September 13, 2004

Reflections on 9/11/2004

[This post was compiled over the past three months, starting as an explanation of the mindset of America after the attacks to my British friends. As usual, I just couldn't stop writing.]

After 9/11, Americans looked on the world as if we'd never seen it before. War had changed. America was used to fighting against countries, entities with tangible borders and representatives. People you could negotiate with, places that Generals could point to on a map and say "Bomb this." Well not anymore. Now loosely-based militant organizations could kill thousands of people at will in suicide attacks. Immediate, deadly, intangible, untraceable. Used to be that you had to have a sizable army, weapons and a power base to wage war. Now all you need is ten men, a few box-cutting knives and the element of surprise.

This all led to a national paranoia. Terrorists could be anywhere, and since no one, not even the CIA, had any idea where to start looking for them, the cry went up to support George W. Bush in whatever actions he deemed necessary. National panic and grief had given him near-absolute power. Any politician who disagreed with Bush's sweeping reforms was labeled "unpatriotic", which was nearly all it took to ruin a political career in those times.

It felt like the Salem Witch Trials and McCarthy's "Red Scare" rolled into one. Bush was our appointed leader, and if you oppose his carte-blanche access to collecting personal information on every person in the country, or allowing the government to "roll back" personal freedoms, you must have something to hide! If you speak out against The Leader, you are weakening our great nation, even helping the terrorists! Soon, each car without an American Flag, or a sticker of it, was looked at with suspicion.

When country singing group The Dixie Chicks said in a London concert that they were "ashamed that Bush came from Texas" (their home state), droves of angry listeners forced a boycott of their music on radio stations. They became the national scapegoat for "anti-Americanism," and were called everything from "Osama's Angels" to "The Dixie Sluts", not because they spoke out against the war or America, just because they expressed disapproval for George W. Bush in general. Tour dates were cancelled due to protests and they were booed off the stage at awards ceremonies.

Fellow country singer Toby Keith, appealing to the lowest common denominator, showed doctored pictures of the Dixie Chicks shaking hands with Osama Bin Laden at his concerts to audiences, who cheered in approval. Toby Keith's patriotic slant made him a triple-platinum success with such hits as "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue [The Angry American]" (Highlight: "And you?ll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A. / `Cause we`ll put a boot in your ass, It`s the American way").

In the months following the tragedy, most Americans remained holed up in their homes with the CNN News Ticker running throughout the day. Vacations were cancelled because people were afraid to fly and because popular tourist destinations like DisneyWorld might be the next target. Purchases were put on hold as people spent more time focused on family and friends and less time on filling their downtime with trinkets. This trend was applauded, for a short time, by commentators, as "a returning to what really matters in our lives."

Families are all well and good, but while the trend continued, the economy was taking a nose-dive. When consumer spending started to slow down, businesses used patriotism as a selling tactic. Local businesses started flying the flag over their doorways to show that they, your corner coffee shop, were definitely not in league with the terrorists. General Motors ran a "Keep America Rolling" campaign, insinuating that it was our patriotic duty to buy American Sport Utility Vehicles. ("...which consume more gasoline, refined from oil which was bought from countries like Saudi Arabia, who openly support terrorist organizations," the ads failed to mention)

While America was on the defensive, our own home-grown terrorists seized the opportunity. Several envelopes containing Anthrax spores were sent to various government offices, causing nationwide panic. "Don't open your mail!" went the paranoid call from the county seats across the country. If this came at any other time, we all would have dismissed it like the "razor blade in the Halloween apple" incident. But since we were already vulnerable and paranoid, it was taken somewhat seriously. Sure, I'm supposed to believe that terrorists would spend thousands of dollars making deadly Anthrax and waste it to kill some two-bit computer programmer in East Bumble, Georgia. A few months later, the attacks stopped and the fear subsided.

It took a while for America to collectively clear their heads and gather their wits. When they finally did, they realized that America had changed around them. In the fear and fervor, we had given up many of our rights for a promise of security, and some of us found that it wasn't a square deal. This country was built on the rejection of absolute rulers and the idea that all citizens had the right, even the duty, to disagree, dissent and protest when the government got out of line. The patriotic rhetoric started to wear off. Perhaps "they" didn't "Hate us for our Freedom" as Bush suggested, maybe they hated us because we feel justified waging war in other countries and setting up shop with little to no evidence to support it.

War in Afghanistan, to root out Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, soon gave way to war in Iraq, with precious little explanation. When we couldn't find Bin Laden, the guy Bush vowed to America that he would catch, his approval rating started to slip. So we shifted our forces to round up a bad guy that America had already beaten into submission once before: Saddam Hussein.

The original justification given to wage war in Iraq was that they had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD's). By this point, most heads were clear enough to ask "why NOW?" As far as WMD's go, Iraq might have a weapons lab at best, and even if they had operational missiles, they could not possibly threaten the United States with them. North Korea, on the other hand, DID have nuclear weapons and the capability of striking the west coast of America. They even threatened to do so once. So North Korea was a more likely target if Bush was looking to protect us, but no, Iraq was the biggest threat.

