11 September 2007

Six years later

The day started out a lot like today for me, six years ago. It was pleasant enough. I had breakfast and read the morning paper, and started my morning way across town for a work related matter, leaving directly from home. I chose to listen to a CD rather than news on my drive.

I arrived at court that morning ignorant that anything was going on. Most of those around me, as I waited in the county court cattle call, knew little or nothing. Some mumblings started just as I was sent by a court clerk to schedule a hearing at a different office, but it sounded so absurd that it must be a joke. By the time I'd made it upstairs, it was clear that it was more serious. Security was starting to seal off the court house as I left that morning. I spent the better part of the rest of that day on the Internet, trying to glean news of the day's events.

Six years later, it is still almost impossible to start your day before thinking about anything else. The date, 9-11, is how we have collectively chosen to describe the events of that day.

No, 9-11 did not change everything. It didn't impact how we provide health care to one in seven Americans who lack it. It didn't change the lackluster state of public education. It didn't make much of a dent in the economy in the long or medium term, outside the airline industry. But, it did leave an indelible mark on our nation.

The response to 9-11 has defined the Bush Presidency, and he has badly bungled it. The Afghan war began rather well at the beginning. A small U.S. force, about a division in size, toppled a Taliban regime on the verge of completely winning a civil war, and a home grown political regime to follow it was put in place rather cleanly. The regime was not all we might dream of, but it had reasonable legitimacy. Osama bin Laden got away, due to bungling, but he was on the run.

But, five and a half years later, the new regime may be in charge, but the Taliban are resurgent and certainly not wiped out. Osama bin Laden or his successors have regrouped at a new base in the wilds of Northwest Pakistan, a nation whom we cannot invade as we did Afghanistan, because its undemocratic regime has nuclear weapons. Detainees from that conflict remain at Guantanamo Bay, symbols of a failed detention policy that has destroyed our nation's international standing, even as the war in Afghanistan itself that these men were fighting (never intending to fight Americans in the first place) is arguably over. There hasn't been another 9-11 attack, but there is little evidence to indicate that the policies taken in reaction to 9-11 helped. It turns out that we had more warning of 9-11 than one would have expected and failed to act.

We have the Patriot Act, but there is little indication that it has made us safer. In any case, the administration has gone far beyond the longer leash it was granted in that legislation. We have the Transportation Security Administration and the terrorist watch list, neither of which has made us safer. We have an ominously named, but half sensible in concept, Department of Homeland Security. But, the Department of Homeland Security has frittered away its credibility with anti-terrorism grants to municipal safety departments in the middle of nowhere, undue attention in its financial transaction and emigration monitoring to Cuba, and an immigration policy focused on deporting Mexican family men supporting their families in construction and meat packing jobs. We have gutted civil liberties and pardoned American war criminal with the Military Commissions Act and the President's pro-torture and anti-due process policies that it ratified, again, with no practical benefit in making us safer. We have reorganized the intelligence establishment and grown the CIA enormously, but it isn't clear that this has been more than a bureacratic reshuffle or that the increased investment is producing increased results. Instead, we've learned just how poor an instrument of policy the CIA has been historically.

We have every reason to quarrel with Saudi Arabia. It was the main sponsor of the Taliban. Most of the 9-11 hijackers were Saudis, as is Osama bin Laden. It has no respect for human rights. It is a powerful anti-Democratic force in the Middle East, and a powerful supporter of radical Islamists. It is a main source of foreign fighters in Iraq. But, instead, we routinely sell them many of our most advanced weapons in large quantities, arming them for a war in which Israel, our ally, is the most plausible opponent. But, they have oil, and that changes everything when we have an oilman in the White House.

Mysteriously, 9-11 was used as a justification for the Iraq War, despite the fact that it had nothing to do at all with Iraq, and contrary to our claims, had no weapons of mass destruction. Honestly, Iraq was one of the more multi-ethnic and secular countries in the region and had a larger middle class than most. Like the Afghan War, it began with a stunning victory for U.S. troops. No country so large, with a military comparably modern, has ever fallen so fast, with such a disproportionate casualty rate between the invaders and the invaded. Iraq was conquered in a couple of months. But, things fell apart. We were prepared to invade, but not to occupy. We blew the brief honeymoon period in which we could have established a legitimate successor government and a climate of peace and order. As a result, we have spent four and a half years fighting a brutal guerrilla war with multiple insurgent groups. The political institutions we have put in place haven't worked well. Iraq is now a breeding ground for terrorism and a failed state. We remains there solely because we broke it and haven't managed to fix it. We are simply looking for a graceful exit and can't find a way out.

Moreover, we have fought the Iraq war on a peacetime footing, with reserves, the national guard, and by overtaxing our troops. Funding of non-war related defense expenditures has continued largely on a business as usual basis. The active duty Army and Marines have grown only slightly, unlike every other war we have fought, and the total active duty military is constant in size, although we have spent much, much more money to fight a war than we would in peace time -- but we have financed the war with debt, while allowing tax cuts for the rich to remain on the books and growing domestic spending. There has, of course, been no draft, either. We have also, adapted our procurement to the current military demands slowly, at considerable cost in loss of life, as items like armored patrol vehicles and body armor and improved small arms have taken a back seat to medium to long term big ticket purchases like new ships and supersonic stealth fighter aircraft.

The 9-11 lawsuits are almost over. Rudy Giuliani was crowned as a leader for how he reacted, George W. Bush was shamed as an incompetent coward. The structural engineers have almost finished digesting the lessons learned from the collapse of the towers. The reconstruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has begun. The passengers of flight 92 that prevented another tragedy by fighting back, are epic heroes of the American consciousness. American business and the American military, the targets of the attacks successfully hit, have fully recovered from the direct damage caused by the attacks. New York is still thriving. The 9-11 widows and orphans have been provided for now, shoved out of the national consciousness by the families of soldiers in our Afghan and Iraqi war who return dead, brain damaged, afflicted with post traumatic stress disorder, or who are simply in peril and far away for long periods of time.

Six years later, we are ready to try to return to normalcy and ordinary problems, but afraid that another attack will set us back all over again. We are weary of war. We are not safer. We are not doing much that is constructive to solve the problem. We need a leader to take out out of this wilderness. We hope that one of the leading Presidential candidates will rise to the challenge. We don't have high hopes.

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