September 11 - Five Years On
It's been five years.
The high-powered Wall Street attorney who sometimes contributes to these pages (see here and here), called from Manhattan on September 11. His office is thirty-four floors above the hole where the World Trade Center once stood. He said it was crazy there that day - the ceremonies and the media jammed the streets. He got in early, just after six in the morning, and left early - he called from the car, stuck in traffic at the Holland Tunnel. He was angry. But it wasn't the traffic.
It's what has happened, and what had not happened, in the last five years. He lost friends on that day. Now, when he has a spare moment from securities law, he does pro bono work for one of the businesses in the long-gone buildings, struggling to get going again. You want to fix things. But there's that hole in the ground.
And there's the state of the nation these days - he studied constitutional law under Peter Rodino, the Watergate guy, so such things bother him. There's some odd constitutional stuff going down these days, of course. How the law is supposed to work, and who is really supposed to follow it, is changing in ways that just don't make sense, and seem to be very dangerous.
When I was visiting there more than a year ago and taking photographs (album here), he asked me why I wasn't photographing the World Trade Center site. Well, it was hard to get a good angle on anything. Framing was difficult. I told him I finally figured out that it was really hard to take a series of shots documenting the absence of objects. What do you shoot? How can you draw the viewer's eye to what's not there? The few shots I took were crap. Look, there's nothing there?
There's still nothing there. Years before, sitting in the courtyard at the foot of the south tower, you could hurt your neck looking up, trying to get a sense of one hundred ten stories of pure mass. The towers defeated the eye. They still do now, just in a different way.
Too, by then the site had been appropriated. You half expected to find signs rimming the sixteen acre ruins saying keep out, unless you're a registered Republican, a born-again evangelical, or a NASCAR fan. The city may have voted nine to one against George Bush in the last presidential election, but that part of the city was and is his. The Republicans claimed it when they had their presidential nominating convention in Manhattan the year before. Democrats, progressives, skeptics and lefties - and those of us who had visited France regularly and actually liked it - were not welcome. And if you're from Hollywood? Horrors!
Fine. Lower Manhattan elsewhere was a trip. The Lower East Side and mid-town - the Village, Times Square to Grand Central, Bryant Park and the library - felt like home. You fell into the rhythm of things and got loose. You were in the intense center of your country - things were getting done and you were a small part of the essential bustle. Los Angeles and Hollywood suddenly seemed like hick towns at the edge of nowhere. Manhattan is not intimidating. It wakes you up.
Still, some of us feel no small anger about that hole in the ground, for all sorts of reasons.
So, for our friend in Manhattan, and for those of us stuck elsewhere but feel we should be there, here's an array of comments that get at the issues. We're not alone.
Greg Saunders -
To me it's impossible to separate 9/11 from Hurricane Katrina. For four years we'd been promised that the leadership of George Bush and the Republican Party could keep us safe, yet the aftermath of a natural disaster showed us that the federal government can't even protect us from a threat they have a week to prepare for. How could we expect them to respond to a dirty bomb attack, on electromagnetic pulse, a nuclear bomb smuggled in a shipping container, another anthrax attack, a few trucks filled with fertilizer explosives surrounding a sports arena, or more airliners hijacked with terrorists using ceramic or plastic blades and crashing them into chemical plants, the New York Stock Exchange, or the Capitol building during the State of the Union? These are the scenarios that keep me up at night and, al Qaeda's motives aside, there are still plenty of crazy people out there who'd love to kill as many Americans as possible.
So, where does that leave us? Well, the presidential administration we're stuck with for the next two years is a deadly combination of arrogance, stubbornness, and being-wrong-about-everything-ness. But it is an election year (which you may have guessed from the President's suddenly sparked interest in Osama Bin Laden), so there's still an opportunity to change course. Who's holding the President's feet to the fire to ensure that Russia's missing nuclear weapons are tracked down? Or that shipping containers entering the United States are searched? Or that people entering this country aren't here under falsified documents? Or that the FBI and CIA are sharing information? Or that our intelligence agencies have enough people to translate the mountain of data they're receiving?
