Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ten Years Gone

Who can forget that morning? I was at work on the morning of September 11, 2001 at an insurance company in Des Moines called Rain & Hail, that insures farmers against crop failure. Since I was in the central time zone, all the events unfolded one hour behind New York, so it was just after I arrived at work at eight that the canned music in my office was interrupted by the report of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I shook it off, like most people did, as a freak accident. When the report of the second plane came over the speaker, I looked over at a co-worker and saw on his face the same incredulous look that must have been stamped on mine. We stopped what we were doing and went to the break room where the TV was on. The strange thing was that there was no more work to do that day, and when I came in to work on the following days that week, I only worked a few hours and was released.

I must've experienced the same series of emotions that everyone else did, including two that were, I think, unavoidable: astonishment at the scale of the destruction and at the audacity of the men who caused it. Such events have a galvanizing effect on everyone who witness them. They partake of a national tragedy but also feel a personal sense of loss. It may be the loss of someone they knew who perished in the event or a loss, to some extent, of their faith in humanity.

The trouble with such events, however, is that not long after they occur, when most people are still feeling helpless about what sort of response is possible in the face of such savagery, some very unsubtle minds - at a time when subtlety would be interpreted as weakness - are already at work devising a single, exclusive response, which quickly becomes the Official Response. And any variation from it, to the extent of the variation, soon becomes a dissenting and unwelcome response, and is stifled.

In a matter of a few days, President George W. Bush, ineffectual in his first eight months, became a resolute president of war. His advisers saw 9/11 as an opportunity to put into practice their vision of a new world order - starting with the Middle East. And they relied heavily on those who were hesitant and unsure.

Every day thereafter, I had to listen to people who wanted U.S. forces to exterminate all Muslims, regardless of the simple logistical absurdity of it. And there were others who wanted a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from foreign soil. Luckily, neither of these sorts of people was in charge of anything bigger than a 7-11. And while they were jockeying to be heard, decisions were being made, armies were on the march, and the dice were thrown.

Too many people act as if the death of Bin Laden is the end of the story that began for us almost ten years ago. If killing him was revenge, as many Muslims see it, then it is indeed the end. We clearly made two big mistakes after 9/11. The very scale of the destruction reinforced the belief that it was unprecedented, rather than the culmination of a series of attacks. And we saw it as an act of war, rather than an atrocity, however colossal. I believe that we overreacted outrageously. It was one thing to underestimate Al Qaeda's determination and ability to carry out the attack. But to react as we did, to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq, killing innumerable civilians and spending huge sums of our money, was a terrible mistake.

I am by no means a pacifist. I believe that war, however regrettable, is sometimes necessary and that it can accomplish a multitude of things - most of them unforeseeable. But responding to a shot in the dark, to the unaccountable acts of bloodthirsty lunatics with invading and occupying armies was not justice. It took a small team of special forces, after all, to get Bin Laden. And they didn't have to invade Pakistan to do it.

If you were Rip Van Winkle and had fallen asleep on September 10, 2001, only to awake today, and someone explained to you what had happened in the intervening years, one of the first questions out of your mouth would surely be "What the hell are we doing in Iraq and Afghanistan?"

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