I hope that my readers will forgive me for not writing today of my September 11th memories. It may be lazy but I think that, in terms of my own experience that day, I've already said all that needs saying. If you'd like, you can read the detailed post on the subject I wrote in 2009.
What bears more reflection on this tenth anniversary, in my view, is not the event itself but the event's implications. It is in the legacy of September 11th that the day's true significance, and true tragedy, can be found.
The simple fact of the matter is that al-Qaeda won.
For all our rhetoric about the clash of fundamentalism and freedom, for all our vast might and our overawing displays of arms in two sandy wastelands across the ocean, the small terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden was ultimately able to get what it wanted: ten years after 9/11 U.S. power projection capabilities have been significantly diminished, the economic prosperity undergirding U.S. strength has foundered, and the dramatic slide of American politics to the far right has imperiled the Constitutional freedoms that the War on Terror was supposed to be protecting.
With three airplanes al Qaeda brought down a superpower.
Of course, September 11th in and of itself did not inflict this vast damage. Our reaction to it did.
September 11th gave George W. Bush, who on September 10th had approval ratings hovering just over 50%, the political will he needed initiate two disastrous wars, both mismanaged and one wholly unrelated the the terrorist attacks that "provoked" it. September 11th assured the president's narrow victory in 2004 and the ascendancy of ultra-conservative plutocrats whose program of radical deregulation led directly to economic collapse. An event of horrible violence perpetrated by evil men has since justified endless other events of horrible violence perpetrated by other evil men.
What is the real cost of September 11th? One must count, of course, the three thousand Americans who perished in the attacks. Add to that the seven thousand servicemembers who have subsequently died in combat. Add to that the number of Iraqi civilians, which some estimates place as high as one million, killed in the American occupation, and the millions more displaced. Add still the global economic crisis, the precipitous drop in GDP among the Western powers, the rise of fringe politicians like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry, the cavernous wealth gap, and the growing scourge of poverty that promises to perpetuate it all. Add, too, the millions of people my own age, alienated and underemployed and rapidly transforming into a lost generation. Add a United States in steep decline, vacating the stage to make room for the rising red star of China.
As inexorable as all these things now seem, we absolutely did not have to arrive at this point. In 2000, the last full year of Bill Clinton's presidency, GDP grew at a rate of 5%, unemployment was below 4%, and there was a federal budget surplus of $230 billion. When historians look back, they will likely identify the late Clinton years as the time when we were at the peak of our power. They will also, in retrospect, probably point to 9/11 as the moment it all began to unravel.
We did it to ourselves.