What I wrote later in the day on 9/11/01

Yesterday, I showed y’all what I wrote in the first hour, more or less, after learning of the attacks in New York and Washington 10 years ago. That raw, stream-of-consciousness piece ran in the “extra” that The State put out that day.

As soon as I had handed that to the folks putting that special edition together, I turned to what we would say for the next day’s paper — for Sept. 12. Then, almost as quickly, but with the benefit of a couple of more hours to let the news sink in, I wrote the following column.

Still nothing I would hold up as one of my best pieces of work, but it has its moments. For me. See what you think. And remember again: This is not a piece written with the benefit of years of reflection:


State, The (Columbia, SC) – Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Author: BRAD WARTHEN , Editorial Page Editor

WE’RE IN TOM Clancy’s world now.

Mr. Clancy is derided as a writer by critics for many reasons, one of them being the fact that his plots tend to be so fantastic and contrived. Take his novel Executive Orders. It was too much to be believed. It opened with a 747 having been deliberately flown into the U.S. Capitol, shutting down the government. This is followed by a series of coordinated terrorist attacks that result in thousands of civilian deaths on American soil. And for most of the book, no one knows who is doing this to us, or why.

We now know what that’s like. In fact, what we are now facing is worse than Mr. Clancy’s fevered imaginings.

It may seem unbelievably frivolous to be thinking about pulp fiction at a time like this, but my mind keeps returning to it, and partly because this seems so much like something from the realm of fiction – or because I wish it were.

It certainly outstrips anything that’s happened on any one day in this nation’s real-life history.

The comparisons to Pearl Harbor are inevitable. But in so many ways this is different – and worse. The death toll is larger, and the bodies we’re counting – and will continue to count for some time – aren’t wearing uniforms. They didn’t sign up to fight. They were just going to work, in what they thought was a free and peaceful country.

It’s also worse because we don’t know where to go with our grief and our rage. On Dec. 7, 1941, those sailors looking up at the red suns on the wings of the planes that were killing their buddies knew exactly what to do – and so did the rest of the nation.

I wonder if we’ll ever know what to do about this, in the same, ultimately satisfying sense of being able to restore peace and security to our nation and world. Oh, when we find out who did this, there’s no question about what we’ll do in the short term. Give us a target, something to shoot back at, and it will soon be nothing but smoke and ashes.

It will be a very short war. But what will we do when it’s over? How will we deal with the other disaffected, unconnected people around the world who will take inspiration from Tuesday’s events? What can we do, and what will we do, about the fact that there are people who hate us for no better reasons than that we are strong, wealthy and free?

Pearl Harbor isn’t our only comparison. People have mentioned the explosion of the Challenger as being comparable – then, too, the nation watched in helpless horror as fellow human beings died, in real time. But as awful as it was, there were only seven dead. And we figured out how to fix it. It was a simple problem of engineering.

Better O-rings won’t take care of this.

There are no precedents. Nothing in our past was quite like this. Even the Civil War, the most traumatic event in our collective experience, was in a sense less unsettling, in that everyone had a clearer understanding of what was going on.

Just as we can take little comfort from the past, our future offers no solace. It’s certainly not going to be anything like what we expected.

Some of the changes will come only if we’re smart enough to make them happen ourselves. Americans are going to have to start caring more about foreign affairs, if we’re ever going to deal adequately with this challenge. We can’t just fire a few cruise missiles and then hide behind a magical “Star Wars” shield. We’re going to have to engage the world – or at least, we’re going to have to demand that our elected leaders do so. And those political leaders are going to have to set aside a lot of their petty, partisan differences – or we’re going to have to replace them.

In other ways, some kind of change is inevitable, and all we can do is pick between unsavory choices.

From now on, this nation will be either less safe or less free. The openness and the freedom of movement that we take for granted make us enormously vulnerable, a fact that is absurdly obvious today. I suspect that at least in the short term, we’ll choose being a little less free in order to be a little safer. And that’s a sad choice to have to make.

I said we’re in Tom Clancy’s world. That’s true up to a point. The biggest difference is that I know how the book ends – once Jack Ryan and the other fictional protagonists figured out who was attacking the United States, they made war upon them with devastating effectiveness. In the end, the nation emerged stronger than ever.

What will happen in real life? Our capacity to make war is undisputed. But in the long term, how will we ever be the same?

The fact is, we won’t be. Our challenge is to emerge as something better than we were, not something worse.

19 thoughts on “What I wrote later in the day on 9/11/01

  1. Karen McLeod

    In the short term we accomplished very little, other than to give us the deficit that everyone is worried about now. Please understand, our troops have served well. I hope that some good will rise out of the ashes in Iraq and Afghanistan, to redeem the suffering those people have had to endure (a goodly part of which has been at the hands of terrorists). Lately, there has been some progress. Bin Laden is no more, and his 2nd in command has been killed. That terrorist group has been, at least temporarily, disorganized. There’s a lot we can’t do. But we can stop supporting dictators. We don’t need to go in and topple them. I’ve become convinced that people have to free themselves, and then struggle with what that means in order to win true, sustained freedom. But, as far as I can see, every time we’ve supported dictators it’s come back to bite us in the form of the hatred and distrust of those people. Nor can we continue to say, “We’re right; your wrong. Our way or the highway” to other nations. We must recognize that there needs may not suit our needs, but that they have the right to worry about theirs first. A real effort to change how we deal with other countries may result in a much more positive payoff.

