One way to mark the anniversary of 9/11 is to solemnize — a pageant of grief and sorrow honoring lives pointlessly sacrificed to extremist madness. The defining essence of 9/11 was, after all, the indiscriminant murder of innocents on a massive scale, so remembrance feels right and necessary. Another approach is to self-aggrandize — reinvigorate civic pride and collective self-worth by "celebrating" (wrong word, I know) resilience and American exceptionalism. This unimaginably horrible thing happened, but look how fabulous we remain.
Grief and pride are both inevitable and appropriate. But if we stop there, we'll miss an essential opportunity to take a good hard look at ourselves 10 years past that terrible day. What we find in the mirror isn't pretty — a country and society in steep political decline, core institutions rotting from within, morally neutered agents of corrupt self-interest feasting on the carcass of a system that now bears only a murky resemblance to a consensual democracy rooted in social progress. And 9/11 has everything to do with it.
A conversation about the nine-elevenization of America begins, of course, with war. Firing up an invasion wasn't terribly controversial at the outset: Taliban-run Afghanistan's role at the turn of the century as a principal shareholder in Global Terrorism Inc. simply was not going to be allowed to stand. The problem isn't so much that we went to war after 9/11 but that we never stopped. And now, it appears, we never will.
The Bush administration and a complaisant Congress made sure of that with an impulsive rush not just to war, but to an enduring wartime mentality. Everyone remembers 9/11 with all-too-vivid clarity. But remember 9/14, when Congress gave Bush unbridled authority to use force against just about anyone? Remember 10/2, when the odious Patriot Act was introduced (and signed into law 24 days later)? Remember 11/5, by which time the military already had over 1,000 people in secret custody? Remember 11/21, when Bush told Fort Campbell troops that Afghanistan is "just the beginning ... across the world and across the years, we will fight these evil ones, and we will win"?
By January 2002 Bush was earnestly building his case for wider war, famously lumping Iraq, Iran and North Korea into an "Axis of Evil." By late summer Dick Cheney was declaring ("with absolute certainty") that Saddam Hussein was acquiring equipment to enrich uranium and warning (in a Nashville speech) that Saddam was bent on nuclear blackmail. "We know for a fact that there are weapons there," a White House spokesman asserted with a straight face in early 2003. Remember when Colin Powell made the so-called case for war to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003? Powell's chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson now concedes that key "evidence" was known to be suspect, and that presenting it "made us really sort of the laughingstock of the world afterward."
Did 9/11 cause the fabrication and distortion of evidence in order to advance the Bush war agenda? Did 9/11 cause George Bush and his foreign policy team to gloss over intelligence failures rather than call them to account? Did 9/11 cause Dick Cheney to paint imaginary connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda as fact? Did 9/11 cause Republicans to frame policy objections as treason, as when John Boehner wondered aloud in 2006 if Democrats "are more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people"?
No, 9/11 didn't by itself literally and directly create these abuses of power in cause-effect fashion. But what 9/11 did is inspire in too many officials a thirst for violent revenge and a mindset of sanctimony and righteous entitlement that elevated ends over means in ways that will take the rest of us decades to undo.
The result, we see now with clarity, is a country that allowed its virtuous foundation of individual rights, due process, and rational policy-making to collapse into the rubble of unlawful detention, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, warrantless surveillance, torture and targeted assassination, not to mention complicity in civilian injuries and deaths that number in the hundreds of thousands.
It doesn't tax plausibility to suggest that these consummate insults to the integrity of American democracy and justice would not have happened were it not for 9/11, and in particular for the dominant policy responses to 9/11 that those in power at the time chose to cultivate. And the vast majority of Democrats who mounted little, if any, meaningful objection are just as culpable.
The effects of nine-elevenization go beyond a legally and morally disfigured foreign policy to encompass the basic integrity of our system of government. True, 9/11 didn't itself cause the financial crisis, spiraling health care costs, rising inequality, persistent unemployment or the Citizens United decision. But it did lead pretty directly to a debasement of the fundamental mechanisms of government that might otherwise hold some promise for solving intractable problems.
In the wake of 9/11, the GOP grew so disgusted with and intolerant of dissent that many in its ranks began to deny the patriotism and legitimacy of its opposition. When a congressman tells supporters that "liberals hate real Americans," or when a former Defense Department official describes the Democratic party as "dominated by people who do not believe America is worth fighting for," or when Sarah Palin says she only likes to travel to "pro-America parts" of the country, it isn't just campaign-trail invective; it's a repudiation of those who disagree with you as legitimate adversaries — which is to say partners — in the enterprise of democratic self-government.
Are we depressed yet? One could seek solace in the inevitably shifting sands of history — the notion that the damage to our national political character, though profound, will turn out to be just a fleeting overreaction to a singular and unprecedented atrocity. I might agree, but for two recent developments.
One is public reaction to the artistically timed release (if cheap horror movies are your idea of fine art) of Dick Cheney's new memoir. A man with no regrets or remorse who cheerfully endorses the basic tools of totalitarianism — secret prisons, open-ended detentions, torture — as centerpieces of American policy going forward, Cheney is welcomed to the microphone as an oracle of experience with a valid point of view by morally confused interviewers and enablers.
The other is the realization that lofty campaign promises notwithstanding, the Obama administration has no intention of dismantling the national security state or breaking up its love affair with secrecy, covert and unaccountable state violence, and all the rest. Between tolerance for Dick Cheney's sociopathy as a legitimate policy voice and the realization that Democrats in power are no less interested in permanent war than Republicans, it is clear that we have been fully, not fleetingly, nine-elevenized.
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