A Day That Changed America

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the fear, foreboding and outrage of many Americans was crystallized in a single phrase: this was a “a day that changed America forever.”

These words conveyed a tragic sense of loss, a sudden passage from in-nocence to sorrow, a descent from strength to vulnerability, an exit from exhilaration to angst. Suddenly, Americans, used to cruising at ethereal altitudes, had crash landed on the real world; they faced terror in the heart of America. It appeared that America had collided momentarily with the reality of a world mired in wars, poverty and disease; it had been struck by the shards of economies devastated, polities derailed, environments degraded by a rapacious globalization. In short, for one brief hour, Americans had been dragged through the agony endured by more than four-fifths of mankind, or what still goes by that name. It was as if, like Adam and Eve, Americans had been expelled from Eden, banished from the land of perpetual bliss.

These wounds carried revolutionary potential. Now that September 11 had rudely shattered Americans out of their unearthly bliss, ended their disconnection from the outside world, they would avidly seek to expand their knowledge about this alien world, its geography, history, politics, and, most importantly, its peoples. They would ask not only about who had perpetrated the horrors of September 11 but why? They would not rest till they had answers to two troubling questions that delve into the origins, the source, and the genesis of September 11.

The first question concerns good and evil. Why has the goodness of America been repaid by the evil of September 11? Many if not most Americans believe that they are a nation of do-gooders; that their country stands at the pinnacle of human evolution; it embodies better than any other nation ever the values of freedom and justice; it is a beacon of light to all mankind, fighting foreign tyrannies, propagating democracy, and sharing its own prosperity, ideas, and technology with the world’s less fortunate nations. If all this is indeed true, why did September 11 happen to us? Or could it be that we have been duped, that the image of American munificence was just that, an image that concealed the reality of an ugly, imperialistic power like all others before?

The second question concerns the efficacy of America’s vaunted military power. Americans know that their country is the only superpower, a distinction solidly built upon unrivalled economic strength, leadership in cutting-edge technologies, inestimably superior manpower, strengths which allow their government to gather intelligence worldwide, to deploy troops worldwide, to hit targets worldwide, and to destroy incoming missiles before they cross their borders. In short, we are convinced that we have the capacity to annihilate any country that dares to challenge us. But none of this helped us on September 11 when a handful of men, armed with nothing more lethal than box-cutters, attacked two venerable icons of American power, and within an hour killed some three thousand Americans, caused damage to property worth tens of billions of dollars, and still greater damage to the economy. Why was our government spending 350 billion dollars annually on military hardware, surveillance, intelligence, training and troops if it could not stop nineteen men from changing America forever?

These are the questions-and there are many more like these-that America’s mass media might have asked after September 11 if they were free from corporate control. If these questions could be raised in the mass media, they would also be debated on college campuses, in churches, town halls, and in the halls of the Congress. If such a discourse had occurred, it would slowly but surely effect a sea-change in our perceptions about how America projects itself overseas; about the ideals abandoned in our dealings with weaker nations; about our readiness to trample freedoms abroad, sacrifice non-American lives, devastate entire economies, in order to advance the corporate interests of a few Americans. If these changes had indeed occurred, Americans would finally wake up to the ugly reality of America abroad, and mobilize-as they had mobilized against slavery and racial discrimination before-to force their government to pursue the same ideals abroad that it honors at home. If all this had indeed come to pass, then truly we could say that America had decisively defeated the perpetrators of September 11-by changing America, by changing America and the world for the better.

But this is not how America changed after September 11. Americans could not be allowed to ask the right questions because these would only generate the wrong answers-that is, wrong for corporate America, for America’s powerful oil interests, for the military establishment, for the Zionist lobby, for racists, and for religious bigots. America’s outrage would not be answered with debate, discussions and dull inquiry. It would be placated by righteous indignation, by talk of evil antagonists, by promises of vengeance, and wars without end. America’s grief would be hijacked by groups whose interests, security, power and profits batten on paranoia, bigotry, racism, wars and conflicts. Almost instantly, these forces responded to September 11 by orchestrating the deafening beat of war drums. On September 11, Osama bin Laden had dared America. America obliged-with wars against Afghans and Palestinians, to be followed by wars against Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, Saudis, and many more besides.

