Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Day America Stopped

Clearly, 9/11 was an atrocity waiting to happen. On that day, America was wide open. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, I commented on the day of the attacks and the aftermath. In observance of the 10th anniversary of those attacks, here are a few more thoughts.

In my military career, whenever the "defcon" level was low, I couldn't begin to count the number of times when I drove through the main gate of a military facility completely unimpeded. Often, there was no one there in the guard shack to check my identification or inspect my vehicle. I felt then that a determined terrorist would've had every opportunity to carry out an attack on that or any other military base.

Since 9/11, I have sometimes wondered about the security screeners at Logan Int'l Airport in Boston who saw all those box cutters in the carry on luggage of the men who hijacked the planes, and how they must still feel about that day. They did their job exactly as described in their training. Box cutters were not on their list of impermissible items. They weren't considered weapons. Who could have imagined to what use those murderers would put them?

Looking back at the United States of America of ten years ago leads inevitably, I think, to compiling a list of all the things it has lost. For one thing, the War on Terror has realized one of George Orwell's most grim predictions - that war would some day become permanent.

We have lost a good deal of whatever privacy we had left, what with Homeland Security's authority to listen in on our phone conversations and to read our emails. A year or so after 9/11, I watched a TV program about some of the people who lost family members in the attacks that concentrated on the loss or degradation of their religious faith. But how seriously can we take someone's faith when it was willing to accept the Holocaust but unwilling to accept 9/11?

Airport security has, of course, "improved" - by making air travel an even greater pain in the arse than it was. It is no longer possible to see our loved ones off at the gate or to greet them as they emerge from it. Flight attendants have become more rude and aggressive because they're under so much more pressure. We get x-rayed and scanned and patted down just so there can be a semblance of safety. But all this security won't stop a determined terrorist when we already know some of the lengths to which they will go to kill us.

Then there was our response to the attacks. I say "our" only because the government acted on my behalf, even if I was never consulted, nor were, evidently, any others who had an ounce of objectivity. So the voices that were heard were not only the loudest but the most shrill. President Bush started a war that we can't seem to finish, and two years later invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. I had the inescapable feeling that an opportunity was missed. Aside from doing nothing with the outpouring of goodwill for America from everyone in the world for what happened in Manhattan, the president did nothing with the American people's resolve to follow him anywhere he wished to take them. Instead he told us to go to Disney World.

And then came the decision from very high up to use those despicable "rendition" tactics of which we're only just beginning to learn the details. "Enemy combatants," were stripped of their universally accepted Geneva Convention rights as prisoners of war, flown around on secret CIA flights to secret locations and secretly tortured, before being shipped off to Guantanamo Bay, where they still wait to be told what they're charged with. Senator John McCain, who endured torture in North Vietnamese prisons, has insisted that the use of torture is not only ineffective, but something that, when used by a nation that stands as a shining symbol for human rights, compromises our moral authority.

I was in Des Moines ten years ago. At the time I took some comfort in the conviction that the city was probably the unlikeliest target of a terrorist attack. Des Moines has no symbolic value, like New York City or Washington, D.C. But I felt the same chilling effect, which was as much spiritual as economic, that every other American felt in the ensuing days and weeks.

Ten years later, I am amazed at the willingness of Americans to relinquish their privacy and their rights every time another attack is foiled. The notion that we are safer is completely cancelled out by the common perception that we are actually under siege. It will probably take a few more decades to get back to the sense of security we had before 9/11, even if it was false. As Orwell noted about Fascism in 1941: "Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them."*

*George Orwell, "Wells, Hitler and The World State", Horizon, August 1941.

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