[My 9/11 story can be found here.]
It’s been six years since 9/11. Too long for it to remain fresh in our minds, but too soon to know how the aftermath will ultimately go. We are still engaged in what has come to be known as the “war on terror,” a phrase no one really prefers but that’s hard to replace with a better one.
For some, fighting this war is the most important task on the world agenda. For others, it has become either an excuse for the sins of the present administration, or a highly exaggerated myth against an enemy that hardly exists, or both.
On the original 9/11, these positions hadn’t yet hardened into the bitter divisions we see today. Sure, there was the blame-America-first-and-foremost crowd, already quite vocal. For an excellent example of that genre, see what the abominable Michael Moore had to say as early as Sept. 12, 2001. He highly doubts Bin Laden had anything to do with the attack, of course, and it’s just racist for anyone to even suggest such as thing. But if Bin Laden did it, it’s our fault anyway, because we trained him and we’re the real terrorists. And Bush sparked it all by not cooperating with Kyoto and—this might just be my personal favorite—by walking out of the lovefest known as the Durban conference on racism.
But Moore and others were tangential and relatively muted voices, distant enough so that I—who relied back then almost exclusively on the MSM for my news—barely heard them, and was able to imagine for a while that a time of renewed unity of purpose was at hand.
I had no inkling of the political changes that were to come for me personally in the next two years of reading and thinking; at the time I was just reacting to the human tragedy and shock of the event itself, and trying to understand what had caused it to happen and what the best reaction would be.
I was hardly alone in thinking that some sort of permanent change towards greater unity had occurred. Everyone, Republican and Democrat, seemed somber and serious, interested in fighting this evil that had existed for many years but seemed newly competent in its ability to inflict harm, and far more viciously hate-filled than had ever before been appreciated.
Gerard Vanderleun—writing shortly after the shattering and powerful experience of watching the towers fall from a close vantage point as he stood amidst the crowd that had gathered on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade—expected change as well, that Americans would be filled hereafter with “a terrible resolve” and a unity of purpose, as in WWII. And this thought was shared by many, including me.
Perhaps, as Norman Podhoretz writes in this new piece on the sixth 9/11 anniversary, it might finally be the end of widespread America-hating on the Left, and the defeat of the “Vietnam syndrome.” He himself hoped for it. But he also knew the Left very well, far better than I:
On the one hand, those who thought that we had brought 9/11 down on ourselves and had it coming were in a very tiny minority–even tinier than the antiwar movement of the early ’60s. On the other hand, they were much stronger at a comparably early stage of the game than their counterparts of the ’60s (who in some cases were their own younger selves). The reason was that, as the Vietnam War ground inconclusively on, the institutions that shape our culture were one by one and bit by bit converting to the “faith in America the ugly.” By now, indeed, in the world of the arts, in the universities, in the major media of news and entertainment, and even in some of the mainstream churches, that faith had become the regnant orthodoxy.
But even Podhoretz didn’t foresee how quickly they would regroup, how strong they would get, and how closely they’d follow the Vietnam template of the 70s. In fact, the only thing that seems to have prevented a repeat of those years (at least, so far) is the fact that the antiwar group lacks enough votes in Congress to override a Presidential veto.
So, what happened? Why did the unity dissipate so quickly, or was it illusory from the start? In some ways the ability of so many people to bounce back, to regard further attacks as highly unlikely, to want to return to the nepenthe of the Clinton years, is understandable. And the absense of further attacks has made it easy for people to do so.
On reflection, none of us should be especially surprised that those earlier hopes and expectations have not come to pass. We understand now (and perhaps we did even then, on some level) that they were a reaction to the drama and shock of the event itself, and that it is human nature—and, in particular, the nature of our freewheeling country—to divide, to retrench, to regroup, to deny, to forget, to go back to business as usual.
To many, the enemy within,—real or imagined, President Bush or Halliburton—is more fearsome, destructive, and evil than al Qaeda. Certainly he is closer and more familiar. Some go so far as to believe Bush himself was part of 9/11, or winked at it and allowed it to happen. Others merely think everything he’s done in reaction to it is wrong, and worse in some ways than the attack itself.
As the heartbreaking details of the stories of the dead told so poignantly in the New York Times fade, and life and hope asserts itself, we have to accept that our divisions have widened. In a way it’s a sign of relative health, although the rage and bitterness involved is not only testament to the importance of the issues at hand, but to the depth of the emotion and shock that still resonates as the fallout of that spectacularly beautiful day in September, six short and long years ago.