September 11

I wrote the piece below on the second anniversary of the attacks in 2003, at which time my wife and I were graduate students at the University of Minnesota. The attacks were fresh enough in my mind that I think it can count as a primary source, and I repost it here for the twentieth anniversary for interest’s sake. If there is any modification to be made at this point, it sure looks like Iraq was a huge waste of lives and money and that not all people “yearn for freedom” the way we like to think they do. The recent debacle in Afghanistan has also revealed the limits of Wilsonian world-building. 

Note the changes in technology: dial-up Internet, television over the airwaves, photocopying documents to send them in the mail, etc.

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I missed September 11. Anne awoke early to go into the university to teach, and I slept in until about 9:00 a.m. When I got up, instead of going onto the Internet as I often do, I finished off my lecture (I was teaching my own class on Tuesday evenings). I also wrote a letter to American Airlines: we had just returned from our honeymoon to South Africa and I was wondering if I could get the frequent flyer points for the entire trip and not just the officially American Airlines leg, i.e. Minneapolis to Chicago. I walked in to school around noon, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, either on the way in or when I got to the library to make photocopies of the boarding passes for the letter. I mailed it, and went up to the history department. As I got off the elevator I ran into the graduate secretary who told me that classes had just been cancelled for the rest of the day. I asked why. “Because of the World Trade Center coming down,” she replied. “What?” I said. “They blew up the World Trade Center.” “What are you talking about?!” “Oh, just go down to the lounge,” she said.

The lounge is a small room at the end of the hall with couches, a couple of bookcases full of books no one wants, a typewriter, and a small rabbit-eared television with a “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker on the top. I didn’t think that it actually worked, but apparently it did: a small crowd was gathered around, and it was showing again and again not just airplanes hitting the two towers of World Trade Center but the towers actually falling down. Falling down! Incredible! There’s no more World Trade Center! My friend Troy was there, and I asked him what the hell was happening. He filled me in: two planes were flown in to the World Trade Center, another plane had hit the Pentagon, and a fourth had gone down in Pennsylvania. Also, a car bomb had gone off in front of the State Department. He thought that it was probably the same type of people who had bombed the WTC in 1993. I was stunned. I watched the TV for a bit, and then went down to the computer lab to look on the Internet. Every single news site was full of information about the attacks. As many as 50,000 people could have been killed. The president was under heavy guard at an air force base somewhere. Fighter jets had been scrambled. All commercial flights had been grounded. Muslims were bracing for a backlash. Everyone was braced for further attacks. An email announced that an interfaith prayer rally in memory of the victims, and urging calm on survivors, was to take place on the Mall.

I went up a floor to see Anne. On the way I heard one professor saying that we shouldn’t cancel classes, but that we should use them to discuss the issue. I heard another saying, “This is big. This is Pearl Harbor.” I saw Anne, who was going to the prayer meeting with her advisor. I elected not to go: I had a suspicion that it would turn into an anti-backlash rally before any sort of backlash was apparent, which would have simply annoyed me. Instead, I just walked home. At this point I did notice the lack of airplanes in the sky, which is a novelty for Minneapolis since the airport is quite close to the downtown and planes are constantly flying overhead. Once home I turned on the television and sat hypnotized. I still wasn’t quite sure what exactly was going on, and that’s what I remember most about the day: the sheer novelty of it, how it didn’t seem to relate to anything that had ever happened before. Sure, there was the Oklahoma City bombing, but this seemed to be different in kind as well as degree. Such a reaction was shared by others: because no one knew quite what to think, an eerie calm seemed to pervade the reactions of people on the television. There was an interview with one guy who had been in the WTC and had gotten out, and who was matter-of-factly describing hearing the announcement, and simply walking down the stairs and out into the street. How much different from the Columbine massacre of two years previous: everyone knew then what a “school shooting” was, even if that was a particularly egregious one, so we had the usual images of teenagers hugging each other, soccer moms overjoyed to discover their offspring safe, grief counselors telling you that it’s OK to talk about your feelings, and almost instantaneous squabbling over whether it was caused by lack of gun control or whether it was caused by violent movies and video games. Mark Steyn wrote later that “it is very, very rare for the media to be caught so off-guard by an event that they lose control of their ability to determine its meaning,” and that was certainly true on the day.