George Bush and his neoconservative war-mongers took the lead in all this. They had found in the tragedy of September 11 the trigger for the war plans they had been hatching since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Within days, George Bush at al had laid out their plans for global war before the American public. Even before the hijackers had been identified, they were linked to al-Qaida, a “collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations.” Yet their attacks were declared to be “an act of war against our country.” This was no ordinary war, however. The al-Qaida had launched a civilizational war: “they hate us,” they were “enemies of freedom,” they “hate our freedoms,” they want to “disrupt and end a way of life.” Al-Qaida’s goal “is remaking the world-and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.” In other words, al-Qaida wanted to impose a fundamentalist Islam on the United States and Europe. (All the quotes in this and the next paragraph are from President George Bush’s speech of September 21, 2001, given to a joint ses-sion of Congress.)

Wars spawn wars. So if the al-Qaida had started a war, United States would have to respond in kind. The President declared that “the only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows.” This global war “on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” In time, this war will be extended to “nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.”. In addition, this would not be a short war: it will be a “lengthy campaign, unlike any we have ever seen.” It will also be a total war, including “dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success.” The Bush strategy was clear. Magnify the terrorist threat, fuel it, and prepare the nation for a war that would be global, total and unending.

Roma locuta, causa finite. President Bush had spoken, and the case was closed. All the organs of mainstream media concurred with Bush. The country was in the midst of a war, and nothing would be tolerated which carried the hint of dissent. Dissent was unpatriotic; some said, it was treasonous. The Bush doctrine-you are against us if you are not with us-applied to individuals as well as states. United States was now a country with one party, the party of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Ashcroft. Only the survivors of the victims of September 11 stuck to their demand for an independent investigation into September 11. When they persisted, the President reluctantly agreed, more than a year after September 11, to appoint an Independent Commission. Yet, in choosing Henry Kissinger to chair this Commission, the President ensured that it would be ineffectual. As one commentator quipped, he had put Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

Even without Kissinger to chair it, the Independent Commission on September 11 is unlikely to deliver any surprises. Its mandate only de-mands that it identify the factors that allowed the attacks on WTC and Pentagon to occur. The Commission will not hold any hearings in Groznyy or Gaza; in Baghdad or Basra; in Kashmir or Kabul; in Cairo or Karachi; in Jakarta or Jeddah; in Caracas or Kolkata; in Nairobi or Nouakchott. It will not enter into the world the hijackers came from; it will not probe into the lives of the hijackers; it will not investigate why they committed such carnage; it will not ponder over why did they took their own lives to attack Americans; it will not ask why they could not deliver their message to Americans by less violent means?

Presumably, all these questions had been answered definitively by Bush et al. The perpetrators of September 11 were evil, they acted from in-eradicable spite, from a nihilistic rage against modernity, against all that America represents, her freedom, democracy, progress and prosperity. After these incontestable answers, there was only one thing that remained to be done. Send the stealth bombers, cruise missiles, daisy-cutters and bunker-busting nukes to exorcise these demons.

Now, more than a year after that tragic morning on September 11 when nearly three thousand Americans were consumed in an inferno that descended from the skies, after all the rubble from the Ground Zero and the Pentagon has been cleared, can we say that America has changed forever? Did America embrace the potential for change contained in that terrible moment, the potential to connect with the inverse of our own world, a world whose sufferings, whose tyrannies, whose pathologies are deeply connected to ours in ways unknown to us? Were we overwhelmed by the slow dawning of the burden we bear, as the vanguard of the human enterprise, as the champions of Christian charity, to do something-even a little bit-to enrich, empower, enlighten and embrace those left behind? If Americans had taken up this challenge, if we could take up this challenge, that would be a change.

Instead, the captains of capital, the marshals of mass media, the priests of bigotry, the zealots of Zion, have laid out plans for wars, total, global and unending to stop Americans from demanding change and to stop the rest of the world from getting the change they demand. As the wounds of global capitalism deepen, as the dark satanic mills of capitalist greed grind three-fourths of mankind deeper into poverty, as entire continents are devastated, as agro-corporations seek to chain millions of farmers to their genetic fabrications, as the middle classes in the rich countries slowly sink into poverty, as the consciousness of these depredations finally threatens to become global, the concentrated power of capital seized upon September 11 to divert Americans with gladiatorial combats on a global scale.

Let the drums of the news networks roll, let the combats begin, let blood be spilled liberally, let entire countries be depopulated, let us make mass exterminations a spectator sport. Only death brings life. Only thus will America be diverted. After devastation there comes peace.

M. SHAHID ALAM is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University. His recent book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations, was published by Palgrave (2000). He may be reached at m.alam@neu.edu.

Copyright: M. SHAHID ALAM.


M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.