My memory of 9/11 has been shaped by all the events that happened since – wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Patriot Act and the growing surveillance state that legislation initiated; my greater understanding of the Middle East and Islam; a broader historical awareness of America’s role in that part of the world, going back almost sixty years. But I wrote a letter to my local paper that day, and the paper came out two days later. This was raw, uneducated, unfiltered reaction; I suppose it had to be reactionary. I was vilified by my friends and embraced by people I despised. It was a strange moment. My son, who returned this Spring from studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan, just shakes his head at the overheated rhetoric of this crazy broadside.
But I don’t think I was alone, even among liberals. There was a reason George W. Bush had a 90% approval rating in the angry, war-mongering days after the attack; a reason why he could leverage his own catastrophic blunder into an opportunity to attempt the neo-conservative strategy of imposing our way of life on people who hated it. It’s worth taking a look at this troubling snap-shot of outraged patriotism, if we want to understand how the 9/11 attacks led us to where we stand today, fighting two wars and on the brink of a third. Will Yemen be next? And is there any way to pull back? Maybe, by repudiating the knee-jerk vengeful rage of the first letter that follows.
I don't know what this makes anyone else feel, but I'll tell you what I'm feeling tonight: sheer red-eyed rage and fury. The amputation of the World Trade Center, the violation of my home town, the sheer senseless, blood and cant-soaked religion fuelled hatred of the act make me feel about the whole world of Islam what they have been feeling about us for decades. They want a religious war? I say give it to them. I say let them find out what happens when they awaken this sleeping giant. I say carpet bomb the whole Middle East -- every one of those countries, with all the innocent people in them. This has to be a calamity for them, an act of God, a typhoon, a tidal wave, a rain of toads. They have to learn that they cannot let their lunatic fringe declare war on the most powerful country in the world because if they do we will reach over and crush them like the puny desert bugs they are.
What no American politician has ever understood is that you cannot fight these people in a civilized way. Jimmy Carter never grasped this. He tried to negotiate with a culturally institutionalized mass psychosis. He talked about the energy crisis as the 'moral equivalent of war' and then failed to notice when the real thing actually happened. Iran declared war on us, and we refused to fight it. That sent the terrorists a message they've never forgotten. George Bush Senior only made things worse when he refused to deal decisively with Saddam Hussein. And the same thing is happening again.
George W. is talking about 'hunting down' and 'punishing' the perpetrators. This is just bombastic noise: The ones who committed the act are dead. The ones who gave the orders are impossible to hunt down. It's like finding the one mosquito with the West Nile virus. You don't capture a million mosquitos and give them each a blood test -- you wipe out ALL MOSQUITOS .. or at least you do the best you can. You spray. That's what we have to do.
The sad fact is there's no middle ground between the pathetic nothing of the President’s rhetorical outrage and the ruthless everything of total war. To fight terrorism effectively, innocent people will have to be killed. Beautiful historical sites will have to be destroyed. A whole sick culture will have to go down in flames. It's our God against their God, and Jesus can warm the bench on this play, folks. Because we need the Old Testament God now. We need someone in the White House with the guts to enact the towering rage that is exploding in the American people tonight. If Bush and his geriatric cold warriors can't do it, I volunteer.
It wouldn't cause world war III -- Putin is ready to fight and that's one thing the Russians are good at. If there is a World War III, it will be the whole civilized world united to wipe out this insane cancerous society which has been metastasizing for a thousand years. And we can take out the Taliban while we're at it, and take over the Saudi Oil fields, too. Those towel-heads have been robbing us blind for decades.
The thing that really broke my heart was watching those towers collapse. I know that the actual crash was the true tragedy; the explosion killed the people. But the utter destruction of the buildings just levelled me. It was like ... the terrorist killed your lover, but before that he yanked out her two front teeth. The death is horrible, but the brutalization and disfigurement is worse somehow. That's the thing that gives you the rage to kill in your turn. And I'm in a killing mood tonight. I just wish our President felt the same way.
A wrote a sort of retraction the next week. Its open-hearted optimism strikes me today as even more naïve and tragic than my jingoistic tantrum:
Several people have told me they thought last weeks’ letter in the Inquirer and Mirror was “insane.” They couldn’t believe I was advocating unilateral military attacks against civilian targets in the Middle East. Perhaps I was insane when I wrote those things. But to take a reasonable position on the most appalling attack on our country since the war of 1812 at that moment, before the dust from the ruined towers had even settled on lower Manhattan … that would have been a different kind of insanity. Obviously, I have nothing to do with making military policy in this country. That gives me the luxury to vent my feelings. We all expected Colin Powell and the President to be more measured and – gratefully – they were . But in raving at this murderous outrage I was also trying to articulate feelings that many people shared. My hope was that seeing those raw emotions clearly stated in print might allow others a moment of relief – and a sense of perspective. An aggressive “Right on!” followed by a flinch reaction of “Oh no.”, hate and horror separate but profoundly connected – the lightning flash of bloodlust; and then the slow thunder of rational thought.
I could have written a letter with the opposite viewpoint the next day, and twenty others in the days since. Like everyone else I know, I have felt every possible emotion from helplessness and fear and guilt to the indignation and anger I described last week. The situation is too large and evil and unprecedented for any single reaction, and no one would want the snap-shot of one instant’s emotion to stand as a permanent record of their grief. Even the media, with their relentless ability to hype and exploit and over-dramatize any event, have been outstripped by the reality here.
The tactics I suggested were impractical as well as draconian. We need to find the actual culprits; killing thousands of innocent people in senseless bombing raids would please the terrorists more than anything else we could do. They would love to see us reduced to their level of bloody-toothed grinning barbarism; and even more than that, they would love to see us diminished in the eyes of the world. Because the fact is that we hold the moral high ground against them, for the first time in decades. Even Yassir Arafat is on our side. We have the chance to literally unite the entire globe in a confederation unparalleled in history and unimaginable before the eleventh of September. There might even be greater benefits to be gotten from this alliance than the eradication of terrorism.
Looking up from the smoking rubble of an insane act of war, we can see – if we’re willing to squint through the smoke – the astonishing possibility of a world at peace.
Of course, the future I glimpsed there was quickly and brutally foreclosed by the Bush administration, and continues to dwindle under Obama. I now have little hope and only occasional flickers of anger. A numb despair prevails: buckle into the harness and trudge forward. The situation is bad today, but it wasn’t great when we installed Saddam Hussein in Iraq – or the Shah in Iran. Systems unravel, empires decline. Things get worse; it’s a kind of geopolitical entropy that feels inevitable, now. I feel nostalgia today for the outrage and the optimism that animated those letters. I have very little of either one left … which may be the real legacy of 9/11.
And that’s the saddest thing of all.