This coming Sunday, of course, is the tenth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Most of the blogosphere (to say nothing of the press, mainstream and otherwise) will fill up a great deal of space dealing with the subject. When approaching the date, I figured I’d join in the chorus (?).
Unfortunately I find myself unable to do so, not at least as definitively as one would like.
Like most Americans, I was deeply shaken by the attacks, and went into something of a funk for several months thereafter. (That funk was doubtless driven also by the fact that my mother had died the previous December.) But it was two things subsequent to that that have only driven the whole event further into my consciousness.
The first was my work as the webmaster for the Church of God Chaplains Commission. Its director at the time, Dr. Robert Crick, commissioned me to do a Powerpoint presentation with music for their Honours Banquet at the 2002 Church of God General Assembly. Chaplains–military, police and the like–are right there with the first responders, and I had access to some very immediate material. Some of that is grisly, especially the photos of the burning towers with people hanging out the windows, some hurtling to their deaths below. (One Church of God chaplain was in the Pentagon when the plane hit there.) I left out the worst for the presentation, but watching the photos with the raw memory not even a year past brought tears to much of the audience at the banquet. I thought of putting up some of that material but I could not bring myself to depict people who came into the WTC on a beautiful day and suddenly found themselves with the clock of life running out so quickly. Maybe I am too soft-hearted for this line of work. (The subsequent military operations brought hundreds of photos from the field, which became a part of more similar presentations.)
The second was the discovery that I not only had relatives in the greater New York area, but one who was on Manhattan when the planes struck. New York remains the target par excellence for Islamic careerists of all stripes; the thought of that continuing threat to people I really care about isn’t very settling. Especially before 9/11, for many in the South and South-west New York was the place where investments/savings went into and the bad salsa came out of. (For South Floridians, it’s the traditional source of most people who live there, and that has interesting aspects of its own.)
In the wake of 9/11 there was created a new sense of unity in this country. That unity was all too fleeting, indeed. A great deal of web space has been devoted to whether our response was appropriate or not, but the question remains: what would have been better, especially with Afghanistan? In a broad sense, 9/11 and the subsequent events reveal two major strategic blunders on the part of both sides.
Osama bin Laden, schooled in the ways of the Middle East, was convinced that such an attack would bring out the power challengers (Al Gore?) in a divided country, who would at least wound the country to the point where it would pull its military presence out of Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s immediate objective. But just the opposite happened: the country unified, driving bin Laden into hiding for a decade until he was finally taken out earlier this year.
George W. Bush, schooled in the simplistic civics of the United States, thought of democracy in the Middle East inspired/imposed by the U.S. military. That led to our unsatisfactory result in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of the trashing of his own political party (until his opponents stumbled in the recession.)
The irony of all of this, ten years out, is that the objectives of both may actually come to pass.
The “Arab Spring” has shown that popular forces can make a difference in the Middle East. Translating that into a stable, rule of law representative government is going to be a long, difficult process, and the most probable short-term road for the Middle East is the same one the Iranians did (Islamicism.) It will not be a pretty process and it won’t go in the straight line that our self-conceited punditry might like it to. The experience of the French and the Russians should teach us that people without a democratic tradition cannot turn themselves into “standard issue” Western style democracies overnight. For Americans, where the long term is after lunch, that’s a hard pill to swallow.
In our own case, we are a country where too many of our citizens have become existential threats to others, in most cases in a mutual way. In the Old West, when the two wasn’t big enough for two men, there was a gunfight, and one or both got shot. Driven by our lacklustre economy, sooner or later–and I think sooner–something is going to snap in this country, and we will have a complete mess on our hands.
The core problem with 9/11 is that, bin Laden’s death notwithstanding, there is so little closure to the problems, domestic and foreign, that faced us then and in its aftermath. At this point we best remember those who perished and pray for those who remain. There’s not much else that most of us can do.