The arrival of the decennial observation of the attacks of September 11, 2001 — at least in the northeastern portion of the country — is marked by at least as much of a literal cloud hanging over us as a figurative one. I am certain that my musings on where we stand as a nation are, in part, clouded by recent natural disasters and the reminder that fate, in the hands of Mother Nature, can leave us feeling lost, damp, and alone in much the same way that mad bombers and plane crashers can.
Still, it’s tempting to polish the apple and chalk one up in the victory column. Tens years after the towers came down, Osama bin Laden, along with many of his top cohorts, is dead. The Taliban, who sought to shield him, is ousted from power and most of their strongholds lie in ruins. The total number of al-Qaeda remaining in Afghanistan is frequently quoted as being down to double digits. Is this not victory?
There’s a reason that it might not feel this way for some of us. The damage didn’t all take place on that one September day — it rolled on for years, draining us of stamina while a new generation came of age knowing nothing but a post-9/11 world.
When England’s King Henry VIII was a young man, he suffered a wound to his leg which was later re-opened and aggravated in a jousting accident in his forties. While he lived an additional eleven years and eventually prevailed over his enemies, owing to the lack of any modern medical knowledge, the injury plagued him to the end of his days. It not only led to other maladies which likely contributed to his early demise, but weakened him in the eyes of his domestic rivals.
I bring up Henry only because his jousting opponent, in some ways, reminds me of bin Laden. He didn’t defeat the United States in any way, shape, or form. But he most assuredly wounded us.
Perhaps things might have played out much differently had we somehow struck back with a decisive knock-out blow. We started out with more than enough exuberance, ready to take on the villains and band together as a nation. Everyone was flying Old Glory and spoiling for a fight. While discussing this subject recently, my wife reminded me of a shopping trip she took a few days after the attacks. She found herself at a stop light in a line of roughly a half dozen cars. Hers was the only one without an American flag on it and she recalls feeling somewhat out of place.
It’s not that we were part of some anti-flag contingent. We had ours flying at home along with the rest of the block. We’d simply not thought to pick up one suitable for display on an automobile antenna. But the point was that everyone was primed for battle and, more importantly, expecting a victory. But that victory failed to materialize.
I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like today if we had killed — or even better, captured — bin Laden at Tora Bora in December of 2001. What if we had wrung out of him the names and locations of all his top associates and staged them at Gitmo for daily frog walks before the cameras in orange jump suits and leg irons? It would have sent a powerful message to the rest of the world and, more importantly, to ourselves that America was not to be messed with. That our power was beyond question and any attempt to knock us down would be met with swift and harsh retribution.
But that never happened. Even with their erstwhile “headquarters” in Afghanistan lying in tatters, al-Qaeda metastasized into global pockets of angry antagonists who had been shown how they might score a victory. The most hunted criminal on the planet spent more than nine years flitting through the shadows like a ghost in the collective consciousness of the world. He had demonstrated that the giant was actually flesh and blood, not an invincible machine. If you cut us, we would indeed bleed.
So the wound remained. And it festered.
Instead of spending New Years Day 2002 celebrating our triumphant victory over the Ultimate Evil, we hunkered down and slid into that long period of waiting. We were not only suspicious of “others” but of ourselves as well. Arguments and finger pointing broke out at home. Nobody was above suspicion as we wondered when the next attack might come.
In one of the more disturbing aspects of this evolutionary process, the identity of the perpetrators as being Muslim men set off a cascading chain of toxic social tides. What may have started with a handful of scattered assaults on men with funny accents who looked like they “might be Muslims” morphed into a disturbing national dialogue where diatribes and demagoguery replaced pointing fingers and fists.
The phrase Religion of Peace was, by convention, put in scare quotes. People high enough on the food chain to be considered viable contenders for the presidency took to declaring that they might impose a religious test on executive level appointments or hinting that perhaps members of Congress should be investigated to determine if they were “American enough.”
Even in the massive, non-Muslim majority, the in-fighting turned much darker. The idea of the very real terrorist threat we faced began to color every conversation. What had once been a rather spirited, but still positive ideological debate over the proper nature of government devolved into something which far more resembled two warring camps. Failure to live up to either side’s purity tests on how the threat was viewed was no longer a matter of being wrong; it was an indication of either treason, on one side, or a desire to convert America into a police state theocracy on the other.
By the time bin Laden was finally wrapped in a bed sheet and dumped into the ocean, I fear the damage had already been done. There didn’t seem to be any real sense of celebration of a “victory” by the good guys. It was too late for that. Osama had long since grown in our minds from being one very bad man to an ethereal symbol of something much larger and darker. He didn’t live in a compound in Abbottabad so much as he existed as a dark current snaking across the globe, a totem of everything that was wrong. Killing him couldn’t change the problems we faced because the disease had already spread far beyond the threat posed by one old man holed up in a room in Pakistan. He lived everywhere by then, including here in the United States. The body was dead, but the spirit had gone global.
So now we face the occasion to commemorate the attacks, but it feels far different than the clarion call for eternal vigilance which our fathers and grandfathers sounded on Pearl Harbor Day when I was a young man. I sense a vibe among many of my peers which is something closer to exhaustion. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Ground Zero in New York City is a far cry from being a modern day Battleship Arizona, and not just in terms of completing some sort of permanent memorial. Having visited both of those sites, the reactions of tourists is almost completely opposite. One inspires pride, honor, and a renewed sense of national identity. The other seems to dredge up sorrow, anger, and disillusionment. It’s a stark contrast.
Perhaps the anniversary of the attacks should be a day for quiet contemplation rather than speeches and spotlights blazing skyward. The war isn’t over, neither abroad or at home, and clearly the wounds will take much longer to heal.