The true tragedy of 9/11

The true tragedy of 9/11 is not just that thousands of people died in an evil and criminal attack. (Aside: I don't use the word "cowardly" like everybody else, because I have a hard time seeing how sacrificing your life in an attack on your perceived enemies is cowardly. Misguided, deluded, even evil, yes, but cowardly? Why can't we call these things what they are? Why is, somehow, "cowardly" a more stinging condemnation than evil?)

No, the true tragedy is how wildly successful those attacks were. What's more, they were successful not because of the death and destruction of the attacks themselves, but rather because of our reaction as a society to those attacks. The way the USA, in particular, has behaved in the last 10 years has served not to remember and honor those who lost their lives on 9/11. Rather, not only were they meaningless deaths, but the tragedy of their deaths have been magnified many times by our reaction and response to them.

What is the goal of a terrorist attack? I can't be sure, of course. However, the 9/11 attacks were targeted at the symbols of American power around the world: the World Trade Center, probably the largest single symbol of American financial might (our true imperialistic power at the moment); the Pentagon, the center of the American military; and the White House, the head of the American seat of government. When ideologues on our side talk about what it's for, it's because they "hate us for our freedom" and "want to destroy our way of life". I suspect on their side the more ambitious thought that these attacks would cripple the USA, undermining our imperialistic power, showing the world that we're not everything we say we are, and forcing us to further cripple ourselves by changing the way we live because we're living in fear.

Most of these goals, whether you take the ones that were perceived by the attackers or that come out of the rhetoric of those who think the attackers hate us for our freedom, were in fact achieved. Not directly as a result of the 9/11 attacks, but rather because of our response to them.

Showing the World the "True" USA

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, there was an outpouring of goodwill worldwide towards the USA. Yes, it was not universal; there were places where people were dancing in the streets celebrating that the USA had been attacked. And, doubtless, there was some snark from our allies in the form of "now you have on your soil what we've been dealing with all along". But, the world recognized this as one of the most major terrorist attacks, and recognized it as an attack on the modern civilized world, not just on the USA.

With a different presidential administration, I suspect that this goodwill could have been fostered, and used to help bring about changes in the world that made it a better place. Instead, what did we do? We completely squandered it. A few years later, it became embarrassing to travel abroad as an American. The USA became not known as the world leader of the great democracies who suffered a terrible attack, but rather as the jingoistic unilateral bully that was going to do whatever the hell it wanted militarily, regardless of what its allies thought. The 9/11 attacks were used as a pretext for an invasion of Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with them.

The outpouring of the "good" form of patriotism that happened right after 9/11 very quickly morphed into the ugly form of patriotism. The kind of patriotism that asserts you're completely for the USA and what it's doing, or you're effective aiding and abetting the enemy. The kind of ugly patriotism that makes people in other countries see Americans not as a proud people, but as an arrogant and ignorant people. Americans have always suffered this to some extent; and, to some extent, it's earned. But it's become much worse in the years since 9/11, as a direct result of our nasty reaction to 9/11. I'm talking about the invasion of Iraq, our open defense of torture, the Guantanamo Bay prisons, our doctrine of unilateral military adventurism and ignoring the protests of the other great world democracies... but also just the general behavior and rhetoric of so many individual Americans.

Losing our freedoms

On the evening of 9/11, George W. Bush gave a rather nice speech that was broadcast worldwide on television. Notably, he didn't refer to the terrorist acts as "cowardly"; that came later. Rather, they were "evil and despicable", much more apt descriptions. Most inspirationally, he said:

These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation.

Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.

America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.

In an administration that was filled with a lot of misdirection, dissembly, and obfuscation of the truth, I believe that this, right here, was W's most egregious untruth. I do not call it a lie, because I think he believed it when he said it. But the years that followed showed that this was completely wrong. American resolve was in fact undermined, and changed from resolve into an ugly sort of aggression. The brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world turned into a bully that disgusted the world. And, freedom in the USA, while still greater than many (if not most) societies that have existed throughout the history of Western civilization, has been seriously curtailed.

Obviously, freedom of speech still exists, or I could not write this blog post. And, indeed, most of us effectively have no fewer freedoms than we had ten years ago. But those freedoms are much less secure now, and there are some who have less effective freedom than they did ten year ago. What am I talking about?

