Eleven years on

This morning, I passed a couple of American flags at half-mast, and for about 10 seconds went through the usual frustrating exercise of trying to remember who died. Then I realized that it was the 11th already.

OK. I can see that we would mourn. Unfortunately, 11 years later, that seems to be the only part of our national response that we’re able to agree on in the public sphere, in terms of shorthand, easily understood responses.

As I look at the cartoon commemorations by Robert Ariail and Bill Day, above and below, I don’t see either as capturing what seems to me the proper response — although Robert comes closer. The idea that we’re simply marking another year is true enough. But the implication that we are prisoners of something (who marks time by scratching on a wall? prisoners do) seems off to me. As for the cascade of tears in Bill’s cartoon — well, that was a common cartoon response in 2001, but 11 years later, Lady Liberty needs to have pulled herself together enough to figure out what to do next.

I say this not to criticize my friends the cartoonists. The problem is that they feel obligated to do something to mark the day, and yet there IS no clear, shared, national response that is better defined than what they did. If you’re a cartoonist, you know what to do on the Fourth of July. There is a whole vocabulary of clearly understood images and shared values through which you can communicate to a reader. On 9/11, not so much. There’s sadness, and there’s the passage of time.

For my part, right after the attacks, I had a pretty clear idea of how we ought to respond. Yes, there would be a military response — that seemed obvious to everyone at the time — but I saw the need to go far beyond that, in terms of broad engagement with the world, economically, diplomatically and in humanitarian terms. You can read the editorial I wrote for Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001, on this old blog post.

While I would change a word here and there with the benefit of hindsight, the general thrust of what I believe should be the proper response would be the same.

The bad news is that as a nation, we have practically torn ourselves apart arguing over proper responses since then. On the other hand, the good news is that among our nation’s leaders, there is more of a consensus on what to do. Back to bad news, that doesn’t really extend much beyond aggressive military actions (for Bush, it was invasions; for Obama, a pattern of assassinations). Our leaders’ responses tend to be ad hoc, rather than arising from a coherent vision of the United States playing a constructive role on all fronts in the world.

I’ll be interested to see what speeches our presidential candidates give today, to see what their visions are. Because as a nation, I still think we need a coherent, common vision of the proper way to react to 9/11.

14 thoughts on “Eleven years on

  1. Mark Stewart

    As I wait in a horrendous line to endure the worst excesses of the TSA to fly out of Boston, I would say it is time for the nation to stop mourning this day. Private rememberence for the individuals directly connected to the death of family or friends goes without saying; but for the rest of the nation I say carry on.

    This was terrorism. Why continue to inflict ourselves?

  2. Brad

    Meanwhile, Wesley Donehue just sent out this Tweet as a clue to politicians trying to cash in on our nation’s emotions:

    “Campaigns take notice – remove donation buttons from email templates today if sending out 9-11 message. Reporters going ape.”

  3. bud

    I’m with Mark. Time to move on, stop mourning as a nation and simply reflect for a moment on what is now an historical event. Bin Laden is dead and I suspect the overall threat level is probably near zero for a major terrorist attack comparable to 9-11 for the forseeable future. Individually we are certainly far more likely to die in a traffic crash than from a foreign terrorist attack. (Domestic terror attacks are another story). We don’t need some grand vision about what to do. As terrorist threats crop up we deal with them the same way we would deal with any criminal activity. In terms of a national strategy I find it inappropriate to consider some grandiouse scheme to try and foist American values on the rest of the world. That seems like a recipe for disaster.

  4. Brad

    I just checked — the only two 9/11 messages I’ve received from politicians were from Joe Wilson and Daniel Webster of Florida. Neither of them had a “donate” button, I’m happy to report.

    Of course, Joe is a client of Wesley’s, so I guess he got the heads-up first-hand.

  5. Brad

    Actually, Bud, the fight goes on. We just got another key al Qaeda leader — their number two guy in Yemen.

    By the way, this one was at Gitmo, but we let him go in 2007.

