Another September 11th has come and (mostly) gone. Twelve years and twelve hours ago I was coming home from dropping Kid #1 at preschool when NPR interrupted Morning Edition with the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It was a Tuesday, I didn’t teach that day since I was then on a MWF schedule, so I spent the rest of the day glued to the TV.
As with so many others, I had that day imprinted on my memories the way Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination were for earlier generations.
For a few days, we all felt the surge of pride in the cops & firemen who saved thousands of lives, and lost so many of their own. We were shocked and grieved. We were ready to pull together as a nation, bear any burden, pay any price…
A stunned President Bush took a day or two to figure out what to do. About the only thing he did right back then was to make it clear that the terrorists were not typical of Muslims and that the vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists.
Then he proceeded to waste every scrap of potential good will. Do you remember that the Bushies initially opposed the TSA because it would have meant a huge increase in the Federal workforce? And the fear and over-reaction the attacks spawned can only be counted as a victory for the bad guys. The point of terrorism, after all, isn’t so much to kill innocents as it is to provoke terror. A successful attack terrifies, and the victory is when the target group or government reacts in a way that proves the terrorists’ point or causes blunders. In that sense, OBL won big. Compare that to the response of Boston after the marathon bombings this spring. “Don’t mess with Beantown” and a law-enforcement success stopped the terror quickly. We need to remember that terrorism seeks to provoke, so the best response is to maintain moderation and a law-enforcement view. That’s what weakened the IRA’s hand in 1970s-1980s Britain, and it’s what has helped Israel weather so many attacks.
And of course there was the near-immediate conflation of two very different enemies: the fundamentalist, terrorist Bin Laden and the secular dictator of Iraq. Did the Bushman blow a chance to capture OBL in late 2001 because he was already beginning to focus on starting a war with Saddam Hussein? Did he sacrifice the possibility of a quicker and more complete victory over the Taliban? “We want to bring democracy to the Middle East” without finishing the job of bringing it to Afghanistan? Did he really think that a war in Iraq could be faster than the already 18-month-old war he already had? Anybody remember the argument that the Iraq war had to start in the spring because it might be too hot in the summer? In quick, beat Saddam, and have swooning, grateful Iraqis throwing roses at our departing feet by June? And how it so quickly became obvious that there was simply no plan for what to do next?
Rumsfeld: You don’t go to war with the army you want, “you go to war with the army you have.” Unless, of course, you’re smart enough to avoid going to war in the first place.
The stunningly incompetent arrogance of those drum-beating days of 2002 and early 2003 should be remembered as long as the patriotism of September 2001. Only then can it be said that we have learned the lesson of 9/11.