When it became clear that we weren't going to find said weapons in time to make our case, the invasion was re-packaged to Americans as "Operation Iraqi Freedom." 'It is our duty to liberate the people of Iraq for humanitarian reasons,' went the new reasoning. 'Saddam is a ruthless dictator and must be deposed.' But why stop chasing Bin Laden and focus on Saddam? Americans are all for removing mass-murdering dictators like Hitler or Milosevic, but weren't we in the middle of a War on Terror here? What about al Qaeda?

"Oh, there are reportedly some al Qaeda-linked individuals in Iraq, too," Bush added. Sadly, that convinced many Americans to buy into it. Terrorism had become the boogeyman, and Bush became the camp counselor telling spooky stories around the campfire: "Look out!! It's over there!!! No, over THERE!!"

In an address to the nation, Bush actually told us that if we went into Iraq, we would root out al Qaeda and "the attacks would stop." Even more amazing than that, he kept a straight face. Either he's a better actor than DeNiro, or he actually believed it when Rumsfeld told him this. Either prospect gives me the creeps.

It's been three years since the attacks, so what have we accomplished? Let's review.

(1) Al Qaeda has evaded us. When we turned our attention to Iraq, we left nothing but a skeleton crew to hold the fort in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda slipped through our fingers and is likely planning a string of sequels, since the original attack proved so effective. By bombing a Spanish commuter train, they turned the tide of an election in favor of a candidate who promised to remove their troops from the Middle East. Unnamed terrorists are presently holding blackmailing small-potatoes countries into recalling their troops by taking hostages. The Philippines have already pulled out.

(2) Instead of waiting for the terrorists to come to us, we sent our troops to the terrorist countries. US Forces invaded their countries, toppled their governments, and now stand around, waiting to be shot. Every week convoys are ambushed, sentries are shot, bombs are set off, and our soldiers die. It seems that the only people that middle eastern militants like to kill even more than each other, are Americans.

(3) The word "Hero" has lost all meaning. At first, "hero" was rightfully applied to some brave men & women, many of them in Fire & Law Enforcement, whose sense of duty led them to make the ultimate sacrifice. Then, the media has stretched it to also mean "victims" of the attacks and anyone else who does something even remotely helpful. A boy who recycles cans to help his school is not a hero, he's just a good citizen. Get over it.

(4) The Terror Alert system is a failure. We learned that a Yellow alert level is like a yellow traffic light: "Go ahead just like you were, but if something happens, don't say we didn't warn you." It's always yellow ("Elevated"), and even on the off chance that it DOES change, the administration can't tell us why or what to do about it. An actual headline read "Ridge Predicts Massive Al Qaeda Attack -- No Details."

(5) The Bush Administration took advantage of the new-found power and lack of questions to push through some pretty scary changes under the media's radar. The Patriot Act, which grants staggering surveillance powers to the government and which was supposed to "sundown" after a few years, is being made permanent. The "Clear Skies Initiative" removed the requirement for companies to replace older, heavy-polluting equipment with cleaner ones, effectively negating any government regulation of pollution levels. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which kept employers from firing you for missed work due to illness, pregnancy or need to care for a loved one, was quietly done away with. Earlier this year, it even became legal to fire government employees solely because they are gay. These stories went miraculously unreported in the media.

(6) Airport screening is so tight, you have to hand over anything remotely dangerous, down to toenail clippers and toothpicks. On average, you now need to arrive two hours before your flight in order to get through the inspection lines. Meanwhile, workers in Mexico and Canada walk unchecked across the border every day on their daily commute. Terrorists are keenly aware of this fact.

(7) Thousands of people are being held in Guantanamo Bay and other makeshift prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq as "Enemy Combatants", even though most have never fought against the United States. This handy designation allows the US to keep them imprisoned without being charged with a crime or given rights to legal counsel until just recently. It also means the government can hold them indefinitely, without need of evidence against them. Some have been held since 2001.

I wish that there was a tidy wrap-up that could be made, but there never will be one. Most wars had a definitive ending, when the country was defeated or surrendered, and we could breathe a sigh of relief and try and put it behind us. There is no such luxury with Bush's "War on Terror", it will continue until Terror stops, which is never. Terrorism is an idea that is found the world over, it has no borders to invade, no leader to overthrow, no diplomats to negotiate a surrender.

It's important to note the wording of "The War on Terror." It's not the war on Al Qaeda or Bin Laden, That would be too specific and people would want it to wrap up if we ever destroyed them. It's not even the "War on TerrorISM", just Terror in general. By keeping the name and goals generalized, Bush has written himself a blank check to go anywhere to wage war without having to get approval from the public for each individual action.

Last month, at the Republican National Convention, Bush was using the tragedy of 9/11 to show himself as a strong leader in a crisis. Think about that for a moment: 9/11, the most costly failure of intelligence in our country's history, was being spun as a positive for Bush. Simply because the towers fell on his watch, he's touting himself as a great leader. What sort of twisted logic is that? If I hired a security guard and my house got broken into while he was on duty, I'd consider that a failure.

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