  • Airport "security". The fourth amendment of the Constitution ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,...") has been trampled upon and treated as toilet paper if you're anywhere near an airport. In many airports, you must agree to be photographed effectively naked, or, if you "opt-out", you are subject to official sexual assault (including groping of children that would lead to the kid being immediately taken away by child protective services if the parent were observed doing it). This would be inexcusable even if these measures were effective, but they're not. Indeed, as that Schneier piece points out, if our security is going to be insistent on identifying each and every potential weapon that goes on to an airplane, the only recourse is an escalation of intrusiveness that will completely destroy personal dignity (if there is, indeed, any left now), and/or make flying effectively impossible. (At which point, of course, terrorists will blow up trains, or buses! Indeed, right now, if they're going after air travel, the lines at security are probably the most juicy target.)
  • The PATRIOT act. This was a gigantic piece of legislation that was passed, with the legislators that passed it not having read it, or, in many cases, not even fully realizing what was inside it. Yet, it was passed overwhelmingly, because the politics of fear, and the fear that our country was feeling at the time, meant that they all had to be seen "doing something". Our legislative process was completely undermined. Supposedly, our congressmen talk about, debate, and argue about the laws being passed. The process fails a lot, I admit, but this failure was truly egregious. Measures were passed overwhelming that would have garnered tremendous controversy (both inside and outside Congress) at any other time. The act granted a huge expansion of the discretionary powers of law enforcement. Again, most of us haven't experienced the loss of freedom due to this, but it is always the people on the margins for whom the defense of freedom is most precarious, and most necessary. (If you're not worried about them, remember that the margins can move in over time, after all.) Among many, many other things, the PATRIOT act includes National Security Letters, that allow them to get private information about you from institutions such as libraries... and not only are these not subject to review, but the libraries (or whatever) are not allowed to even admit that they've received this request. This sounds to me like a very key tool of somebody building a police state!
  • Our general response to what is seen to be reasonable in a free society:
    • Many people have gotten in trouble for photographing public buildings. And, the rhetoric is such that that we now think, hey, wait, those people might be planning attacks! We need to be safe!
    • Many of us argued in favor of torture. Never mind that it doesn't work. Never mind that it's evil and we as a society shouldn't want to be doing this. It's effectiveness on the TV series 24 has lead us to think it's patriotic to want to torture those we suspect of being our enemies.
    • Warrantless wiretapping, something that would have been anathema on September 10, 2001, is always being pushed and expanded.
    • Because we're all so afraid of terrorists, we're happily allowing our state to turn into a surveillance state where we can expect that law enforcement is watching us and recording us wherever we go, whatever we do.
    • At the same time, people are getting in trouble for photographing or videotaping the police. Put "the state surveils you" and "you are not allowed to surveil the state to hold it accountable" together, and you've got the technological underpinnings of the state described in Orwell's 1984. Accuse me of hyperbole— I'm using it, after all— but seriously folks: do we want to keep this a free society or not?
    • The current administration, elected on promises of being different from the last one, of trying to undo the expansion of the power of the executive branch, is, in contrast to those promises, quietly pushing forward all of these measures.

9/11 was a tragedy. Many people lost their lives due to the evil and despicable acts of some religious fanatics. But the true horrors of 9/11 are how amazingly successful those attacks were, because of our response. We've handed the terrorists their objectives on a golden platter.

Let's go back to standing firm, to resolve, to freedom not being deterred. If we're to make changes in our way of life, let's not fall in upon ourselves, become ever more jingoistic and ever more afraid, and sacrifice our freedoms in the name of that fear. Instead, let's examine what it is, really, that makes people hate us so much, and ask if there are things we're doing wrong. Let's make changes in how we interact with the rest of the world that build goodwill. In the long run, having more goodwill around the world is going to make us safer than any security walls we build around ourselves. And, by maintaining and upholding freedom and dignity, we might begin to truly honor those who died on 9/11, instead of claiming to honor them while pissing on their graves by allowing fear to turn us into what we're becoming.

8 responses so far

  • Howard says:

    Your topic is huge, too huge for me; however, our sense of community in many of our national challenges should match our sense of solidarity in commemorating the attacks.
    That's my small pitch to the conversation

  • Sam Buddy says:

    Thanks for being brave enough to say what you said.
    I'm not so brave. Too paranoid (i.e., the problem is in my thinking, not reality). But your blog precisely expresses my thinking.
    But here's the part I don't get. What can be done about it?
    I look forward to reading your next blog post.

