Looking back on the fires of 9/11.
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
So many things about September 11 have coalesced to define the attack as a singular event in American history. Three thousand Americans did not die in a fire, earthquake, or flood. No, they were slain by the deliberate hand of formidable enemies — raising issues of culpability, preventability, and retribution. And 3,000 were gone so quickly and without warning, and all so innocently — leading to all sorts of existential questions among their fellow citizens left behind, from “Why here, why now?” to “If them, why not me?”
Because their murderers were neither armed soldiers nor ad hoc terrorists, but rather a large, well-financed group of stealthy commandos that had used the freedom and liberality of the United States to attack its iconic monuments and butcher as many civilians as possible, we shuddered at the macabre revelations of all the awful details surrounding that day — the Hamburg meetings, the spooky flight-school lessons, the diabolically clever box-cutters, the penultimate cell-phone calls, the final “Let’s roll,” and the firefighters’ heroic rush into the inferno.
All that and more brought forth great sadness, but powerful fury as well. There is something, after all, from ancient Greek times elementally horrific about visitors devouring their benefactors, the wide-awake guests seeing hospitality and liberality as the very weapons to murder the snoring host and his family, and torch his home. How odd that we were so often told that Middle Eastern traditional hospitality made it difficult for thousands to turn over a bin Laden or Saddam Hussein who sought refuge and succor in their homes, but did not deter Mohammed Atta and his cadre from killing the very people who had so generously welcomed them in.
The injury was frightening: More dead than any other precursor to an American war, from those lost at Lexington and Concord to Pearl Harbor; an entire city-block in New York vaporized and our nation’s military nerve center gravely wounded. We forget the economic devastation — $100 billion in direct material damage (as much as the two-year cost of rebuilding Iraq) in New York alone, hundreds of billions more lost in harm to the airline and tourism industries and diverted to security, ruining the once free and easy association in almost every element of our lives from the airport to the office lobby.
Yet who can put a cost on all that disruption, either material or psychological?
We speak nonchalantly of a recession; but no economist has figured out the real cost — $500 billion, a trillion dollars, three trillion? — that September 11 entailed: the loss of so many talented and valued people, the devastation wrought on their families, the craters and rubble to be cleared and rebuilt upon, the toll on our twin capitals of finance and politics, the expenditure of arms in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the radical changes in our daily lives. After such trauma that we are not mired in a 1930s-style Depression is the real wonder.
So the mass murderers jolted us into remembering how vulnerable is a sophisticated society such as our own, at this, civilization’s greatest epoch of material affluence, complexity, and thus abject fragility. Every subsequent glitch in the system — most recently, the sudden loss of power in the American northeast, the frying of 10,000 elderly French whose apartments proved hotter than their subsequent ad hoc morgues, the fiscal and psychological meltdown in California — now remind us how easy it is for all familiar and cherished things suddenly to come to a stop.
And if such upheavals are especially sudden or inexplicable — a SARs epidemic, a suburban Maryland sniper, a teen crashing a piper cub into a Florida office complex — we will forever fear that “they” did it rather than a solitary deranged mind or the hand of God. Thanks to the al Qaedists we have often become reduced to the terrorized audience of our cinematic nightmares: at each hysterical juncture a “Thing” or “Alien” has come alive as we ponder what stealthy parasitic enemy has found another zombie to do us in.
9/11 has also made Americans rethink so many of our once-cherished and increasingly entrenched assumptions about man and society. Do poverty and oppression prompt wars, or do killers often act out of irrational motives, predicated on their own warped sense of honor, fear, and perceived grievance? And thus is war a perennial challenge to the human condition rather than to be doomed for good with just enough money and understanding? Can a person, an entire sect — perhaps even a nation — hate you for what you are and represent, rather than what you do? Do sovereign states still have the right and the ability to act unilaterally to protect their interests, or are assaults in our postmodern age either criminal matters to be adjudicated in courts or disputes properly to be aired in the General Assembly?
Have we come to the end of history, where the global spread of consumer capitalism and greater liberality almost ensures a diminution in nationality or sectarian chauvinism — or, in fact, prompt an even greater retaliation from the world’s recalcitrant? Is an Islamic fundamentalist more likely to appreciate an American for concretely saving Muslims in Kosovo, Kuwait, Somalia, and Afghanistan or hate him as the abstract representation of everything from liberated and autonomous women, religious tolerance, and the freedom of the individual?
America was aroused after 9/11 in the manner that a comatose patient suddenly jerks up to find that an entire world in his slumber has become unrecognizable . It really has. Think of it: Were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan friends — or rather regimes staffed by a corrupt elite who clung to power by bribe money and pardons to killers, deflecting their citizens’ frustrations at their own failed kleptocracies onto us? What in the world has become of the UN, of our childhood memories of Halloween UNESCO buckets and UNICEF Christmas cards — when Iran, Iraq, and Libya arbitrate questions of legality and human rights and a Security Council serves as a surrogate for a nonexistent French fleet and phantom Gallic divisions?
