In last week’s New Yorker….

September 12, 2011

Last week’s New Yorker, like all other magazines on the newsstand, devoted itself almost entirely to the manufactured media event known as “the 10th anniversary of 9/11.” No one needed this whoop-de-do, and many of us seethed all week long with a barely suppressed, barely understood sense of rage about being coerced into this Orwellian ritual of remembrance of SOMETHING NOBODY HAS FORGOTTEN.

The streets were full of policemen and firemen from all over the country, who seem to have taken this day on the calendar as a national holiday commemorating those brave public servants who risk their lives every day and occasionally lose them. They deserve their honor. The families of people who died are completely justified in mourning and remembering however they see fit. I’m certain that I’m not alone, though, in feeling a deeply sinister force afoot in the energy around the 9/11 industry, a force that sacralizes the names of the people who died in the attacks that day and obsessively replays the details of the event…as if nothing of consequence has happened since then. This particular event over the weekend registered for me not as sorrow but as outrage.

You want me to remember? By all means! I remember the unnecessary wars that were launched in reaction to 9/11, the hundreds of thousands of military and civilians from many nations who have died in those ill-conceived, ill-managed wars, the obscene amount of money both spent and wasted in those wars, how the US Treasury (riding on a historic surplus at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency) got virtually emptied into the pockets of the war-profiteer friends of Dick Cheney — AND NONE OF THEM HAS BEEN HELD ACCOUNTABLE for any of this, least of all the one man who is personally responsible for the state this country, its raggedy-ass politics, and its economy on the brink of collapse, namely George W. Bush.

I think the smartest and most cogent article I read all week was George Packer’s essay “Coming Apart,” subtitled “After 9/11 transfixed America, the country’s problems were left to rot.” Here’s a key passage:

“No one appeared more surprised on September 11th, more caught off guard, than President Bush. The look of startled fear on his face neither reflected nor inspired the quiet strength and resolve that he kept asserting as the country’s response. In reaction to his own unreadiness, Bush immediately overreached for an answer. In his memoir Decision Points, Bush describes his thinking as he absorbed the news in the Presidential limousine, on Route 41 in Florida: ‘The first plane could have been an accident. The second was definitely an attack. The third was a declaration fo war.’ In the President’s mind, 9/11 was elevated to an act of war by the number of planes. Later that day, at Offutt Air Force Base, in Nebraska, he further refined his interpretation, telling his National Security Council by videoconference, ‘We are at war against terror.’

“Those were fateful words. Defining the enemy by its tactic was a strange conceptual diversion that immediately made the focus too narrow (what about the ideology behind the terror?) and too broad (were we at war with all terrorists and their supporters everywhere?). The President could have said, ‘We are at war against Al Qaeda,’ but he didn’t. Instead, he escalated his rhetoric, in an attempt to overpower any ambiguities. Freedom was at war with fear, he told the country, and he would not rest until the final victory…His entire sense of the job came to depend on being a war President.

“What were the American people to do in this vast new war? In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001 — the speech that gave his most eloquent account of the meaning of September 11th — the President told Americans to live their lives, hug their children, uphold their values, participate in the economy, and pray for the victims. These quiet continuities were supposed to be reassuring, but instead they revealed the unreality that lay beneath his call to arms. Wasn’t there anything else? Should Americans enlist in the armed forces, join the foreign service, pay more taxes, do volunteer work, study foreign languages, travel to Muslim countries? No — just go on using their credit cards…Never was the mismatch between the idea of the war and the war itself more apparent. Everything had changed, Bush announced, but not to worry — nothing would change.”

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