Ten years on
After all that has happened in the last decade, it is sometimes hard to actually focus on the events on September 11, 2001 themselves. It is hard to recall those events for what they were, as opposed to what they later became. But it is important to remember the momentous loss of life and human suffering from a uniquely evil terrorist attack. It is important to remember the real heroes of that day. Think about Fr. Mychal Judge, the first official victim of the terrorist attack, the priest who laid down his life for his brothers. Think about the first responders – ordinary working class men and women, union members, who raced into the burning buildings against all odds in the hope of saving lives. I find it gut-wrenching to listen to these people today talk about their experiences, their subsequent serious health issues, and the severe emotional trauma they will always carry with them. So yes, we must always remember, and we must honor these noble people.
But we also cannot divorce 9/11 from 9/12 and every day that followed. Our political leaders had a clear opening to seek unity, to bring people together, to be a beacon to the world. But these leaders failed the test. They instead sought to tear the country apart, to divide and conquer, to seek political gain from a horrendous tragedy. A man who merely spoke up for the rights of government workers to organize was shown to morph into Osama Bin Laden in a TV ad. You were either with us or against us. I will never forget that extended moment of collective madness that engulfed the nation during those years. Dissent was not just snuffed out, it was not even allowed a voice in the first place. The media made Pravda look open and transparent. The atmosphere was chilling. The United States became a narrower, nastier, more insular place. Good Muslim friends decided they could no longer live here. It became a nation of pre-emptive war and a nation of torture. It was a long and ugly decade.
The real tragedy us that Bin Laden and his cronies scored a major victory. And I’m not talking about the horrible carnage and suffering on 9/11 itself. I’m talking about the response. Al Qaeda knew they could never defeat the United States with force, even with the force of terrorism. But they could goad the United States into defeating itself, which is exactly what happened. The US administration invaded Iraq, somehow managed to invoke the image of a “holy war” against “evil”, and doubled-down on its support for an increasingly venal Israeli regime, all giving a great propaganda victory to Al Qaeda. Instead of taking the moral high ground, and saying “we are not like you”, they instead embraced torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial. Instead of showing the world that the United States is a country that allows Islam to flourish – an argument it could have easily won, especially in contrast with many European countries – it instead opted for demonization. Instead of appealing to better angels, it unleashed the worst demons.
And then there is the financial implications. As Joe Stiglitz has pointed out, the response to 9/11 has cost the nation between $3-5 trillion, and that’s a conservative estimate. It is the main reason why the deficit is so high today (the Bush tax cuts are a close second). It is the main reason why the nation’s finances look increasingly perilous. It is the main reason why the United States did not have the space to respond to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression – which in turn, is one of main reasons why unemployment is so high today.
Bin Laden might be dead, but he won a great victory, probably a greater one than he thought on 9/11. Just as with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, he has succeeded in nearly bankrupting the economy, leading to great economic and social strains. And he goaded the US to go to a very dark place.
So let is remember, let us mourn, let us pray – for all the victims of that monstrously evil terrorist attack, but also for what has happened to the nation since then. Let us repent. In the recent words of Pope Benedict on the anniversary of 9/11, let us “reject violence as a solution to problems, [and] resist the temptation to hatred and to act in society, inspired by the principles of solidarity, justice and peace”.