    President Obama remains focused (at least, on the whacking people part), even if some of his supporters would like to just wish it all away.

  6. Ralph Hightower

    One difference between this year and last year is bin Laden is dead! Hopefully, it became chum for the sharks when it was dumped at sea.

  7. bud

    The whole whacking thing is fraught with danger. We are likely to kill innocent civilians and enrage people who otherwise wouldn’t be a threat to us. POTUS needs to back off.

  8. Steve Gordy

    I agree with Mark. It’s time for private commemorations to take over, although I think remembrance services at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and Shanksville are entirely appropriate.

  9. Brad

    Phillip, setting aside most your of categorical, even scornful dismissal of everything touching upon our nation’s postwar leadership (“pathological nostalgia?” REALLY?), even going beyond that back to Wilson, I’ll just focus on one thing: Who is it you think has a NARROW idea of world leadership? Oh, excuse me… “leadership,” in quotes, because of course it can’t actually BE leadership, can it?

    I certainly hope you weren’t thinking of me. Because it would be difficult to conceive of a broader, richer, more multifaceted definition of leadership than the one I believe our country simply does not have the realistic option of abdicating.

  10. Brad

    Oh, and to bring that to the political sphere…

    As I’ve written before, the first thing I always asked presidential candidates to do in endorsement interviews, after opening remarks, was tell us their conception of the U.S. role in the world.

    I found Barack Obama’s answer to the question satisfactory. I never had the opportunity to ask it of Mitt Romney.

  11. Doug Ross

    Leadership is making the right decision without considering the political consequences.

    Our Presidents don’t do that… especially in their first terms.

  12. Doug Ross

    Our role in the world should be to be what other countries aspire to be – not through war, but through the demonstration of the overwhelming power of freedom.

    It is not the duty of the United States to cross borders in a preemptive strike against a perceived threat.

  13. Phillip

    Of all the criticisms I leveled at the Bush/Cheney co-presidency for how they reacted to (capitalized on?) 9/11, I was never one to blame them for it happening on their watch. But I must say, that Kurt Eichenwald’s stunning piece in the NYT today, based not on the famous “OBL Determined to attack in US” White House daily briefing but rather on the daily briefings that preceded that, really raises the sobering possibility that the neocons’ Iraq obsession (and fundamental lack of knowledge/understanding about the Middle East) may have actually led them to more-or-less willfully disregard the warnings of an impending attack. That would be a staggering burden to add to an already grievously-stained record.

    Why does it matter now? Well, much of the reason why we are still in search of “a coherent, common vision of the proper way to react to 9/11” is because we feel subconsciously it’s a demarcation line in American history, but we’re not yet sure what the identity of that “post-9/11 US” will be. Will it be one where we defend ourselves appropriately and address threats and crises with rationality, intelligence, realism, specificity? Or will it be one where our preconceived notions, including a narrowly-defined idea of world “leadership,” a pathological nostalgia for our role as world savior in WWII and a general penchant for myopically conceived, American-centric, grand Wilsonian schemes for “fixing” the world (“draining the swamps” if you prefer) not only creates as many or more problems than it solves, but paradoxically undermines rather than strengthens our national security?

  14. Phillip

    Brad, re “leadership” I was thinking specifically of the recent speeches at the GOP convention by John McCain, which was predictable in its tone, and Condoleezza Rice, which was surprisingly disappointing (especially for a former Sec’y of State) in its narrow equating of “failure to lead” with “failure to employ military force more often in more places.”

    On the other hand, I completely agree with your call for America’s “broad engagement with the world, economically, diplomatically and in humanitarian terms.” While I am certainly troubled by some aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, it seems clear that there is a more balanced approach now. There is no larger neoconservative geopolitical agenda at work now, his focus vis-a-vis Al-Qaeda and offshoots is narrow and targeted, and he is taking a broader—and much more nuanced and individualized–view of each situation in the Middle East and the world, all of which have their own unique set of challenges.


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