A View From The Handbasket

Monday, September 11, 2006
You want to talk about 9/11? Fine.
Posted by neros_fiddle at 9:03 AM
Five years ago today, the United States was given an exceedingly rare opportunity. Almost a gift. It seems almost blasphemous to say that, given the monstrous evil carried out that morning. But the hindsight of five years tells us that behind the cliche of a "world-changing" event is the reality that the world will change, and though Osama bin Laden was responsible for the event, the course of the resulting change was up to us.

When al Qaeda slaughtered nearly 3,000 people, a world that had been sensitized to violence and cynical about fighting "evil" was, for a moment, galvanized and shocked. Innocent civilians of all nationalities were burned alive and ground into dust in the name of a wild-eyed interpretation of a volatile religion. Chaos reigned. Stories floated through the news stations and the crippled internet of the State Department in flames, car bombs going off in front of the Capitol. The President of the United States scurried off to a secret location to wait out the crisis, and the rest of us were left to see what would remain intact when the sun set.

(As part of my job, I was surrounded by very rich men that day. They screamed into cell phones and demanded the ability to control the situation. They could not. They were utterly adrift.)

No one knew what would happen next, because, truly, anything could happen next. The reason such moments are important and memorable and marked with an annual orgy of pseudo-reverent news coverage is the inherent split of "before" and "after." We all knew the "after" would be somehow different, everyone had an opinion, but it was unknowable.

Very few could argue against the proposition that the Taliban had to go, and very few did. It was a nearly universally despised regime, and as comedian David Cross memorably observed, even Ralph Nader would have invaded Afghanistan. That move was a given.

After that, the world was ready to stand with us to clean house and reject violent extremism. Those regimes still benefiting from terror were palpably intimidated by the righteous unity and clarity of purpose exhibited by everyone else. For a brief instant, it seemed possible the world could wipe the slate clean, set aside old greivances, use the horrific example Osama bin Laden had given us as a signpost of what to move away from, and find something better to move toward.

And, as 9/11 gave the world the opportunity to move forward, 9/11 gave the Bush administration the opportunity, and the responsibility, to lead that movement. The chance to recognize that our power flowed not from our military but from our ideals. The chance to acknowledge that our attempts to mold the world through force are not without unforeseen consequence, as our backing of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s gave rise to al Qaeda, and our establishment of long term bases in Saudi Arabia during and after the Gulf War gave the fanatics an excuse to project their rage onto us.

Instead, Bush invaded Iraq.

The administration is fond of accusing those who disagree with its policies of having a "pre-9/11 mindset." Yet it's difficult to conceive of an action more representative of a pre-9/11 mindset than the invasion of Iraq. Iraq was the old enemy. Saddam was a secular despot, a Sunni ruling a country of Shiites, a military dictator with a crumbling army that had never recovered from the long war against Iran in which we supported him. Iraq was contained. Iraq was not the problem. But Iraq was an old grudge. Iraq was unfinished business. In the end, Iraq was the free shot we squandered.

America and the world required no intense sales pitch to fight al Qaeda. Their threat could not be questioned. Their intent was unmistakable. The case for action was compelling. The decmiation of al Qaeda would have sent a clear message to Hamas, Hezbollah and their sponsors that terror was no longer tolerated.

Instead, Bush had to invent reasons to attack Iraq. He had to hype already dubious intelligence about weapons of mass destruction into a "grave and gathering threat" that turned out not to exist at all. He had to grasp at tiny straws of unclear evidence to weave a tattered narrative of a collaboration between Iraq and al Qaeda that turned out not to exist, either. He had to pump up minor players like Zarqawi into supervillians with ties to Saddam that... turned out not to exist.

Most of the world didn't buy the initial sales pitch. Of those that joined us in the invasion, most would not stay long, after the justifications for the war fell apart and the rosy predictions of a trouble-free transition to a secular West-friendly democracy proved wrong.

Instead, it seems clear that what we have instead accomplished is presenting Iran with a new ally and al Qaeda with a new base of operations. Instead of making terrorism unacceptable, we have given it new life and vitality. Just as 9/11 was a moment of "before" and "after," so was the invasion of Iraq. What March 20, 2003 turned out to signify was the end of the truly global war on terror and the beginning of the increasing isolation of the United States.

The World Trade Center has been burdened by more symbolism in the last five years than even its 13 million square feet could hold. But I'll still add a little more -- the Twin Towers represent twin tragedies. The horrible, barbaric loss of life that happened five years ago from the from very minutes I type this. And, perhaps equally tragic, the loss of a moment of opportunity that we may never have again.

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