And so, it's September 11th again. For some people, life doesn't get any better.
For the rest of us, it seems, maybe we should use this moment to "take stock," for some level of genuine introspection.
We recently passed the twelve year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, whose ferociousness was at least thought to have been assisted by man-made climate change (hurricanes are strengthened by warmer water), and the response of the American people, aside from doing nothing, was ultimately to elect a man who not only denied the existence of climate change at all, but who promised (a promise he kept) to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, and who is hellbent on policies designed to increase global temperatures as fast as possible. Naturally, Ameircans are blissfully unconcerned about the fact that twelve years on, we have seen, for example, devastating "Superstorm Sandy" wreak havoc here in the New York area, and, of course, Hurricane Harvey devastate Houston last week and most powerful Atlantic storm ever Hurricane Irma devastate Florida even as I type this (after it rampaged across the Caribbean leveling a number of islands). But enough people prefer the illusion of normalcy so that, at least in the allegedly "advanced" United States, man-made climate change is still "an issue." So be it. A disproportionate number of people stupid enough to have such beliefs live in danger of the results, I suppose; perhaps God will sort it out after all.
Not so much with the other issue: American "hegemony." After the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the United States found itself as "the sole super-power." We could, of course, have quickly taken down the scope of our military reach (hundreds of garrisons around the world), decommissioned our massive stockpile of nuclear weapons aimed at the no longer extant Soviet Union, canceled contracts for weapons systems, etc. Instead, almost immediately we picked a rather large scale fight with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and formed a massive coalition, with a massive American presence, leaving a rather large footprint in the Arab world (especially Saudi Arabia) to contain the vanquished Saddam. This in turn led directly to a backlash, as "the Infidels" were in the Saudi kingdom, home of two of Islams holiest places, and al Qaeda was apparently formed to "address" this, rather violently, including attacks on the Khobar towers in Saudi itself, American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the U.S.S. Cole then in Yemen, culminating in the events of Sept. 11th. With some irony, al Qaeda arose from elements of the Afghan Mujahadeen, an American financed guerrilla group designed to pester the Soviets in Afghanistan, which the Soviets eventually did quit, shortly before the USSR imploded.
Unlike climate change, where, notwithstanding the preference of seemingly controlling elements of the American power structure (and a huge part of the population) to deny something they don't like, one can certainly talk about it. With issues of American hegemony that pretty much led right to 9-11, perhaps not so much. The late Susan Sontag was vilified for this short essay in the New Yorker (third from last) in which she dared question that linkage; I'll quote it:
The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.
Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken, although this was a day that will live in infamy and America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that America still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.
Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.
We're sixteen years on, and none of those questions has been asked, as the United States doubled down again and again, with another massive war in Iraq, its longest war ever in Afghanistan (with no end in sight), potential engagements everywhere, "terrorism" having morphed into the "lone wolf" variety of night-club shoot-ups and vehicle crashes (although transportation systems are still targeted), only, of course, we can throw in the pressures of sixteen more years of unaddressed global warming coupled with Middle Eastern unrest to add a humongous refugee problem in Europe (the decision to take out Qaddaffi in Libya didn't help that either). Oh, and our relations with Russia are bad (that nation probably interfered in our recent election, and though no one wants to say it, may have manipulated enough electoral levers to install Donald Trump over the rightful winner), with China not so good, and North Korea may have the means to hit us with a nuclear ICBM. For her part, Hillary Clinton is touring the country complaining about all the things that cost her the election (including whining at Bernie Sanders, the man who tried to not talk about "her damned emails," and, in a spirit of non-introspection, minimizing her own disastrous decisions to rely on big data and not on the actual reports of her campaign field operations and freaking go to Wisconsin and Michigan). And while we're at it, we're still holding 41 men at Guantanamo (our current President promises to "fill it up with bad dudes," though no one else wants to), and we have a massive national security state that captures all your emails and phone calls (even as it lacks the manpower to read and listen to them). Oh, and since everything is digitized, hackers have stolen your social security numbers, account numbers and everything else you thought was "secure." But that's ok, because you have the latest I-phone.
And so here we are, sixteen years on. My daughter, who was then less than two, and who has no memories of a "pre-9-11 world," has started college, where, among other things, she is studying history and international relations, two things that Sontag noted most Americans, at least, would rather avoid. Maybe her generation will set about to build a more rational world (a world that will have less available resources for that generation, as we are hellbent on squandering them for our temporary comfort). We can hope. Because it seems to me that most Americans are ultimately unflappable, that is, whether it's 9-11, or Katrina, or Sandy, or Orlando/San Bernadino, or now Harvey and Irma, they don't seem to want to think about anything at a meaningful level.
I get it; as Sontag said: "Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy." Think about that--the abiding power of narrative over reality-- as we celebrate 9-11's not particularly "sweet" sixteenth.