Right now the Legislative branch is controlled by people who have bent over backwards to protect the President, despite his string of failures. They excused his stonewalling of the 9/11 Commission, dragged their feet on investigating Iraq's many scandals (torture, WMD's, no-bid-contracts), ignored his extra-constitutional dalliances (imperial presidency, signing statements), and they've made the extraordinary choice of working to change the laws that the President has been willfully breaking rather than insist that he follow the laws like the rest of us. That's your Republican Party in action.
So on this fifth anniversary of the worst day of my life, I'm tired of watching the country be crippled by its grief and fear. We're in danger, things aren't getting better, and we need to keep asking the same goddamn questions until we get answers. Who's keeping us safe? Well, I know who isn't.
Digby at Hullabaloo with this -
I knew that our government and media would react to this event in exactly the way bin Laden hoped and that we would do to ourselves what the Islamic extremists could only dream of doing: turn the country into a permanent state of faux crisis - and enable the authoritarian right wing of this country, which was unfortunately in power at the time, to pursue a doomed military empire, create a powerful imperial presidency and build the American style police state they had longed for, for decades. I knew that they would run with this "opportunity" and run with it they did.
It became a cliché and then a joke when people would say "the terrorists have won" but there is little doubt in my mind that they have achieved much of what they set out to do. Rather than being the object of sympathy and solidarity we were in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the world now sees the United States as the terrorists do - a rogue superpower, untrustworthy and unpredictable. The irrational invasion of Iraq cemented an image in the minds of Muslims and others that the US intends to steal valuable mid-east resources and wants a permanent presence in the region in order to subjugate its people.
The next generation of Americans is going to be left with a crippling economic burden from the twin effects of runaway spending on Iraq and an insane fiscal policy. Our society is being trained to believe we live in a perpetually fearful state of suspended animation, waiting for the ax to fall and increasingly sure that we must be willing to allow the government to do anything to maintain our precarious safety. (As long as we can keep shopping, of course.)
… Good work Osama. If you wanted to create terror, you seem to have succeeded. Or someone has on your behalf. There are those who seem intent upon wallowing in this "fear," immersing themselves in it, rubbing it all over them and everybody else. And there's no question why they want to do that. After all, terror doesn't just benefit al Qaeda, does it?
Then he points to this -
The conservative Center for Security Policy will begin airing a new television commercial criticizing those who might oppose [Bush's proposed legislation on show trials for terror detainees].
Some in Congress think "that if we retreat our terrorist enemies will leave us alone," says the ad that will run in Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont and New York. "They say we should close Guantanamo, where captured foes are kept from waging war against us. ... They seem to think we'll be safer if we cut and run."
With menacing music in the background, the commercial ends with an admonition: "Vote as if your life depended on it. Because it does."
To which Digby says -
And the Democrats, a day late and a dollar short when it comes to national security, have no choice but to feed into that sense of existential fear by nattering on about failed homeland security and accusing the president of feeble leadership because he hasn't caught Osama bin Laden, thus reinforcing the notion that we are under siege. Not that they have any choice really. To do otherwise would be, as Tom Kean said yesterday on This Week, "heresy."
… The problem is that this country simply cannot take an endless ginned-up "war" designed to benefit the Republican Party and Islamic terrorists and neither can the rest of the world. We have big problems to face and we need allies and cooperation to deal with them. Right now we are actively making things worse by allowing our government to pursue terrorism policies that create more of it.
This week the administration is planning to force the congress to rubber stamp its heretofore illegal torture and detention regime. They are going to use some of the 9/11 families to demagogue this legislation as the only proper response to the WTC attacks and they are going to try to trap Democratic politicians into voting for it or risk being "Clelanded" in the coming campaign.
… This torture and detention regime is making our country less safe and less free by creating more terrorists and degrading the US Constitution, but rather than dismantling it the Republicans are going to institutionalize it. It is only the latest of many such foolish actions our government undertook since 9/11. The question is whether we will continue to allow them to do Osama bin Laden's dirty work or if people of good sense will be able to resist their irrational warmongering and confront terrorists intelligently instead of giving them exactly what they want.