  2. bud

    Our challenge is to emerge as something better than we were, not something worse.

    Sadly I believe as a nation we have failed that challenge. And 100% of the blame falls on the shoulders of the neocons who were in control of our government in the years following 9-11.

    Starting with the bizarre response by the president when informed of the second plane hitting the South Tower of the WTC the Bush administration undertook a plan of action that, in hindsight, can only be regarded as the worst possible approach to what should have been a great opportunity to lead the nation and world into a better place. With a 90+% approval rating, including this very critical liberal, the president was offered a chance to improve the world order like no president since FDR. And he blew it, big time. One can only wonder what went through that man’s head when he decided to cut taxes, especially for the wealthy, encourage spending and then launch a disasterous war against a completely benign nation. In the process we turned a horrible national tragedy into a global recession that earned the U.S. the distinction of bullying imperialist.

    And the effects of this diabolical action plan reverberate to this day with huge budget deficits stemming from the $4 trillion dollars in war spending. Plus we managed to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq on a needless witch hunt searching for phantom WMD. And yet this man is still defended in some circles as a visionary. How stunning is that?

    The lessons of 9-11 were not especially complicated to understand. American imperialism was partially to blame for a mindset that thrived on hatred. That imperialistic approach to international affairs was never going to lead the world to a better place but rather was doomed to failure from the outset. Yet instead of learning that valuable lesson we doubled-down on the flawed approach. And even today, with a much more pragmatic president, we continue to flounder around in a region that cries out for a change of direction. On this tenth anniversary +1 day of the most horrible day in American history it’s time to revisit these important lessons and try to chart a course that will empower moderation rather than embolden extremism. Otherwise the American dream may go up in smoke in a never ending economic malaise that is fostered by an unwise imperialstic world view that can only fail in the long run.

  3. Doug Ross

    “It will be a very short war. But what will we do when it’s over?”

    I guess we won’t know until it’s over right? And by “short” did you mean “long”?

  4. JoanneH

    I agree with you, Bud, but sadly the bellicose nature of many in the US is considered to be a desirable thing.

    And it’s harming so many decisions that need to be made with compassion.

  5. Brad

    Doug, you’re not following me.

    I think that as I wrote that I meant two things: That it wouldn’t take us long to take down whoever was harboring those who launched the attacks. And it didn’t. But I was also thinking ahead to my Sunday editorial (which I will run here in the next few days), which was about a more holistic vision for the U.S. going forward — full engagement on every level, starting with military because of the circumstances.

    I’ll write more explication about that editorial when I run it here later in the week…

  6. Brad

    Oh, and by the way, while I was not trying to be Nostradamus here, as it happened, we had a very short war in conventional terms — in Afghanistan and (even shorter) in Iraq. The critical thing was always how we handled the aftermath. Which was not well, so we still have fighting going on.

    That’s one of the paradoxes of a George W. Bush — ready to go to war when the situation calls for it, but unwilling to do nation-building, even when the strategic goal of the fighting is nation-building.

  7. bud

    Sometimes reading Brad is akin to watching a Salvadore Doli movie while in the midst of an acid trip. A truly bewildering array of fascinating nonsense. Seriously, does it make any sense at all to suggest we wage the right amount of war then follow up with nation building? And that was Bush’s failure, a lack of nation building? The whole bombing of children thing was not part of the problem but only the lack of good nation building? How can anyone believe such utter nonsense?

  8. Doug Ross

    Sorry… a war isn’t short just because George Bush decides to announce “Mission Accomplished”. The war is still going on. The War on A Word Called Terror remains with us. We killed tens of thousands of innocent people who never had any desire to hurt the U.S. We tortured people. We have incarcerated people without any attempt to determine if they are truly guilty or not for a decade. We are more of a target now for our desire to flex our military muscle wherever possible. And we have wasted so much money doing it that we have bankrupted out country.

    We are a lesser nation now than we were ten years ago… economically and morally. George Bush screwed the pooch on the whole post-911 effort. The fact that he can parade himself around the 911 ceremonies as anything more than a pawn in a game that went way over his empty head is disgusting.

  9. Brad

    Doug, I don’t care what George Bush said or when he said it. I’m describing what happened. We had a very brief war, then bungled the aftermath to the point that an insurgency — several of them, actually — arose and therefore there is still fighting going on. That’s Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is trying to take the country BACK after having lost it.

    Note that I said the conventional war ended quickly. And that’s what I meant. You go in, you topple a government and you take the capital. In Clausewitzian terms, that’s the end of the war. Trouble is, we’re up against non-Clausewitzians. So they keep coming back.

