“Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”
-Bob Seger (“Against the Wind”)
I was five years old on December 7, 1951, the ten-year anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan, probably too young to have understood if there was a big deal made of the decennial. That day of infamy had been long since vanquished by then, so I’m guessing it was not quite the event the pending commemoration this weekend of another infamous date promises to be.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 were probably no more horrific in the grand scheme of things than was the unprovoked bombing raid of December 7, 1941. Fewer Americans died at Pearl Harbor, but their deaths were no less tragic, no less mourned, no less the cause for a national sense of rage and for a new understanding of America’s place in the world.
Both events plunged the country into wars, against Germany and Japan in 1941, against al Qaida and the Taliban in 2001, and, soon thereafter, against Saddam Hussein and the Iranian affiliates who moved in and continued the battle on his demise.
But whereas World War II united the country even further and led to a period of amazing prosperity in its aftermath, the War on Terror fractured the country much as the Viet Nam War did a generation before. And it has been marked with economic travails the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Great Depression (which, of course, WW II ended, once and for all).
The attacks of 9/11 were a national nightmare, pure and simple. Everyone has his or her own memory of the moment we realized what we were witnessing. For many it was the sight of the twin towers, those magnificent symbols of America’s economic supremacy, crumbling in a cloud of dust, and the awareness that thousands of lives were being destroyed as those great edifices fell.
I vividly recall those minutes as my wife and I watched the televised images of the towers as they burned and then collapsed. We hugged each other as if to hold onto a sense of sanity as we mumbled those anxious questions: What is happening? Who is doing this to our country?
What had happened is now all too clear, except, perhaps, to the conspiracy theorists who want to conger up an internal government plot devised by Dick Cheney as a means to get us into a war in the Middle East, where his former company, Halliburton (which he still owned a gazillion shares of stock in) would rack up record profits undertaking all the non-military work that needed to be done to rebuild the countries we would be destroying.
Funny thing about that theory, whether true or not, it ended up working out just about that way, didn’t it?
And, of course, the war in Iraq, even though the claim of weapons of mass destruction was just another sham, has been prosecuted to its bitter end, which we probably won’t see for another ten years, as U.S. non-combat troops remain in country for at least that long, a continuing target for whatever brand of radical Islam wants to maintain the pressure, so as to destabilize the puppet regime the U.S. tries to keep in power against Iranian infiltration.
Isn’t it interesting how easy it is to free associate with the things that have happened since 9/11? Its impact has been obvious only to the extent America has become unsettled. The wars—depending on how you count, all two, three, or four of them—have been largely unfunded and essentially unauthorized, if the Constitution is the test. The economy has been weak at best, especially when viewed relative to the boom times of the prior decade, and near collapse at worst. A solid majority thought it was electing its most liberal president in 40 years, but now appears ready to swing even more to the right than it was under his very conservative predecessor.
And the national psyche is awash in a mix of depression and anger. Few believe what the candidates—all of them—say: that the country’s best days are ahead of it. Most view the new century as America’s last days as a true superpower. The rest of the world is no longer willing to march to America’s drumbeat, even if its fortunes still rise and fall with America’s economy.
And the country’s youth, once its fount of idealism and hope, is now largely comprised of cynics and skeptics. They were lifted by the candidate of 2008, only to see more of the same in the president he has become. They have no patience with the country’s governmental institutions, with Congress inept at best, nefarious at worst, with federal and state agencies seemingly always at least a step or two behind the real problems that need to be confronted, with a war-making machine that seems to have an insatiable appetite, and with a corporation-dominated economy that has little regard for its consumers or its workers.
Would the country be as badly adrift as it is now had 9/11 or anything like it never occurred? It’s an imponderable question, of course, but no one can doubt that our lives would be considerably easier. For one thing, we would have much quicker check-ins for air travel.
More to the point, we wouldn’t be so afraid, so limited in our view of the possible.
In some respects, 9/11 changed the way we feel about ourselves. We can’t pretend that everyone loves us anymore, or even that most of the rest of the world does. In fact, we now know that we are hated by many, and not just by those who attacked us. We’ve made more enemies than friends in the last ten years. For every threat we’ve neutralized, we’ve created two new ones.
We lost our innocence on 9/11. “Our world will never be the same,” I told my law students that afternoon. I said it without knowing exactly what I meant. Now I do.
Wish we didn’t know now what we didn’t know then.