I'm not a big fan of Islamic fundamentalists myself. Like most fundamentalist religious fanatics, they are delusional, repressive, authoritarian tyrants and I have no desire for them to succeed in any way. I'm a liberal, after all. I'd really like to see the US government stop empowering them.
The fact that it is doing so makes me angry, I admit. On this day, of all days, especially.
Bill Montgomery -
If you had told me, five years ago, that on the fifth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in history Ground Zero would still be nothing but an enormous hole in the ground, I wouldn't have believed you - just as I wouldn't have believed that a major American city could be thoroughly trashed by a Category 4 hurricane and then left to molder in the mud for a year while various federal, state and local bureaucrats and hack politicians tried to make up their minds what to do.
I would have said that while those kinds of things can and do happen in Third World kleptocracies or decaying Stalinist police states, they're simply not possible in the richest and most powerful nation in history. Even if the voters could somehow be bamboozled into accepting such incompetence, the wealthy elites and corporate technocrats who own and operate the world's only remaining superpower would never stand for it. You can learn a lot about a country in five years.
What I've learned (from 9/11, the corporate scandals, the fiasco in Iraq, Katrina, the Cheney Administration's insane economic and environmental policies and the relentless dumbing down of the corporate media - plus the repeated electoral triumphs of the Rovian brand of "reality management") is that the United States is moving down the curve of imperial decay at an amazingly rapid clip. If anything, the speed of our descent appears to be accelerating.
The physical symptoms - a lost war, a derelict city, a Potemkin memorial hastily erected in a vacant lot - aren't nearly as alarming as the moral and intellectual paralysis that seems to have taken hold of the system. The old feedback mechanisms are broken or in deep disrepair, leaving America with an opposition party that doesn't know how (or what) to oppose, a military run by uniformed yes men, intelligence czars who couldn't find their way through a garden gate with a GPS locator, TV networks that don't even pretend to cover the news unless there's a missing white woman or a suspected child rapist involved, and talk radio hosts who think nuking Mecca is the solution to all our problems in the Middle East. We've got think tanks that can't think, security agencies that can't secure and accounting firms that can't count (except when their clients ask them to make 2+2=5). Our churches are either annexes to shopping malls, halfway homes for pederasts, or GOP precinct headquarters in disguise. Our economy is based on asset bubbles, defense contracts and an open-ended line of credit from the People's Bank of China, and we still can't push the poverty rate down or the median wage up.
I could happily go on, but I imagine you get my point. It's hard to think of a major American institution, tradition or cultural value that has not, at some point over the past five years, been shown to be a.) totally out of touch, b.) criminally negligent, c.) hopelessly corrupt, d.) insanely hypocritical or e.) all of the above.
It's getting hard to see how these trends can be reversed.
… The jihadis in Afghanistan didn't really take down the Soviet empire - they just delivered a very hard punch to a giant that was already falling. Looking at the state of America five years after 9/11, it no longer seems completely implausible that the same thing might one day be said of us.
This is not, I know, the most inspiring way to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the event that essentially kicked off the new American century - which at this point seems unlikely to last even a decade. If you want the standard patriotic rhetoric (hallowed ground, blessings of democracy, forward strategy for freedom, etc.) you'll have no trouble finding it elsewhere. There's no shortage of the stuff today (whitehouse.gov is a good place to start). But I personally don't think the record of the past half decade (or the current condition of Ground Zero) really justifies that kind of self-serving, self-justifying pablum.
Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly here -
My biggest disappointment of the past five years - the biggest by a very long way - has been the way that George Bush transformed 9/11 from an opportunity to bring the country together into a cynical and partisan cudgel useful primarily for winning a few more votes in national elections.
Compare and contrast: FDR was surely one of the most partisan presidents of the 20th century, but after Pearl Harbor he announced that "Dr. New Deal has been replaced by Dr. Win the War." And he made good on that. World War II was largely a bipartisan war and FDR largely governed as a bipartisan commander-in-chief.
