I miss 9/12/2001. Obviously, not the pain and suffering of that next day. But I miss the feeling that, in the midst of such fear and loss, we were united as Americans. All across this country, people instinctively reached out to help not just the people of New York City and Washington, but each other. We awoke September 12, 2001, to read the headline in Le Monde “We Are All Americans”. The barriers, to a large degree, were down across the world. The outpouring of grief and support internationally was genuine, deep, heartfelt. Literally out of the ashes of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came the chance to build a new set of relationships among the people of the world, new paradigms for the affairs of nations. It was there, it was real, it was ours for the taking. September 11 wasn’t just a shock to our country, it was a shock to friends and less than friends around the globe. Would all have been wine and roses in this future that was offered? No, obviously. Inevitably, stresses and disagreements would have arisen. But there was this enormous reservoir of good will, far larger than the towering clouds of smoke and dust that rose above the debris of the World Trade Center. President Bush rode this into Afghanistan, and used it to roll over the Taliban, in the process freeing the people of that nation from an oppressive government that had, all agreed, provided a safe haven for Al Qaeda. And I have to wonder where we would be today had Bush stayed focused on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, had our resources been primarily directed towards ensuring that Al Qaeda and the Taliban had been eradicated there. I’m not imagining that we would have scored a clean victory there, and that terrorism would have been defeated. We might still not have killed or captured Osama bin Laden. But a concentrated, sustained pursuit of bin Laden would have sent a clear message that, in the midst of all our other efforts, we would take the fight personally. And we would have had that dogged perseverance of a people united, backed by a supportive and understanding world community. But we don’t have that. We have, instead, a reservoir of good will that has been mostly drained by what much of the world sees as a stubborn, misguided adventure in unilateral folly. We are a deeply divided, deeply frustrated nation that has suffered more soldiers killed in Iraq than victims in the original 9/11 attacks. We have spent our human and financial resources on what now seems to be a never-ending struggle against an enemy that seemingly replenishes itself at will, a modern-day hydra. And while it is true that we haven’t seen another attack on US soil, that may be as much because we have presented such a target-rich environment in Iraq as it is vigilance and security improvements at home. And bin Laden and those who travel in his philosophical footsteps can watch as we give up our freedoms willingly in the quest for some perception of safety.
Would the world today really be different had the United States handled the response to 9/11 differently? Maybe. It’s easy to look back and imagine an alternative past several years that would be better than the mess we find ourselves in now. It’s tempting to blame everything on a President bent singlemindedly on finishing some cosmically-unfinished family business, seizing on the attacks to build a rationale. But the problem with a democracy is that you can’t simply lay all the blame at the feet of the government. That’s far too simple. We have been too willing to divide ourselves, and to allow the politicians on both sides to draw simplistic boxes around a few positions and base their campaigns and what passes for governing on the way the spin doctors of both parties manipulated those boxes. It’s a shell game that, in the end, nobody wins.
So I miss 9/12/2001. I miss the chance to make something good and lasting out of the morning of the Day After. I miss the feeling that, for a while at least, we were treating each other as we wanted to be treated, that the angels within us had been set free. I miss the idea that the good will of the world might mean that, once the business of responding to the terrorist attacks was over, we might build on the new bonds between us and other nations to bring some good into the world. It isn’t that it can’t ever happen. It’s just that the opportunity was there, and we passed it by.
“Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
in the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
some great cause, some great decision,
offering each the bloom or blight,
and the choice goes by forever,
‘twixt that darkness and that light.”