Office Hours: How Has 9/11 Shaped the Past Decade?

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Ten years after 9/11, we must ask if we are more capable of understanding the attack, its causes, and aftermath. Immediately following the attack, there were two significant blind spots in Americans’ view of the event. The first was our inability to understand that the 9/11 attacks were “blowback” rather than out of the blue. Second was the inability to acknowledge the attack was a massive security failure for the Bush administration, a fact that was effectively removed from public discourse.

The great unspoken domestic political truth of 9/11 is that it made the Bush presidency. After nine months in office, Bush's claim to office was already shaky given the Gore vs. Bush decision and in the summer of 2001, Republicans lost the Senate. In September 2001, Bush’s poll ratings were in the 40s and headed downward and might have been a one-term path. Yet, in the days after the attack, his approval surprisingly skyrocketed to the 90s.

The attacks gave the neo-con militarist elements in the Bush administration free reign to operate and put them in more control of American life than at any time in history. The subsequent wars and color-coded terror alerts and gay marriage fears got Bush elected for a second term, which ended with approval ratings in the 20’s.

Dick Cheney’s new memoirs will hopefully start a debate about how the U.S. had “to work, though, sort of the dark side,” in the War on Terror. Everything the U.S. claimed to stand for quickly and cynically fell in the face of a supposed existential threat from Al-Qaeda and then Iraq. Since bin Laden and Saddam Hussein could not have realistically overthrown the United States how can we justify the global military mobilization and domestic militarization that the U.S. has undertaken?

Perhaps the most difficult questions involve an honest evaluation of our military and security endeavors (i.e. Did we, and can we, win any of the wars we started as a result?). We must also ask why no one has been held responsible for our (ongoing) security failures.

The noise has started in the media-info sphere about the “end of the American empire” and the post-9/11 Bush/Obama administration’s choices have hastened this process. Examine any issue: war, debt, unemployment, education, social services, etc and compare them not to other countries, but to U.S. history when we were the world’s leader in those areas. Tragically there is very little about the current state of the nation on this tenth anniversary that is not indicative of rapid, significant, and sustained decline. 

It is unlikely that trillion dollar deficits, expensive wars, and persistently high unemployment will facilitate a soft landing. Yet, business and political leaders have been crowing about recovery. The right-wing of the Republican Party is particularly virulent in their surreal vision of triumphant America. Most Americans believe in the narrative of American Exceptionalism without necessarily understanding the negative consequences.

This exaggerated self-image taints the perception of the 9/11 attacks. It caused us to magnify the enemy and the relative nature of the threat. In each case — since we are the greatest country that has ever been, envied for our success and freedom, only crazed madmen driven by a devilish ideology could perpetrate such a senseless attack. This narrative portrayed 9/11 as the greatest crime ever, requiring the greatest hunt/war for revenge. Nothing was too much to protect our perfect exceptional homeland.

The most notable developments of the actions taken since 9/11 are: continued and expanding wars, same for national debt and poverty, the Great Recession Phase I, and unprecedented political dysfunction. Our continued decline will likely have the psychosocial effect of inflating our national image and promoting more extreme nationalist rhetoric and actions. In a great paradox, many Americans think major elements of our country are declining, but still rate us as a great nation.

The least likely outcome of the anniversary is a much-needed reevaluation of the attitudes, actions, and forces that created  9/11 as an on-going event. Too bad, after leveling two countries, the world is no safer. Ten years would have been a long time to have been able to improve conditions in the US, had our leaders made different choices, like better banking regulations and not invading Iraq. 

The ten years since the attack gives a good opportunity to think about how America has changed. Maybe 9/11 will simply end up being the clearest indication of a decline already in process but not yet acknowledged. Have we come a long way or did we just follow the same trajectory, but quicker?

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