    Of course, one of the reasons they keep coming back is that they know the West has a VERY low threshold of tolerance for military engagement. If the fighting isn’t over immediately, the American people — regardless where they started — begin to say, “Let’s get outta here!” Or at least some of them do. And then we have bitter internal political arguments, and the fighting goes on and on, and eventually the enemy’s low opinion of our resolve is borne out. So they’ll do the same thing next time.

    A liberal democracy with a Clausewitzian notion of warfare has a terrible time maintaining the resolve to be successful, long-term, on the battlefield. That’s one reason why most liberal democracies have unilaterally disarmed themselves. Which is one reason why the United States gets caught out as the only power able to act with any kind of effectiveness.

    And it’s getting worse, with the deep cuts that the British military (and the rest of the British government, of course) has suffered.

  10. Brad

    To be clear for those who are not into this stuff, I say “Clausewitzian” to refer to the traditional WESTERN notion, dating back to the ancient Greeks, that once a decisive battle has been won by one side over the other, the war is over. The political leadership acknowledges this, and a period of peace follows.

    In very simple terms, Sun Tsu is the godfather of an Eastern approach of never giving up, and continuing to bite your enemy on the ankles until he quits, no matter how big he is.

    Yes, those are oversimplifications, and I won’t be a bit surprised if some military history buffs jump in and correct me ad infinitum. But that was how I was using the term.

    For a good source on this dichotomy the way I meant it, check out “A History of Warfare” by John Keegan.

  11. Herb Brasher

    I agree pretty much with Bud here, and quote again the words of Methodist Bishop Willimon that I put on a thread below:

    “On 9/11 I thought, ‘For the most powerful, militarized nation in the world also to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly.’ It was a rare prophetic moment for me, considering Presidents Bush and Obama have spent billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States.

    The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat. It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the same; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.

    September 11 has changed me. I’m going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God’s own Son.”

    Willimon may not be quite right with saying that Afghanistan had little to do with it, but certainly until Petraeus came along, there didn’t seem to be much sense to our reaction.

  12. Brad

    And here’s what I said on that other post about Bishop Willimon.

    And of course, I disagree with Bud to the extent that there’s not much point going around and around with him about this again. I know his heart’s in the right place. But my head takes me to very different conclusions.

  13. Mark Stewart

    Another clear example of why religion should steer clear of direct involvement in politics and statesmanship. I believe that our morality and ethics should inform our civic decisions, without question. But that’s the end of it.

    And what’s with this “Christ crucified as the answer to what’s wrong with the world” and “a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God’s own Son”? I’m thinking, distortion alert on the Christianity front… or maybe I’m just an optomist against the Bishop’s bitter pessimism.

  14. bud

    I disagree with Bud to the extent that there’s not much point going around and around with him about this again.

    That’s a fair enough statement. So rather than going round and round the nation as a whole has to decide where to go in the future with wars of this type and the winners have to get their way, 100%. This is an area that cannot be compromised on. It’s either we fight the war or we don’t. Right now it seems the American public views the Iraq war as a mistake and one that must end. Afghanistan is probably at that point as well. It’s just that these wars are low on the priority list given the state of the economy. They are just not likely big issues in the 2012 campaign. As for me, this is still a major issue and I just won’t vote for any candidate that doesn’t loudly proclaim his complete opposition. I guess that leave Ron Paul.

  15. Burl Burlingame

    It’s ironic that the Japanese during WWII were not more in tune with Tzu. Essentially, Imperial Japan functioned brilliantly on a tactical level and failed miserably on the strategic level. They believed wars were won on the battlefield. Ha!

    Iraq — the war was short and well-orchestrated. It was the occupation that went sour, and apparently, deliberately so.

  16. Karen McLeod

    Herb, I agree with. We have not, and are not now responding to challenges, either domestic or international, as Christ calls us to.

  17. Herb Brasher

    Thanks Karen. And Mark, I think Bishop Willimon is being misunderstood. I do not think he is a total pacifist, but he is reacting to the Americanization of our churches in the wake of the tenth anni of 9/11.

    Author Philip Yancey put it this way (both quotes are from a recent article in Christianity Today magazine, entitled, ‘How I Have Changed since 9/11″):

    ‘The decade since 9/11 has taught us the limits of force. Imposing democracy on Iraq and Afgahanistan has come at a terrible cost to all parties, with no guarantee of long-term success. Meanwhile, Tunisia and Egypt gained freedom almost overnight in a grassroots protest against powerful regimes.

    As Christians, we believe in a counterforce of grace. Lewis Smedes and others have identified three stages of forgiveness: first, recognize the worth of the person yuo are forgiving; second, surrender the right to get even; third put yourself on the same side as the one who wronged you. Increasingsly, I’m convinced that we need more of this attitude toward those who seek to harm us. . . .

    I am not a pacifist; I believe that we must pursue justice. Yet a Christian history stained by anti-Semitism–holding an entire people responsible for the actions of a few–teaches us the terrible conseequences of not following Jesus’ way. We dare not do to Muslims what we have, to our shame, done to Jews.’

    Amen. And I think this is basically similar to what Bishop Willimon is saying, except that I agree with the Bishop that American flags have no place in church.

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