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9/11 was the first time we were attacked on our own soil by anyone other than the British. Who, other than reenactors who play dress-up remembers or cares about the War of 1812? Hawaii was an American territory in 1941, not a state, and in that time before jet travel it was, to most Americans a faraway island abstraction.
But 9/11 was unambiguously an attack on America and Americans in every conceivable aspect. There was nothing faraway or abstract about it. We all saw it happening in real time. The almost absurd devices the killers used–box cutters, primarily–to turn our own domestic aircraft into terrifying weapons changed the way we think about warfare, where it happens, who does it, what it looks like.
Most of us, to that point, thought of American involvement in war as a board game, reported by CNN with streaming reports of the stock market at the bottom of the screen. WW II, Korea and Vietnam were gritty and dirty and loud, but they were long ago and far away, and our recent wars have been hidden from almost everyone. The American government permitted no direct press coverage of our last three wars, and the casualties were minor and many of them accidental and by friendly fire. Our troops might have to go somewhere and some of them might get killed, but that had little to do with the rest of us. War was something that happened elsewhere, mostly to other people. Now an enemy we can barely identify fighting a war the point of which we cannot name arrives in our greatest city and obliterates that city’s primary symbol of international commerce.
9/11 changed the course of George Bush’s presidency. It gave him something to talk about. We now live in a time of perpetual potential for Wag the Dog. Bush talks about initiating pre-emptive wars. Before 9/11 he couldn’t have uttered that term without causing an uproar. Now, Congress ups the Defense Department budget and says “Thank you.” Bush talks about mounting a land war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein might be having evil thoughts. John Ashcroft, defeated for US Senate in his own state by a dead man, now dances in spiked shoes on the Bill of Rights and hardly any newspaper in the land holds him to account for it.
We lock our own citizens in unnamed jails, forbid them attorneys and specify no charges–all in the name of national security. Security from what? Isn’t that what America is supposed to keep us secure from? Social programs, education programs, infrastructure programs, environmental initiatives have all been mutilated by the shift in government resources and attention to military matters. Oil companies again push for drilling in the ANWR, this time citing the potential war with Iraq, and the White House says, “Let’s do it.” The White House abandons the international treaty not to further pollute the fragile oceans, saying, “Our national interest demands it.”
We have become even less willing than before to take a firm stand in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. With the allegiances and alliances in the Arab world more complex than ever, Bush seems unwilling to do anything that might disturb our unambiguous alliance with Israel. Sharon treats our peace initiatives with contempt. Before 9/11 Bush ignored the Middle East; now he seems to be driven by Sharon’s whims. Another tail wagging another dog.
And there is a fear in the land–small and fleeting at times, large and overwhelming at others. “People in big meetings”–wrote my daughter, who works in Manhattan and cannot stop remembering what she saw that September morning one year ago–”all pause and look when one person looks out the window for more than a second or two. We were always safe here before–you’d see the buses and mall attacks in Israel and think how terrible, and, thankfully, separate it is from us. How it just would never happen here. I never understood why it would never happen here, but still took comfort in it.” Changes in the sound of an airplane’s engines and everyone you can see stops moving or looks to the sky. A sudden bump in flight and everybody in the plane looks up: what are the flight attendants doing? are they really that calm or are they faking it? When the subway stops between stations people no longer ignore it or curse the city’s incompetence. And how do you feel when you’re on the 70th or 80th floor of a skyscraper in New York or Chicago or Toronto and you see an airplane turning, turning, turning?
There is, so far as I can see, a single positive aspect to all of this: many Americans are now far more likely to see themselves and their country as part of the world, rather than a special place, free to ignore everyone else’s needs and aspirations and conditions. We are far less likely to think of the world as simply us and everyone else. Those others have been given faces and names. For a while after 9/11 we were paranoid about everyone and the landscape was aflutter with flags, flags and more flags, as if we had to announce to ourselves that we were really still here. Most of the flags are gone. We’re here. And we are less naive than we were.
Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University of Buffalo. He edits Buffalo Report.
His email address is 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