Everything changed on September 11, 2001: In an age of hyperbole, this has emerged as the most credible overstatement of our time. Two days after the attacks, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman proclaimed them the opening salvo in nothing less than World War III. The nation's opinion-makers dusted off their copies of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, contemplated an international struggle between tribal and global worldviews, and discussed the "death of irony." Conservative pundits like Cal Thomas proclaimed that the attacks had driven the final nail in the coffin of leftist "moral equivalency," and everyone seemed to agree that a renewed sense of purpose, moral clarity, and public service had returned to American life. Both Andrew Sullivan and Harper's contributor Mark Slouka have recently written that September 11 destroyed the myth of American exceptionalism, the notion that the huddled masses of the world arrive on our shores to shake off the dust of history and start over in the city on a hill, protected by two oceans, with the mandate of God and an enduring, indomitable optimism.
Pretty heady stuff. But strip away the pomp and circumstance, the highfalutin dreams of American destiny, and international conflict and it's clear that this country hasn't changed at all. New York City has changed, to be sure, but admit it: You woke up this morning, got stuck in traffic, yelled at your kids, fretted over that tech stock you bought in 1998, and got a decaf latte from a girl with a piece of metal in her lip. Twelve months after Pearl Harbor, thousands of American sailors were fighting and dying in Guadalcanal; our greatest modern challenge remains meeting that Bay Area mortgage every month. The rhythm of our lives goes on as usual, and that's what really matters.
This isn't even a comforting notion -- just a fact on the ground. We shouldn't marvel at our ability to move on with our lives as George W. Bush implored us to, as if going shopping were a testament to our capacity to endure tragedy. Of course we went shopping after September 11; did we really expect to be so traumatized that we couldn't get out of bed? The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have become the overhyped backdrop to every public discourse, and their ramifications have been inflated out of all proportion. What really happened one year ago? Some bad men got lucky and hurt us, so we bombed the shit out of some caves they were hiding in. Now what's on TV?
The most compelling evidence that nothing has changed may be found in the very efforts to memorialize September 11. Consider the anniversary ceremony to take place at ground zero: bagpipe parades for the cops, a reading of the Gettysburg Address (were the lyrics to John Ashcroft's anthem "Let the Eagle Soar" suddenly unavailable?), garish bunting hanging from every traffic light till your eyeballs begin to sear. Our taste for tacky, canned theatrics certainly remains undiminished, and isn't that the quintessential American experience? Even Neil Young's tribute managed to sound inane.
You can't express sentiments like these without running the risk of seeming unmoved by the terrible loss of life in Lower Manhattan. But that's the point. It happened in New York, which for most of us is very far away. Children evacuated from public schools, who saw burning bodies falling from the towers, may have nightmares for years to come. But for children in the East Bay, September 11 was an abstraction, something that happened on a television screen. And yet public schoolteachers are struggling with how to shepherd their students through a host of imagined Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. East Oakland kids go through more pain watching their older brothers get shot down in the street every day, and they need therapy because some buildings fell down on the other side of the continent?
To be sure, some aspects of our lives have truly changed. Ask anyone who's tried to get on a plane lately, and you'll hear a bumper crop of horror stories about three-hour waits, or terminals shutting down because someone forgot about the nail clippers in his travel bag. But without a doubt, the most significant element of September 11 on the West Coast is the unexpected opportunity it provided Attorney General John Ashcroft to indulge his worst impulses. Ashcroft has argued that the federal government has an absolute right to incarcerate anyone it chooses, citizen or not, and deny them legal counsel or the right to communicate with family members, simply by designating him or her an "enemy combatant." He has sought the authority to tap the phones of people the Justice Department deems suspicious, search the homes of suspects without even notifying them, and unleash the CIA to engage in domestic spying. More than a thousand people of Middle Eastern descent have been indefinitely detained with little explanation to the public, and Ashcroft refused to name these prisoners. As for those who worry about such expanded powers, Ashcroft had this to say before the Senate Judiciary Committee: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists."
But Ashcroft's dreams of Palmer Raids and wiretaps have a long way to go. Two weeks ago, a federal appeals court ruled that when the Justice Department conducted hundreds of secret deportation hearings, based simply on a vague assertion that the subject may have links to terrorists, it broke the law. The ruling's language was unambiguous in its disapproval. "The executive branch seeks to uproot people's lives, outside the public eye and behind a closed door," wrote Judge Damon Keith. "Democracies die behind closed doors." It has ironically fallen to the unelected judiciary to safeguard our democracy, a task that, so far, it seems thankfully up to.
Similarly, George W. Bush's proposed invasion of Iraq seems to be losing steam. Retired military brass have voiced deep reservations about such an adventure, and even Republican luminaries like Brent Scowcroft and Dick Armey have argued that attacking Iraq will cost us invaluable allies and inflame the Middle East. The nation's saber-rattlers have been reduced to whining about The New York Times' coverage, a sure sign that the public discourse is decidedly skeptical of Prince George's desire to undo the sins of his father.
In fact, Bush's choice of Saddam Hussein as the next villain du jour only underscores how little life has changed since September 11. Entranced by the scale and novelty of the attack, Bush declared that history has thrown down the gauntlet, and the time is nigh to eradicate the forces of terror and raging fundamentalism, wherever they might be found. At the time, critics worried that this constituted a war without end, as the enemy is stateless and elusive. But rather than drag us into quagmires in Indonesia or the Philippines, searching the jungle for fanatics, the president has settled on Hussein, a secular dictator who spent most of the '80s systematically slaughtering Islamic fundamentalists by the tens of thousands. What can this signify but a certain desperation on the part of our crusader-in-chief? Afghanistan was over as soon as it began, and the roster of enemies to elevate George Bush from a smirking frat boy to this century's Franklin Roosevelt is getting shorter by the day. The fundamentalist bogeyman seems far less formidable and numerous than Bush may have hoped, and history may not have anointed him after all.
And so, for the rest of us, life goes on. We're not on a grand crusade to rid the world of evil. We're worried about baseball strikes and what Enron and WorldCom have done to our 401(k) plans. We're falling in love and getting married and raising kids, and we don't need September 11 to make that meaningful.
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