  • The sad thing is, we were saying this would happen 10 years ago... bin Laden knew what he was doing. The overreaction from America was always the goal, far more so than the deaths of those in the Twin Towers. I wish more in the Arab world would see that he was willing to sacrifice THEIR lives as well to achieve his aims.

  • rknop says:

    Sam- that's the key question. I don't know the answer. I have to admit that despite my calls for hope in place of fear, I feel pretty hopeless that the political process we have in place can do a damn thing about it. (The process' inability to do anything about climate change may render it all moot.)

    Three years ago I would have said "vote for Obama". I honestly expected some sanity to come to airport security and law enforcement with the new administration. It's hard to imagine any candidate convincing me better than Obama that he was actually somebody different, so I've more or less given up hope that anybody our political machines will put up for national election will really do much good along these lines.

  • andre says:

    Very good analysis of the true problems stemming from September 11. It is shameful that the average person is assumed to be a criminal from the get go.

    While I agree with much of what you have to say, I have two gripes with your post. And I apologize if they come off as harsh in any way, because I do appreciate the bulk of your post.

    Effectiveness (or lack there of) of the actions aside, I will point out that equating airport security pat-downs with sexual assault really cheapens the experiences of people who truly suffer from sexual assault. There is a difference between an unwanted sexual experience and an unsexualized pat-down if done correctly, much the same way there is a difference between sexual assault and a doctors office visit. Although there are cases where doctors or TSA agents can assault someone, crying wolf can really trivialize the serious cases.

    I would also like to point out that much of what is being done by TSA agents in airport security has been done for decades to people - primarily the underprivileged (poor and minorities) - by law enforcement in cities around the country and is not simply a result of 9/11. Many people get stopped and searched for driving or even just walking down the street on the premise of safety.

    It is easy to complain about this now when we are submitted to these acts for the luxury of air travel while it can be a day to day issue for people doing things (going to work or to buy food) they need to do to survive. This is really an issue of something that has become a problem because it has started to affect (on a truly relatively small scale) those who are well off, affluent, or privileged.

  • Prof.Pedant says:

    "let's examine what it is, really, that makes people hate us so much, and ask if there are things we're doing wrong."

    One of the problems that this country has is the number of people who read the above quote and immediately think or ask "Why do you hate America". A whole lot of why people are not happy with the U.S. Government and U.S. Corporations is because of the assumption that whatever 'we' are doing is 'good', and that anyone who objects to what 'we' do is 'bad'.

  • C Erler says:

    The CIA trained the Afghans to engage in a war with the Soviet Union, which they did in the 1980s. They were trained to exhaust the enemy country economically. They spend a little bit of money on bombs and missiles and cost the Soviets lots and lots of money on jets and tanks and medical care and so on.

    And now they do the same with the US government, which is really great financially for weapons manufacturers that lobby the US to buy their weapons, but not so great for the people forced to pay for it all.

    The main problem, of course, is that people are forced to pay for it all. Without that, it would actually mean something to oppose war. As it is, you can yell all you want but you're still going to pay for it, so your voice means next to nothing.

    If the principles of democracy matter, surely if this war is supported by the majority, you should have little trouble funding it with voluntary contributions.

    As far as sexual assault, I think it completely cheapens the experience of people who have been through the TSA or police stops to say that it doesn't count as something bad and to equate forced participation in these things with a chosen doctor's visit where the nudity or whatever is needed to get the results the person themselves wants.

    No one who goes to the airport not wanting this should ever be subject to it. It's completely wrong. This is the fundamental difference between rape and lovemaking or medical procedures.

    Has anyone noticed that in the 1970s and 1980s when hijackings were occuring and a bunch of political nobodies (you know, normal people) were dying or being threatened, everything was fine and dandy with freedom, but when a plane crashes into a government building with important people (military people), suddenly politicians might die we have to start strip searching everyone for the safety of those important people.

  • logan says:

    wow that was the most impressive report that i have ever read. i was in kindergarden when that happened and i was to young to understand what happened. i put my hat down for you because of the bravery you had to put this down thank you for doing that, a lot of people wanted to hear the actual story. i just hope that there wont be another one.