Commuting to work each day in New York City, sometimes right into the World Trade Center, I have been thinking especially hard about the ten year anniversary of 9/11. Friday, right before I left home, I heard the talk of a possible attack in the city. Once I sat down on the train, I cued up Radiohead's "Pyramid Song" on my iPod, the song that I listened to the most in 9/11's aftermath, and started trying to sort out what it all means ten years later. I am only one of a great many people writing about this question, and by far not the most qualified. Instead of contemplating the horror and trauma of that day, which dominates my memories, I'd like to get deeper into how we are still living in a world shaped by that day, whether we like it or not.
One of the most powerful memories I have of the attack is that once its full enormity was revealed to me (it was a couple of hours before I saw it on TV), I told myself "Things are going to get a lot worse for a long time." I despaired for the dead, but also for the future, and the knowledge the future was going to be horrible is still one of the most painful realizations of my entire life. I knew with George W. Bush's cronies in power, the attacks would be used to unleash the worst kind of authoritarianism wrapped in the flag and abetted by a fearful populace. I knew too that this attack would lead to the deaths of many more people in the wars to follow. When I got home that day, the feeling of sickness worsened, since my roommate was watching Fox News, which kept juxtaposing the collapse of the towers with Palestinians celebrating the attacks, over and over again. Nationalism's dark side was being whipped into a frenzy without a moment to mourn, a fact that has been lost in all of the remembrances.
That blind jingoistic rage and the softer yet just as powerful fear of the time got us into two wars that are still dragging on, despite bin Laden's death. We want to remember the immediate aftermath of the attacks as a time of national cohesion and collective action, but the reality was more complex. Amongst the lines of people donating blood and the many workers who risked their health in the clean-up, one could see an ugly, unfocused desire for bloody retribution, and not just against enemies abroad. There were well-documented hate-crime murders of Sikhs and Muslims. In just the next year our virulently partisan political culture barfed up Saxby Chambliss' ads using images of bin Laden to impugn the patriotism of then Georgia senator Max Clelland, who had lost multiple limbs in Vietnam. More tellingly, the strategy worked. Remember, very quickly after the attacks president Bush told the world "you're either with us or against us." Any criticism of said president, especially in the run-up to war in Iraq, was deemed treasonous.
It was all too fitting that the dark sneering vision of his puppet master, Lord Cheney, was back again on our television sets last week, like an old wound reinjured. He and his ilk fell out of power and crept back into the shadows over two years ago, but we still suffer from their decisions. The war in Iraq, built on his deceptions and lies, was waged while simultaneously retaining low taxes for the wealthy. That bill has come due, and in the midst of an economic catastrophe, the social safety net is being gutted, teachers are being laid off, and our infrastructure left to rot to pay it off. Young Americans are still fighting and dying in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and war without end is still ravaging the lives of people in those nations. American Muslims are being villainized now more than ever, evidenced by attacks on mosque building sites and the mainstreaming of bigoted paranoia over a supposed Sharia conspiracy.
Ten years later, America is in its worst economic crisis since the Depression, but is being paralyzed from taking action by a completely dysfunctional political system made unworkable by ideological zealots on the Right. I thought it telling that some of their more prominent fire-eaters publicly crowed that the president's speech on jobs in the midst of nine percent unemployment was "stupid" and refused to attend. I simply cannot recall a single instance in my lifetime of a sitting president being treated with such open contempt and disrespect, and this at a time when political compromise is necessary to prevent further economic damage. Not to mention the fact that this president had so recently successfully ordered the takedown of bin Laden. Of course, we all know that the virulence of the unprecedented contempt shown to president Obama has to do with the unstated premise that he is not a "real American." America has always had a problem with violent nationalism inflamed by racial and religious resentments, but its resurgence in the last ten years is especially disturbing since it threatens the basic ability of our political system to function.
We like to think sentimentally these days about the sense of cohesion and purpose in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, of how politicians of both parties dropped their daggers and showed unity. These days I look back at that time more cynically. The fire-eaters had one of their own in power, they gained by having their political opponents do the right thing and put partisan rancor aside. When the fire-eaters got voted into the opposition, they had no intention of returning the favor, but rather intentionally filibustered and obstructed to their heart's content. Had Al Gore been president, I sincerely doubt that the fire-eaters would have resisted the temptation to blame him for the attacks. In the meantime, the "with us or against" mentality and its attendant search for internal enemies goes on unabated, and has migrated away from "homeland security" to other political regions. Teachers are made the scapegoats of our educational system, the poor rather than the banks are blamed for the housing bubble, and Glenn Beck and others refer to political progressives as a cancer in need of excision from the American body politic.
I don't really know where this leaves us. Tomorrow I will mourn the dead and hope that somehow the long nightmare finally ends. That horrific day's shadow still engulfs us, it is present in the veteran with a prosthetic leg that I saw today at the store and the run-down trains that take me into New York City on a daily basis. I only hope that soon that fear no longer continues to be the lifeblood of our political life in this country.