My 9/11 Problem–and Ours

[Rather than try to scratch up something new for 9/11 commentary, here’s the note I wrote last year. It sums up my thoughts on this awful day.]

My God I am sick of 9/11 commentary. Aren’t you? I have usually managed to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks with some considered thought. But at this point I’ve nothing left to say.

Now, you could argue I already did my 9/11 duty with a pair of columns (here and here) on the US Seals’s killing of Osama bin Laden, but… not so much. I’m done, spent, all out of cards and rabbits. No damn cat, no damn cradle. So I’ll mark this 9/11 instead by looking back at some of the wise and foolish things I said about the events arising from that dread day.

One piece that’s been making the rounds is a first person number for Reason looking at the problems of crossing the Canadian border after 9/11. It worried that the new heightened security would lead to “structural readjustments,” that fewer people would “cross the border for any reason; employment will be essentially restricted to the country of residence; and ultimately people will interact less.” That was a bit overblown, though the border is still more of a pain than it used to be. Additional ID requirements make it harder to take visiting friends up to BC on a lark, for instance. But that hasn’t stopped Canadians from overcrowding American malls.

The two Reason pieces I wish were making the rounds were about historical memory and just war. The first was the most controversial. Written originally for the American Prospect, it was rejected by a reprehensible human being named Richard Just. (He would later go on to edit the New Republic.) It was denounced by one commentator as being “offensively jaded.” A former roommate and native New Yorker called me an asshole over her reading of the article. What, you may wonder, did it say?

It opened with an “almost wicked thought”: “Has there ever been a more un-American mantra than ‘We shall never forget’?” The piece explained that “The idea of a New World, where old grievances gradually fade into the mists of time, may be a myth; but it’s one that, before 9/11, [Americans] devoutly believed in.” On the first anniversary of 9/11, I made the case for recovering that forgetfulness, eventually. And we just might. All Very Serious People in the press and politics feel it necessary to solemnize the day but there are some signs that we are no longer paying it all that much attention. The 9/11 links on have done little to boost traffic.

The other Reason piece that I wish would get some new coverage was on 9/11 and just war. It looked at the way George W. Bush early on seemed to be using the just war theory as a “code of honor” for prosecuting the war on terror. It warned that if he overreached, “Bush may pull himself far outside of the Just War Theory’s moral umbrella.” That was as close as I got to an early condemnation of the Iraq invasion, I’m afraid. No, I didn’t cheerlead for that war, but let the record forever show: I was a squish.

There were two other notable 9/11 pieces, for Politico and Splice Today. The folks at Politico rightly junked my proposed title and summarized the piece instead, “Sept. 11 turned us against each other.” “”The attacks pushed America’s parties in roughly opposite, dangerous directions,” it argued, and “The center has failed to reel them back in.”

Republicans had become an “objectively pro-war party” and Democrats had lost the ability to discriminate between their political opponents and our country’s mortal enemies. You can still hear echoes of this with the Dems comparing R’s to “terrorists” over recent budget negotiations. As for the Republican war frenzy, deep misgivings are still warranted. There has been some pro-forma GOP protest of President Obama’s unilateral commitment to war in Libya, but only that.

The Splice Today piece opened with a scene out of the Hangover. The punchline had a certain Jeremy Lott doppelganger muttering “Thanks a lot, bin Laden!” The article argued, well, I’ll just give you most of the final graph: “We were a fairly carefree people…when historical forces came calling, eight years ago. Our leaders became convinced, for reasons that now fail to convince, that it would be irresponsible to simply hit back, anvil-hard. Instead, we had to spread liberal democracy abroad, and a stultifying pseudo-seriousness at home.” Bottom line: “[T]he reaction of political leaders and civil society to the [9/11] attacks sure managed to suck most of the fun out of America.”

Can that fun ever come back? One of the pieces about the killing of bin Laden dared to hope. My family had learned of Osama’s demise from a waitress at Applebee’s, who rightly thought that we’d like to know. I wrote, “With her words — words that echoed those of President Obama’s terse but stirring address — an old burden evaporated from our shoulders. For the first time in nearly a decade, history didn’t feel so bloody crushing. We knew that we could all breathe a little easier going forward because Bin Laden could breathe not at all.”

The American Spectator’s sometimes rabid commenters predictably hated it. They argued that Osama’s death didn’t matter all that much in ongoing war on terror. That sounds perverse to these ears. The fact that the body of the planner and financier of the 9/11 attacks now sleeps with the fishes surely ought to matter. If it doesn’t then we’re in far more trouble than I had feared.

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