Whom — or is it what? — does NATO protect, when we woke up to learn that Germany is up, Russia in, and us increasingly out? Has the EU made the world safer, and proved helpful in the Middle East, its members careful to limit arms sales to tyrants, to discourage terrorist cliques in Palestine, and to ensure murderous states abroad do not harm the innocent? Had Oslo become temporarily “derailed,” or was it the inevitable result of pretending that autocracies would not do what they exist for? Was India or France the better friend? And why were those countries where we based thousands of troops the most likely to oppose our efforts in Iraq — whether Germans, Belgians, Greeks, Saudis, or Turks? — and their newspapers to vent virulent anti-Americanism?
How helpful were tens of thousands of American soldiers stationed all over Europe to our post-9/11 security — or did we discover that 60 years after their arrival they had created age-old pernicious feelings of envy, distrust, and complacence rather than gratitude among their wealthy hosts? Did either the nonexistent or the measured response after a series of attacks on Americans the past decade — in Lebanon, Africa, Saudi Arabia, New York, and Yemen — suggest to our terrorist enemies that it was wrong and unwise to kill reasonable and affable people, or did the easy killing imply that self-absorbed and pampered Lotus-eaters would not much care who or how many were butchered as long as it was within reasonable numbers and spread out over time? In this regard, why do suicide bombers blow up women and children alike in both Jerusalem and New York? And if there is not a connection to be made in method and ideology, why not?
Here at home questions were raised in the last two years that would have been equally inconceivable on September 10, 2001. Do images of those fighting on the peaks of Afghanistan or in the desert of Iraq, when juxtaposed to the rallies on our elite campuses, suggest that a populist military is doing a better or worse job than our privileged universities in training our youth to be educated, well-spoken, and rational? Is Marin County’s Johnny Walker Lindh, seeking to find himself among the Taliban, or Middle America’s Johnny Span dying to protect us from the primordial henchmen of Afghanistan, a metaphor for us all, so increasingly at a crossroads at the millennium?
Is there really something about fundamentalist Islamicists from the Middle East that makes their brand of fanaticism scarier, more lethal, more global than even their counterparts among Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu rejectionists? And if so, could we ever say so? And in such a frightening age, if our borders must be secure, can we ask that immigrants come here legally — or can we even be free to ask such questions?
And when a Norman Mailer or Michael Moore and a host of writers and actors in the aftermath of 9/11 have uttered such atrocities after 3,000 vanished, what has happened to our intelligentsia and artists, so much the beneficiaries of the very wealth and leisure of the American engine they sneer at? Did they, like our brave firemen and police in New York and Marines in Iraq, show themselves in the hour of our need to be even better than we thought them — or was it instead to be abjectly worse?
In the hours after September 11 and on its two-year anniversary, why do so many of our most privileged in the fine arts and humanities say so many awful things about their alma mater, to be quickly corrected, adapted, or apologized for when aired at last in public fora with worries of ticket-payers’ backlash. Can these entertainers at least have the honesty to repeat their convictions, not to airbrush their websites or to send out press aides for damage control, but instead defiantly rip into the inquiring postfacto reporter with, “Yes, I said that. No, I was not misquoted. And, yes, I believe that America is very sick.”? Then we would at least know that they dislike the American system rather than being pampered blowhards and college dropouts who sound off to paparazzi after a bad day or drink only to whimper back when told their invective might cost them some dough.
What has happened to our once-noble Democratic leadership, the party of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Scoop Jackson? Why — in a time of war, no less, when another mass killing like 9-11 has been prevented, and the foundations of terror and fanaticism in Afghanistan and Iraq cracked apart — do some so casually employ adjectives and nouns like “miserable” “failure,” “awful,” “Taliban,” and “liar”?
Did they, as an opposition, rally around our public executives in our hour of peril after three theaters of war in New York, Kabul, and Baghdad — or like factions in 1864 demonize our leadership as it has led us to successive victories? Is the problem more fundamental — that after the heroic triumphs of civil rights, minimum wage, workers’ safety, Social Security, and universal education, some of our elite Democrats embarked on a postmodern quest for an enforced equality of results, shrilly furious that our government has not spent enough money or garnered sufficient power to ensure utopian perfection and thus alter the very nature of man himself?
In our current feeding hysteria that diminishes astounding success to quagmire or worse, what disinterested observer would ever believe that in just 24 months we have liberated 50 million people, destroyed the odious Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and routed 60% of the al Qaeda leadership — all at the cost of less than 300 American dead? It is almost as if the more amazing our accomplishments, the more we must deprecate them.
It will require an economist, politician, historian, philosopher, and artist to make sense of the world turned upside down after September 11, which unlike Y2K really did prove to be the abyss between the millennia.
Until then, we would do better to think simply of the dead, and to pledge both that we shall never forget them and in our lifetimes and, according to our efforts and station, we shall not allow it to happen again to any others on these shores — so help us, God.
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson