The Trouble with Normal
Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose People are crazy and times are strange I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range I used to care, but things have changed
“Things Have Changed” Bob Dylan
It is the second plane that haunts the mind, curving on a course that seems to descend right out of a waking nightmare. Even before it struck that ugly steel and glass tower, there was already a dreadful familiarity to it. Somehow we’d seen its shape before. The Hindenburg in flames. JFK’s head blooming open on the Zapruder film. The Challenger space shuttle exploding live before our eyes in the stratosphere on an impossibly sunny Florida day. The Waco fire incinerating women and children in those Texas winds. The events of 9/11 played out like a horrifying novelty show, seared into the brainpan of the nation by thousands of instant replays.
The media technique was that of a sporting event, with time slowed down to scrutinize each frame, then flipped into reverse action. It reminded me of the old opening of the Wide World of Sports, with that poor, doomed ski-jumper sliding inevitably off the giant ramp, time after time, week after week, to the beat of the same martial music.
We are told that we are different. That things have changed, changed irrevocably. That it’s a strange, new world now. And there’s no going back. Some pundits even appropriated the language of Stephen Jay Gould (though he would never have done so), calling the leveling of the towers a kind of historical punctuated equilibrium, a great leap forward in the evolution of the nation.
It’s a comforting thought. The notion that we’ve somehow grown up. Laid the past behind. Taken the transformative step that was promised but never realized with the transit into a new millennium. The collapse of the towers became a metaphor for the shedding of a tarnished exoskeleton, a tale right out of Ovid directed by Roger Corman. In Jerry Falwell’s words, 9/11 was a preview of the Apocalypse, which expurgated the Sixties, humanism, cultural tolerance, and all of that jazz. Suddenly, everybody espoused an eschatology.
By and large, out here in Oregon, people just wanted to get back to normal, slide back into a daily routine of work, family and play. After all, Oregon’s economy had bottomed out prior to 9/11. There wasn’t any time for extended periods of cross-continental grief; and there wasn’t money to “buy a car to demonstrate our patriotism,” even with Greenspan quashing interest rates. But the media refused go along, they force fed us patriotism through the cable lines as if we were all hooked up to a collective IV. Even so, the ubiquitous American flags didn’t start going up in our little mill-town until two or three weeks after the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. These raisings didn’t seem like genuflections of patriotism so much as symbols of surrender to the imprecations of Paula Zahn.
Once he settled his nerves after those mysterious hours in that Omaha bunker, Bush placed the nation on war footing, stoking paranoia to serve his frail political agenda. Of course, Bush didn’t say much. And no one really wanted him to. He dusted off some hackneyed lines from an old western, gave a thumbs up to the crews excavating the ruins of the twin towers and stuck closely to a monosyllabic script written by his handlers.
If 9/11 hadn’t happened, there’s the creepy sense around here that Bush would have had to concoct a micro-version of it, some kind of dramatic prelude to a war designed to salvage his marooned presidency. Of course, this is the mulch that nourishes the conspiracy theorist. But there’s a steaming mound of it. His presidency in August of 2001 was listing from incompetence, a grinding recession and burgeoning scandals that seemed ready to engulf Dick Cheney and the other parental supervisors of his administration.
Into the spotlight stepped Donald Rumsfeld, a grouchy leftover from Nixon time. It now turns out that Rummy and his cohorts were poised to make some kind of war in the days leading up to 9/11–most likely against Saddam Hussein, the captive whipping boy of successive administrations. Newly released memos show that Rummy was making war plans only moments after the planes struck. Osama bin Laden was almost an afterthought, a footnote to the real objective. Link it to Saddam, urged the Secretary of Defense. “Go massive,” the memo quote Rumsfeld as saying. “Sweep it all Up. Things related and not.” Note that in Rumsfeld’s perverse mind collateral damage wasn’t something to be tolerated so much as desired.