Of course we all know now what “September eleventh” (complete with its assonance and amphibrachic rhythm) means. The attacks were the work of al-Qaeda, the same people who had bombed the USS Cole and the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Their operatives, armed with nothing more than boxcutters, hijacked four airplanes and used them as guided bombs against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and would have hit some fourth place had not the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 risen up against them and brought the plane down. Otherwise there was no bomb outside the State Department, only 3000 people were killed, and the anti-Muslim backlash was remarkably subdued. The only follow-up attacks consisted of anthrax in the mail to the likes of Senator Daschle and the National Enquirer, if these were connected to Sept. 11 at all.

And US foreign policy has revolved around it ever since. President Bush declared a “war on terror,” and since the Taliban regime of Afghanistan refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, he ordered it toppled, which the military did in fairly short order. After months of negotiations with the UN, it did the same to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, on the ostensible principle that Saddam had chemical weapons which he might share with terrorists, but also because he had never really fulfilled the cease-fire conditions of the first Gulf War, that Iraq could potentially serve as a model for a secular, liberal Arab state, thereby striking at one of the root causes of terrorism, and that he was a plain old fashioned tyrant whom the world is better off without. Whether this will work or not remains to be seen. I supported the war, and I still have confidence that what will come ahead will be better than what existed before, but I can’t help but feeling that time is not on our side.

Otherwise September 11 made me even more of a news junkie, and a conservative, than I already was. All attempts to portray the attack as blowback for the past misadventures of American foreign policy or the injustice of the world economic system struck me as hollow, something that would appear to be true if you were deeply invested in leftist ideology but which simply didn’t fit the facts. The airplanes were not piloted by the families of the Chilean disappeared or the survivors of a Contra massacre, nor by anyone who expressed solidarity even with the Palestinians. They weren’t poor, either: bin Laden is quite wealthy, and the hijackers were apparently well-off, with other life options available to them. No, to me the event blew the lid off the polite fiction, pervasive in academia, that all cultures are equal, and no one is ever really to blame, but if someone must be blamed, it should probably be the US. Robert Fulford wrote that the event

challenged the gentle and self-deluded way we have thought about human relations…. We try desperately to be agreeable and to deny that ugly differences among us exist. In this milieu, the atrocity of Sept. 11 was a foreign object, hard as anthracite. Perhaps we can identify it with an ancient word, evil. That term frightens us: liberalism decided long ago that “evil” should not, if one follows liberal thinking, exist.

And Christopher Hitchens, no conservative, famously wrote that

What the terrorists abominate about “the West” is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific enquiry, its separation of religion from the state.

To express solidarity with or even to make excuses for al-Qaeda seemed to me to be a great moral and strategic blunder. The US, even when headed by George Bush, is not always wrong.

All quotes above, by the way, have been culled from my file of Sept. 11 material that I started to keep and which I have open before me. Some of the commentary was first-rate, and some of it was fatuous drivel, because the pain-feelers and concern-sharers eventually did arrive. There was a “message of support and recommendation from the International Students’ Office,” including:

Some of you may feel that you have not really faced harassment, but that you have experienced a change in attitudes or an unfriendly climate in your department or work place. Even though you may feel that there are no concrete incidents that you consider harassment, we are interested in hearing about your experience and want to discuss strategies you or we can take feel safe and comfortable during your studies here.

And there was this message from the MacArthur fellows:

On Friday, Sept. 28, a group of MacArthur students and faculty met to discuss how our community could respond to the events of Sept. 11. The clear consensus was that we have a responsibility to draw from the MacArthur program’s intellectual skills and resources to stimulate critical reflection on several issues — in particular, the ongoing anti-Arab and anti-Moslem violence and racial profiling; new challenges to our political and civil liberties; the militarization of the US state; and more.

