I’ve been tinkering with this piece for a week now, writing and deleting paragraphs, piling on links, reading what everyone else is saying, hoping some glorious insight would descend from the heavens (assuming my glorious insight bill is paid up). But the more I think about 9/11 and the decade that has followed, the more I keep circling back to one thought:
We are still here.
Ten years have passed. Osama bin Laden and most of his henchmen are dead. Before he went, he was reduced to a bitter little man clutching a blanket and watching his past glories on TV. Al-Qaeda is broken, probably never to return in anything like its former form. Saddam Hussein is dead. Gaddafi, if not dead already, is out of power. Iran is cut off and barely clinging to power.
But we are still here.
9/11 was act of unmitigated evil. You can read Goldberg or Hitchens if you need a reminder of the vile nihilism calling itself Islam that was Al-Qaeda. I’m currently reading, somewhat belatedly, The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, which chronicles the rise of Al-Queda. This was not, as some would have you believe, a movement of oppressed peoples yearning for justice. It was lead by wealthy privileged narcissistic ideologues who persuaded young, disaffected young men to commit evil acts. Those men were not oppressed by the West, but by the medieval misogynistic cultures in which they lived (most of whom still think we faked 9/11). They delivered a terrible act of violence that killed “only” 3000 because we — the American people — responded so beautifully. The towers were evacuated in record time — almost everyone below where the planes hit survived. The first responders fell saving as many as they could. The passengers on United 93 made the first counter-attack in the War on Terror. American Muslims turned out to be our strongest allies rather than a fifth column. And later attacks — the undie bomber, the shoe bomber, the Times Square bombers — were foiled by alert citizens, not our elaborate security state. Instead of descending into chaos, we pulled together and moved on.
We are still here.
There are those who will tell you that our survival is because of the heroic leadership of George W. Bush. Perhaps. I for one agree with Anne Applebaum that, on a political level, we did over-react, did spend too much money, did sacrifice too much of our freedom. The War on Terror is a $100 billion a year expense that mostly serves to catch drug dealers. It has entailed two wars that, when you count benefits for 150,000 injured veterans, will cost us over $4 trillion. We’re treated like criminals when we try to board an airplane. We treat peaceful tourists like suspects. And the Patriot Act, with all its glaring flaws, retains bipartisan support.
But. We are still here. I think it’s absurd to argue, as Sullivan does, that bin Laden got what he wanted. It’s impossible to know what was going through that lunatic’s mind at the time, but I doubt that he envisioned, ten years later, being dead and irrelevant. That we have made mistakes along the way — some of them very costly — is not the same as him having won. We just made our inevitable victory more difficult and more costly than it had to be. But in the wealth fountain that is the US economy, even a $4 trillion mistake, assuming it was a mistake, is not something we can’t absorb. We will claw back our civil liberties, eventually. When I look around, I don’t see a police state. At least, not until I’m in an airport. I see a country that still argues, fights, debates, yells, screams … and, in the end, grudgingly does the right thing.
This is way of America. We never act precisely the way we should. We make mistakes. We go down blind allies. We, as Churchill observed, exhaust every other possibility before doing the right thing. But we gradually, fumblingly, eventually stumble in the direction we need to go.
We’re still in the process of turning back from the edge. The economy has our attention for the moment, but the watchdogs are ready to move when we are. The ACLU, God bless them, just gave Obama a stinging rebuke on civil liberties. Libertarians, liberals and conservatives continue to grumble about the TSA and the Patriot Act. Even the Washington Post got into the act, documenting the gigantic intelligence industry we’ve built. Ken at Popehat runs down a list of reasons why we put up with TSA abuses which could be expanded to many aspects of the War on Terror. All are valid, but I would say the more important aspect is that Americans simply can’t be bothered, most of the time. Things have to reach a critical mass before we react and they haven’t yet. But they will. And when they do, the path to recovering our liberty has already been carefully laid out.
But despite all that, we are still here. When I think about the last decade, I will not think about living in fear of anyone. I will think about the spread of smartphones and tablets. I will think about the Red Sox and White Sox winning the World Series. I will think about my Packers and Steelers winning superbowls. I will think about the SEC dominating college football. I will think about Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the movies of Chris Nolan. I will especially think about having become a dad. I will think about the science I’ve done and the people I’ve been privileged to work with. I’ll think about Lee and how I miss his voice.
That’s America. That’s our strength. That is what is crumbling would-be empires. Because being rich and having fun is more appealing to human beings than blowing yourself up. And that I can look back after ten years and see all that tells me all I need to know.
Osama bin Laden failed. Al-Qaeda failed. All of the fanatics and monsters of the world have failed to even slow us down.
We are still here.