Our Lost Opportunity After 9-11
It’s natural to want to take stock of what has transpired in the five years since Sept. 11, 2001, the day the cool, azure sky over New York City was breached by two hurtling airliners that struck the World Trade Center towers and neatly divided our world between the past and future.
Since then, history has seemed to hurtle forward at a pace and course meant to hopelessly confound all but those who possess the most doctrinaire of belief systems. Before the year was out a new recession would be declared, Argentina’s economy would collapse leaving in its wake shuttered factories, capital flight and massive unemployment. Enron, the prize of the late 20th century global economy, would implode, vaporizing untold jobs and shareholder investments in an instant.
The next two seminal events would come at two-year intervals, but shape the world no less fatefully. President Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003,’ undertaken in defiance of an unprecedented outcry of protest, would make the United States the object of hatred the world over and unleash an orgy of fratricide, profiteering, torture and mutual atrocity. In August 2005, of course, Katrina visited devastation on the Gulf Coast, and most of us looked on with disbelief as our compatriots were left stranded in the squalid hellhole of New Orleans as the federal government, private contractors and the Red Cross stumbled.
You probably remember just as clearly as I where you were on Sept. 11.
I was stocking the shelves at the Hunter College bookstore at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It seems as unbelievable now as it did then. I remember this elderly Jewish man shaking with rage as he stood in the checkout line and announced to no one in particular that “the damn terrorists have flown an airplane into the trade center.” No one reacted at first because the pronouncement sounded too crazy to take at face value. Then some five minutes later my manager tearfully received the news from a friend over the phone and sent everyone home for the day.
It took all day to walk back to my apartment in Brooklyn. Everything was a surreal juxtaposition: the society ladies debating which new restaurant to try on Park Avenue, the National Guard armored personnel carriers rolling down the street, the crowds huddled around the television at the sleek metallic bar at Union Square, the disoriented office worker staggering up Broadway with ashes on the shoulders of his suit jacket and the masses pouring over the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn, portable radios broadcasting Bush’s speech. And finally, during the final leg of my journey over the pedestrian bridge across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway where I had always counted on the picturesque view of those towers at the foot of the Manhattan skyline, there was a hole replaced by charred bits of financial reports sifting down from the sky, carried on the wind across the East River eight hours after the attack and raining on my street.
My first sentiment could easily be shared by the now-disgraced neoconservatives who planned the invasion of Iraq: We are under siege. We are at war.
After that a feeling overcame me that is likely to make some of you boil with anger. I hoped this event would mark the end of American military triumphalism, and that we would become a more soulful and humble nation. Like Spain after its defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898, we might release the weight of empire and enter a new era of cultural flowering with great literary artists like JosÃ© Ortega y Gasset and painters like Pablo Picasso.
It’s not that I wanted defeat. Instead, I wanted the United States to take its place in a constellation of rich and varied human cultures, to flourish in interdependence with its counterparts and to neutralize the Islamic fundamentalists with compassion. I would have considered that a victory.
For better or worse, it has not worked out that way.
Instead, it seems that the United States has embarked on a poorly received campaign of aggression and domination around the globe commensurate to a deepening condition of insecurity and vulnerability at home, with national infrastructure deteriorating, healthcare and pension costs skyrocketing, jobs disappearing, nativist resentments on the rise and social desensitization anesthetizing the pain of diminished expectations.
I did not recognize my country when earlier this month I met Robert Richardson, an African-American homeowner who is still waiting to get a FEMA trailer in front of his destroyed house in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, and who is waiting for federal relief funds to filter down through the Louisiana Recovery Authority so he can rebuild. I did not recognize it when I surveyed the ghostly pillars, orphaned front steps and naked concrete slabs that hug the coastline in Bay Saint Louis, Miss. as Bush’s helicopter caravan passed overhead on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
I will tell you that laying vinyl tile and installing base molding in the once flooded home of a Katrina survivor with Dave Matthews, an elderly casino worker from Philadelphia, Miss., was a revelation to me. I was moved to spend a week doing volunteer work because of my sense of political outrage and religious faith. Matthews, who told me he believes the world would be a much more dangerous place had George W. Bush not been the president for the past five years, was compelled to respond because his son’s experience in the Coast Guard during the storm made Katrina’s tragedy too tangible for him to remain aloof. We would seem to have little in common, but I felt a tremendous kinship with him. I have a fledgling hope that our bond could represent the beginning of a new patriotism based on taking care of each other.
How I will feel in five years I cannot say.
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