Rummy didn’t have to worry about racking up an impressive body count of civilians. What followed was a remote control war on the poorest of the poor, featuring cruise-missiles launched on thousand mile arcs from the Indian Ocean across the Hindu Kush to pulverize mud huts in Kandahar and Khost. More than 5,000 civilians perished. But the Taliban weren’t defeated so much as dispersed back into the tribal gangs from which they were recruited during the CIA-orchestrated war against the Soviet Union. Afghanistan wasn’t bombed back to the Stone Age, just back to feudalism. The nation’s pistachio crops aren’t doing so well, but the opium fields are booming once again.
Many liberals pinned their hopes on Colin Powell to restrain the ultra hawks in the administration. This proved delusional from the start. Powell’s bloodstained resum? dates back to My Lai and the most gruesome atrocities of Vietnam. At his best, Colin Powell was indecisive, pouty, powerless. At his most malign, he served to hold together the shaky war coalition, through the calculated use of arm-twisting and bribery.
It soon became clear that a little bit of paranoia served as a natural defense mechanism. Not out of fear that bin Laden might strike again, but of the likes of John Ashcroft, who was itching to deploy a legion of snoops, from truckers and cable guys to librarians and lap dancers. Ashcroft is one of the more comically sinister characters to hit the DC political scene since Ed Meese. But Meese was a political pit bull, dangerous but predictable. Ashcroft is a deranged crusader, as warped by his religious obsession as is bin Laden. But so much more powerful. When Jefferson talked about separation of church and state, he was warning against empowering the likes of Ashcroft, not innocuous prayer in school.
The 3,000 victims at “ground zero”, especially the firemen and cops who rushed into the towers only to have them collapse on top of them, were swiftly turned into sacrificial heroes, national martyrs in the cause of the revenge tragedy that is now being played out on a global scale. Bruce Springsteen roused himself out of hibernation to sing the soundtrack, for $20 a pop. Suddenly there were martyrs everywhere. From Mohammed Atta to Todd Beamer, whose last words were trademarked by his wife, Lisa-it’s the American way. Is the thirst for virgins in the afterlife so inexhaustible?
Every aspect of American society continues to be drenched in this sticky and unrelenting patriotism. You get the sense that even our serial killers are uniquely American. Something to be proud about. And perhaps so it should be. Those Special Forces troops who came back from the hunting grounds of Afghanistan to kill their wives at Fr. Bragg are the most pampered and “understood” killers since William Calley.
Looking back, it’s hard to see any fundamental change in the character of life in America. The events of 9/11 and their aftermath merely solidified the status quo. The economy remains in a rut. Environmental laws are being peeled back day by day. The Sharon war machine tramples Palestinians with impunity. The unemployment rolls grow daily by the thousands. More and more are going without food stamps or welfare checks. It’s all blotted out by the manufactured trauma of 9/11.
Of course, some things were clarified. The fragility of the Constitution. The supine nature of the environmental groups and big labor, which stood down as the Bush administration cravenly pursued its post-9/11 domestic agenda. And, of course, the complicit character of the Democratic Party, which green-lighted Bush’s war without debate and helped enact some of the most oppressive domestic policing laws in the history of the Republic with only two or three voices of dissent. Now one of those, Cynthia McKinney, has been driven from the congress for her impertinence. And the beat goes on.
I opened the paper this morning. More indications of a double-dip recession. Boeing stiff-armed the machinist union, again. The number of Americans ensnared by the criminal justice system topped 6 million. The US-armed death squads in Colombia slaughtered more peasants. More than 90 percent of Native Americans live without access to adequate health care. GE’s Jack Welch got a severance package that pays him $17,000 a day. The spotted owl population has declined by 50 percent in the last 10 years and seems headed inevitably toward the black hole of extinction.
It all seems so familiar. Same direction, faster pace. The trouble with normal, Bruce Cockburn sings, is that it always gets worse.
Jeffrey St. Clair can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
CounterPunch Special Report: 9/11 One Year After
Bill Christison A Year Later: It’s Happening Here
Alexander Cockburn The Tenth Crusade
Susan Davis Mr. Ashcroft’s Neighborhood
Bruce Jackson When War Came Home
David Krieger Looking Back on September 11
Peter Linebaugh Levellers and 9/11
Jeffrey St. Clair The Trouble with Normal
Tom Stephens Rise Up…Dump Bush