes, we could never maintain such unity, such commitment of purpose. But there was no reason we had to descend into ideological tribes fighting to persevere two equally flawed world views. Could we have not used that unity to forge new outlooks? Could we have avoided the bitterness and the cynicism that now pollutes our nation?

What has passed has passed and though I wish we had walked another path, I know we cannot go back and mend the many errors. We can only pause and assess where we are and why we’re here. And what we do now.

This is a time for Washingtons. For Lincolns. For Roosevelts. This is a time for leadership. So it is my deepest hope that Americans stop reflexively agreeing with “their side” and start questioning all sides. Only then can we hope to elect leaders from outside the vapid political system that so ineffectually rules us. Only then can we find the new visions for the changed world.

I fear that this is just rhetorical bullshit. I fear nothing will change. I even fear that my fears are misplaced—that the system is fine, that America is flourishing and those of us who believe otherwise are just overwrought thinkers with too much time on our hands. I fear I may be a fool.

But, then again, I don’t let my fears rule me. So I write and will continue to write in the hope that people are listening. That people stop and think and realize that we are not on the right path—and that neither left nor right has a roadmap that will work. We need change. Five years later and we still need change.

5 Comments:

Blogger Elliot Essman said...

Your fears are understandable, but also you imply between the lines that a lot works in our society and even in politics and government. September 11 was certainly a tragedy, but it was also fodder for news and commentary, invariably too much. How could it be otherwise? Talk, talk, talk. This is our freedom, and we have to live with it even if the sheer bulk of the talk tends to trivialize.

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds like you were like some of the pundits (e.g. Thomas Friedman, Andrew Sullivan) who allowed your anger and thirst for revenge after 9/11 to create a reactionary view that demanded vengeance. This anger was only fueled by those who you saw as pacifists urging restraint. Some of them may have been misguided but many probably understood better than you that invading Afghanistan without any REAL desire or committment to rebuild the country (let alone really try to capture Bin Laden) was only going to create a new cycle of violence and a new failed state.

Look at the latest stories about the reemergence of the Taliban, the record poppy crop, the renewed ties between the Taliban and Musharaff. Look at Afghanistan today...take a deep hard honest look at the FACTS of Afghanistan today, and then ask yourself if the lefty writers in 2001 urging a smart anti-terrorism strategy were really so wrong.

Yes we needed to go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan but many on the left understood that the Cheney administration was more concerned with looking tough and getting reelected than in actually being systematic and competent about defeating terrorism.

You are right there was real moment for unity and in truth the country was unified for a brief period...that was the real crime of the Bush years a wasted opportunity. For that I also blame Bush's enablers (Lieberman included) who shared the same fantasy about Iraq.

Right, left or center...just think for yourself and don't react to others. Just becasue some on the left piss you off that doesn't mean that being in the middle is right either.

10:01 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

The fact that the Bush administration has poorly handled Afghanistan is not any proof that the writers at The Progressive had a better plan. Their plan was actually worse. Those who wanted no retaliation would have caused MORE problems had they gotten their way.

That's my problem with the views of today. It's so either/or. Just because the Bush administration has not produced a perfect (or anywhere near perfect) result is not proof that the initial response was wrong. Nor is it proof that those who opposed the invansion were right.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point is that many on the left understood EXACTLY that Bush would screw it up...thats the point.

I have no desire to defend the writers at the Progressive but many on the left had ideas that were much more sophisticated than wanting "bombs to rain on Afghanistan that night".

What the hell kind of reaction is that, don't you know that killing other innocent people (collateral damage) is murder?

The fact that you were so reactionary is your problem...don't blame the left for the fact that you were bloodthirsty.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

The "wanting bombs to rain" that night was an emotional reaction to the events of the day--not something that I ever advocated as a rational response. Don't demonize me--it's unhelpful to the debate.

Understanding the need for retaliation is not "blood thirsty." I never longed for the death of innocents in Afghanistan or thought such deaths were deserved. I wanted only that those responsible be driven out of power and brought to justice. If sending in a UN police force was anything but a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, I'd have approved of it. But realities being what they are, military action was the only legitimate option open to us and our allies.

Now, you can claim that the "many on the left understood EXACTLY that Bush would screw it up"--but the many leftist articles I read mentioned nothing about us screwing it up. They were primarily interested in constraining American might for the sake of constraining American might--while advancing the myth that we somehow had 9/11 coming to us. And it wasn't "many on the left" advancing these arguments. It was a small minority. Every Democratic Senator and all but one Democratic Representative supported retaliation.

Not to mention that over 90% of the American public supported the invasion of Afghanistan--which must have included a hell of a lot of left-leaning people.

It amazes me how, five years later, so many now claim to have always known Bush would screw it up.

4:01 PM  

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