Note the smug elision between “we’re smart” and “we hold the correct opinions.” How about using your superior brainpower to come up with ways to prevent this sort of thing from happening again? As for the International Students Office, the theme of that message was clearly: “Please make us feel important! Please justify our jobs!” I wanted to tell them that although I was shocked by the attacks, I was very pleased that something good had come out of them, namely that the “climate” in America had changed vastly for the better: the country was united as I had never seen it before, and all the petty crap that normally fills its consciousness (that summer: Gary Condit, Chandra Levy, Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and Survivor) was placed firmly in perspective if not entirely forgotten, and finally that their patronizing and intrusive concern about the state of our emotions was not helping. Fuck off, you wankers!*

But I dare say Sept. 11 has been forgotten, in its way. Mark Steyn is fond of designating obsolete or trivial things as “so Sept. 10,” but in its way Sept. 11 has become Sept. 10. Time marches on, of course, and the first anniversary placed a natural moratorium on expressions of grief. But it seems to me that the Iraq war was more important in this respect. A few people protested the Afghan war, but many, many more people protested the war on Iraq, on the principle that it wasn’t retaliatory but “preemptive,” therefore ushering in a dangerous new era in American foreign policy. That the administration decided to seek UN approval for this adventure gave plenty of time for the anti-war movement to organize itself, and its failure to get that approval looked particularly bad. Furthermore, the controversy over the war shattered the unity that we had in the fall of 2001, and completely overshadowed any sympathy the US may have won abroad. If for a brief while it was cool to be American that moment has long passed, because the US has reverted to type: no longer the victim, it is once again the bully. Thus it has traded good will for “results,” in much the same way that the Jews, in founding the state of Israel, decided that they weren’t going to be nice anymore, and are quite unapologetic about killing their enemies.

Was it a good trade? I admit that it’s nice to be liked. Do you remember U2’s performance in memory of 9/11 at the Superbowl in 2002? Last summer my wife and I were visiting my parents in Canada, and we had a rental car with Minnesota plates. We had gone downtown to do some shopping and parked on the street; when we returned to the car we discovered that we had a ticket, only it wasn’t a ticket at all but a free parking pass issued by the Chamber of Commerce, on which the meter maid had written, “God bless America!” I’m not even American and I got choked up at this, but I wonder if anyone gets this treatment anymore. I personally don’t ever want to see another attack on the order of Sept. 11, and I am gladly willing to forego the good will of others to do so. The question, of course, is whether the war on Iraq and the other facets of the “War on Terror” have made another attack not less, but more, likely. Frankly I think there’s a lot to be said for the notion that we have crippled al-Qaeda and that they have been reduced to fighting in the Middle East only — we’ve taken the fight to them. But can we afford to stay there? Who knows? Americans are a can-do people and this project may just work… or it may not.

Meanwhile, on cue, Americans are back to their usual self-absorption. With the victory in Iraq things are back to “normal,” and so they have retreated to Plato’s cave and the comfort of stories about Laci Peterson, Kobe Bryant, and Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore. Sigh.

Allow me to say, in closing, that I’m quite embarrassed actually to have sent a letter to American Airlines asking for frequent flyer points, dated on a day that they had far, far more important things to worry about. (The reply, I’m relieved to say, came about two weeks later and was polite: they could give me points for the transatlantic flight, but not the London-Cape Town flight.)

* Of course I think that anti-Muslim prejudice is stupid and ugly, and if expressed physically met with the sternest possible punishment. It’s just that the assumption that most ordinary white Americans are latent racists, just waiting for an excuse to act on their hatred, is a gross libel. And longtime readers will know that I don’t care much for aggressive victimhood, either. Dirty looks and name-calling may be hurtful to schoolchildren, but adults should know how to ignore them.

Addendum

Recently spotted in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota: a memorial to 9/11, in particular to Tom Burnett, a native of Bloomington and leader of the Flight 93 revolt. 

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