So, what have we learned in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001? Are we a stronger country, a stronger people? Some of us are doubtless stronger as individuals and many of us will have to carry scars from the loss of loved ones, either killed on that day or killed in the events which sprung from the events of 9/11, forever. To them, I offer my sympathy and my assurance that what follows is in no way meant to minimize or denigrate their loss or minimize or denigrate the tragedy of that day. Like every other American who was old enough in 2001 to process what happened that day, I am just trying to explore the question and come up with some answers. If that sounds disrespectful to you, then I kindly suggest you stop reading this editorial now.
As I was crossing the bridge into Kingston to get to work that afternoon, I remember having this one thought as I gazed, with more feeling than ever before, upon the American flag waving in the gentle breeze on that perfect-weather day — the one good thing that could come of all this horror is that now, finally, we as a people can put aside all the stupid bullshit we fight about (i.e., anything that could be labeled as part of the culture war). We could all get behind the recovery from the attack and grow up about our position in the world and how we as a nation deal with other nations and cultures.
No such luck. George W. Bush had an opportunity to really be the uniter, not the divider, but I doubt he ever had any such thing in mind. People get mad at Democrat Rahm Emanuel for saying one should never let a disaster go to waste, but years before he said it, Bush and Cheney embraced that philosophy with calamitous tightness. Hot on the heels of 9/11, we had a nation-building war in Afghanistan, out of which Al-Qaida was operating. But then there was the one in Iraq, launched on not one, but two sets of false pretenses: that there were weapons of mass destruction there and that regime change would be the catalyst for a wave of democracy throughout the Middle East. No WMD’s ever turned up, and as we observed this spring, a single Tunisian fruit merchant fed up enough with tyranny to set himself on fire over it was the catalyst for the democracy-wave in that region, not hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. (To me, the only way the Iraq war makes any kind of sense is if it had the following objectives: establish a permanent military presence on top of a chunk of the world’s oil reserves and serve as the conduit for a massive transfer of public money to the private sector.) According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan will, when the ongoing costs of caring for all of our veterans is factored in, cost us about $4 trillion. Do you think we could use that money now?
Wars are horrible and in a free society unforgivable except for cases of self-defense. We could have achieved our security and foreign policy goals with a lot less loss of American life and money and a hell of a lot less loss in civilian life if we had just kept it to special forces actions, like the one that got Bin Laden finally, and drone attacks, which have disrupted the real threat by making Al-Qaida leaders terrified to appear in the daylight. (Which is what they tried to do to us, after all.) Maybe we’ve learned that lesson as a people — nation-building through military action doesn’t work and just wastes precious lives. We’ll see.
Ten years after the towers fell, are we a happier, more confident people? Aw, come on. Maybe there’s been a more pessimistic era of American history, like Valley Forge or the early part of 1861, but 2011 feels more and more like a nadir. What terrorists couldn’t do to this country, the Great Recession has: somewhere between two-thirds and three-fourths of us think the country is headed in a bad direction. A sizable segment of the population wants the federal government — which, like it or not, is ultimately the people of the United States acting in concert to accomplish things individuals, or even large groups of individuals like states and megacorporations, can’t or won’t do on their own — shrunken to a convenient, bathtub size for drowning. Not many people my age (43) or younger think things are going to be even as good for us as it was for our parents, much less better. Islamic terror has nothing, if anything, to do with this bad feeling; chalk that up to declining income, real unemployment at close to 20 percent and many of us in a debt-hole no honest person can climb out of. Somehow, we’ve accepted that diminished economic expectations are the norm and gotten it into our blood that there’s nothing, really, to be done about the Decline and Fall and we all are on our own from here on in. I would prefer not to believe this and to have faith that American innovation and gumption will kick in someday, but I confess I’m as stumped as everyone else when it comes to how to re-ignite the national spark.
So what have we learned, indeed? Maybe it’s what Abe Lincoln tried to tell us way back when: the real danger comes from ourselves, not from outside. Or maybe it will take another 10 years, or another 100, to really know what 9/11 was all about.
* * *
All things must pass, a very wise man said once, and so it is for this design of the Kingston Times. Next week we will debut a whole new look for the paper — you can get a taste of it by checking out our new website at hudsonvalleyone.com. The paper will contain the same excellent, vivid and informative writing and photography of which we are very proud. The presentation will be a lot spiffier and modern, though. It’s like riding in a new car: It gets you to the same places, but in a lot more style. We here love it, and we hope you’ll love it too.