By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
BACK IN the days of sailing ships, there arose a reassuring naval ritual: The captain would gather his midshipmen on the quarterdeck at the same time each day to “shoot the sun” with their sextants. The object was to establish the time — noon — and the ship’s location on the globe. It also fixed the positions of that captain and those aspiring officers in their societies and in history.
At noon on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the attacks on America, I tried shooting The Associated Press for a fix on where we are as a nation. Searching for “9/11,” I got 23 hits within the past 24 hours. Here are a few of them:
- Right here in Columbia, S.C., “First responders and relatives of victims of the 2001 terror attacks were to gather” for a ceremony in which they would sign a steel beam traveling the country. It would “be used in the construction of a museum at the site of the World Trade Center.”
- Security improvements at the Pentagon have left it “less the office building it was and more a fortress. A burgeoning police force has been given state-of-the-art capabilities to protect against a chemical, biological or radiological attack. Stricter access is being imposed, with fewer vehicles able to drive or park close to the building. Structural improvements allow the building to better withstand blast and fire.”
- Three photographs showed the wares of Afghan carpet sellers in Kabul who sell crudely woven woolen images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. The captions are wondrously vague, failing to make it clear whether the commemorations are sympathetic or celebratory: “An Afghan carpet seller chats with a friend, not seen, as a small hand-made carpet is seen on the ground featuring the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center….”
- “Felicia Dunn-Jones, who died just five months” after she inhaled part of “the toxic dust cloud that enveloped lower Manhattan,” was for the first time about to be mourned officially as the 2,750th victim of the attacks. The story goes into the acrimony surrounding the treatment of those who fell ill after that day.
There was also coverage of a commemorative march, a psychology feature on how survivors of the attacks have become more “decisive” in their daily lives, a story that speculated whether Rudy Giuliani’s mob-busting resume was as important as his 9/11 image to his political future (no, said one expert), and some baseball linescores that happened to contain the numbers “9” and “11.”
A group of midshipmen trying to reconcile these varied readings would have trouble finding their way. So as captain of this column, I decided to point my sextant at one point, and call it noon:
- Under the rather oblique headline, “But Fear of Attack Persists,” I read that a new Washington Post-ABC News poll had found that “Six years after the Sept. 11 attacks, public opinion on terrorism is delicately balanced between confidence and caution.”
Some balance: “While 83 percent of Republicans say the U.S. campaign against terrorism is going well, only 37 percent of Democrats agree.”
Finally, a solid, accurate reading. I know exactly where I am — drifting in the American homefront doldrums, where the state of the world is a matter of partisan interpretation, a place where “Just one-quarter say the nation is ‘much’ safer than six years ago, 15 percent express a ‘great deal’ of confidence in the government’s ability to prevent attacks, and 8 percent say the fight against terrorism is going ‘very’ well. By contrast, two-thirds worry ‘a great deal’ or ‘somewhat’ about major terrorist attacks.”
I find I want to set all the canvas my masts and spars will bear, to sail this ship as far from this place as I can get, as quickly as it can go. And I’d like to take the rest of my country with me.
When I contemplate the schizophrenic responses of my fellow Americans even on something so basic and simple and existential as whether they think they are “safe” or not, I think almost any point in time would be better than this noon in this place.
For instance, I’d prefer to be in the United States of September 2001. At that time, with the shock of horrific events fresh, we were too wise to be partisan. We saw ourselves as having a shared destiny, which we did (and do). Then, the opportunities of the past six years had not yet been missed.
We still had the chance to take our NATO allies up on a joint fight against terror. The president of the United States had a golden opportunity to enlist us all in changing our lives to meet this challenge, particularly with regard to our dependence on foreign oil. Osama bin Laden had not yet slipped away from us at Tora Bora.
The various opportunities to secure Iraq quickly and early had not been blown. No one had stood before a “Mission Accomplished” banner. We had not heard of Abu Ghraib. The Golden Mosque was still intact.
Most of all, Americans of both political parties were united with us independents in wanting our country to succeed on the foreign battlefields where our troops fight real battles, ones in which life and death are not metaphors, and are immune to political interpretation.
Just above my search results I see a banner on The Associated Press Web site and I click on it:
“Gen. David Petraeus went before a deeply divided Congress on Monday, the commander of 165,000 troops heckled and attacked by anti-war critics before he began to speak. ‘Tell the truth, general,’ shouted protesters as the four-star general made his way into the crowded hearing room.”
My God. Check your sextants again, young gentlemen. How did we ever get this far off course?