Eventually, Like Napoleon: My 9/11 Column
When I heard the news of John Kennedy’s assassination I was sitting in tenth-grade biology class. When I heard the news of the 9/11 attacks I was on my way to work, crossing Mobile Bay on I-10. These are the only two major news stories of my life for which I can supply an answer to the question “Where were you when you heard…?”
On 9/11 I was listening to NPR, something I did more often then than now, because I didn’t then have a cd player in my car. It was probably the eight o’clock news that I heard, the first plane having hit the World Trade Center about fifteen minutes earlier (I’m in the Central time zone). At that point hardly anyone understood what was happening. If my memory is not playing tricks on me, the word then was that “a small plane” had hit one of the towers, and the working assumption seemed to be that it was some strange accident. But I immediately thought terrorists. Looking back, it surprises me a little that I went straight to that conclusion, as I don’t recall ever having given a great deal of thought to it, much less lived in expectation of it. But the idea that this was an accident seemed far-fetched.
Soon enough, of course, the truth was known. Later in the morning I heard the co-worker with whom I shared office space weeping quietly at her desk—the towers had fallen, and the brother of a friend had been last heard from in a phone call from a floor above the initial impact point in one of them. Guesses based on the number of people who worked in the World Trade Center projected 10,000 or more deaths. It must have been a bit of a damper on an otherwise joyful day for Osama bin Laden that so many managed to escape.
Three hundred miles away on that Tuesday morning, my father lay dying of cancer. For several months, since sometime in the spring, I had been making the trip to see him every week or two. I’m not sure whether he was conscious enough to know about the WTC attacks. On Thursday the 13th he died, and I made the drive again.
Newscasts were still, of course, focused almost exclusively on the disaster. At my parents’ house, the TV stayed on with the sound turned off, and so the mourning and the reminiscing had as a macabre backdrop the sight of the towers burning and falling over and over again (the media had not yet decided to stop showing them).
In short, it was death at home, and death in New York City, and bloodthirsty fanatics rejoicing on the other side of the world: a dark time altogether, and a slightly disorienting one. I’m not young, but they say that the death of a parent is an inherently dislocating experience, and of course I felt that far more keenly than any emotion produced by the massacre in New York.
I did find, in the weeks that followed, that I had an intense anger for the hijackers and for those who had directed and assisted them. I remember feeling frustrated that they were dead, because it meant that we could not punish them. I think if it had been possible I would have been willing to see their bodies dug up and desecrated. But I never felt any anger for Muslims at large, or for the people of the Middle East at large. This may have been an atypical or at least a minority reaction.
I thought, in the weeks following, that there were, broadly speaking, two responses open to our government. The first, and the one I would have chosen, would have been withdrawal and fortification: scour the country for Muslims in violation of immigration law and deport them; start keeping an eye on those whose status was legal; begin to do whatever might be necessary to get control of our borders and seaports, political correctness and the desire for cheap labor be damned; get very, very serious about reducing our dependence on foreign oil, which would mean requiring serious sacrifices from the American people; begin the process of extricating ourselves from the Middle East as much as possible, leaving perhaps only a warning that an attack on Israel would be treated as an attack on us, and otherwise leaving the various ugly regimes of the region to pursue their violence against each other and their own people, and too bad about the latter.
The other option was to try to fix the Middle East. To say it that way is to make it appear ridiculous, and maybe it was. Such an effort would have to involve knocking down one or more of those oppressive regimes and hoping that liberty and prosperity would follow, eventually drying up the springs of violent jihadism.
It became clear fairly soon that the Bush administration was choosing the second option. At least some in or near the administration had long wanted to try to reform the region by force, but without 9/11 I doubt any president would ever have risked it. It was a bold idea, and morally questionable, but I don’t think it was necessarily an immoral one, depending on whether or not it could be accomplished without killing more people than it saved. But it hasn’t worked, and I don’t think it’s going to work. It appeared to be working in Afghanistan, but whether that success can last is looking questionable. And the invasion of Iraq was, to borrow a famous phrase, a bridge too far.
I’ve heard it said that 9/11 represents the loss of American innocence. That would make it at least the fourth or fifth such loss in my lifetime: the JFK assassination, the RFK and MLK assassinations (which perhaps should be counted as one with the JFK), Vietnam, and Watergate. And I think I remember hearing it said of the Challenger disaster and the Clinton scandals. I suppose if there had been an American among the moneychangers whom Jesus drove from the temple, he would have stood around outside bemoaning the loss of his innocence. You can find a “loss of innocence” every decade or two throughout American history; please, let’s hear no more about it.
And yet I’ve used the term myself, though qualified: I referred to “sinister innocence,” and in retrospect I think it’s not as accurate a term as I wanted. What I was thinking of is perhaps better, if less pithily, described as a shallowness which, combined with an overly flattering view of ourselves and our intentions, fails to see things as they really are. It underestimates the power and subtlety of evil, and overestimates its own ability to put things right. Persisted in, it can become a very dangerous pride.
We don’t have to attribute sinister motives (Haliburton, big oil, Zionist aggression, neo-con conspiracy, the latter coexisting incoherently with fundamentalist conspiracy) to the Bush administration to be alarmed by much that it has said and done. More or less good intentions untempered by humility and prudence can do almost as much damage, maybe more. The first and perhaps most alarming moment for me was small and now almost forgotten. That was the naming of the military response to 9/11 “Operation Infinite Justice.” The fundamentally blasphemous name was soon withdrawn, but the mere fact that anyone would seriously propose it indicated arrogance bordering on derangement. And then there was “they hate us because we are free.” And the rejection of any inconvenience to Americans as a way of reducing oil consumption or controlling our borders.
I’ve never spoken out against the Iraq war, even though I’ve had many reservations about it, because I wanted it to work. I hoped that the administration was right, that a quick military victory would be followed by the emergence of stable self-government. It hasn’t worked. We have unleashed forces that neither can nor wish to conceive of any approach to political power other than the violent imposition of their own will, or of any approach to religion other than the violent imposition of God’s will. Fanaticism, the exercise of ancient hatreds, and the fear of such exercise are proving more powerful for many than the desire for peace, freedom, and stability. The Iraqi people are now suffering, mostly at the hands of each other and of agents of various interested neighbors, as many casualties every month as we suffered on 9/11.
The difficult-to-avoid conclusion is that the country is incapable of supporting peaceful representative government. “Sinister innocence” comes to mind again as a good description of the administration’s failure to understand these forces or, if they were understood, to prepare adequately for them. But maybe that’s too grandiose. Maybe the simpler and more elemental term “pride” is sufficient.
Eventually, like Napoleon, he attacked Russia.
—T-Bone Burnett, “House of Mirrors”