And Bush? Within a few months of 9/11 Karl Rove was telling party members what a great issue terrorism would be for Republicans. Andy Card was busily working on the marketing campaign for Iraq, timed for maximum impact on the midterm elections in 2002. Joe Lieberman's DHS bill was hijacked and deliberately loaded with anti-union features in order to draw Democratic complaints and hand Bush a campaign issue. The UN resolution on WMD inspections in Iraq was kept on fire until literally the day after the midterms, at which point the version acceptable to the rest of the world was suddenly agreeable to Bush as well. Democrats who supported Bush on the war were treated to the same scorched-earth campaigning as everyone else. Bipartisanship bought them nothing.
What else? Bush never engaged with Democrats in any way. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were both hawkish Dems who could have been co-opted early if Bush had had any intention of treating the war seriously. He didn't even try. He continued pushing divisive domestic issues like tax cuts and culture war amendments. ("Dr. Tax Cuts has been replaced by Dr. Win the War" would have been more appropriate.) He showed little interest in funding anti-proliferation efforts or working with serious Democratic proposals to improve domestic security at ports and chemical plants. The national security rhetoric from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of the administration was relentlessly inflammatory and divisive.
I think this is a complaint that most conservatives don't accept - even conservatives who have soured on Bush over the past couple of years. But believe me: on the Democratic side of the aisle, Bush's intensely and gratuitously partisan approach to 9/11 and the war on terror is keenly felt. Sunday's Republican Party photo-op at Ground Zero was just more of the same.
And to cap it off for our Manhattan friend, broadcasting from in front of the sixteen-acre hole in lower Manhattan, Monday, September 11, 2006, Keith Olbermann on MSNBC has the final word. The video of his eight minute comment is here (Windows Media Player) or here (QuickTime).
If you don't have a fast connection to watch, the transcript is here -
And lastly tonight a Special Comment on why we are here.
Half a lifetime ago, I worked in this now-empty space.
And for 40 days after the attacks, I worked here again, trying to make sense of what happened, and was yet to happen, as a reporter.
And all the time, I knew that the very air I breathed contained the remains of thousands of people, including four of my friends, two in the planes and - as I discovered from those "missing posters" seared still into my soul - two more in the Towers.
And I knew too, that this was the pyre for hundreds of New York policemen and firemen, of whom my family can claim half a dozen or more, as our ancestors.
I belabor this to emphasize that, for me… this was, and is, and always shall be, personal.
And anyone who claims that I and others like me are "soft" - or have "forgotten" the lessons of what happened here - is at best a grasping, opportunistic, dilettante - and at worst, an idiot - whether he is a commentator, or a Vice President, or a President.
However. Of all the things those of us who were here five years ago could have forecast - of all the nightmares that unfolded before our eyes, and the others that unfolded only in our minds… none of us could have predicted… this.
Five years later this space… is still empty.
Five years later there is no Memorial to the dead.
Five years later there is no building rising to show with proud defiance that we would not have our America wrung from us, by cowards and criminals.
Five years later this country's wound is still open.
Five years later this country's mass grave is still unmarked.
Five years later… this is still… just a background for a photo-op.
It is beyond shameful.
At the dedication of the Gettysburg Memorial - barely four months after the last soldier staggered from another Pennsylvania field, Mr. Lincoln said "we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."
Lincoln used those words to immortalize their sacrifice.
Today our leaders could use those same words to rationalize their reprehensible inaction. "We cannot dedicate - we cannot consecrate - we cannot hallow - this ground." So we won't.
Instead they bicker and buck-pass. They thwart private efforts, and jostle to claim credit for initiatives that go nowhere. They spend the money on irrelevant wars, and elaborate self-congratulations, and buying off columnists to write how good a job they're doing - instead of doing any job at all.
Five years later, Mr. Bush… we are still fighting the terrorists on these streets. And look carefully, sir - on these 16 empty acres, the terrorists are clearly, still winning.
And, in a crime against every victim here and every patriotic sentiment you mouthed but did not enact, you have done nothing about it.
And there is something worse still than this vast gaping hole in this city, and in the fabric of our nation.
There is, its symbolism - of the promise unfulfilled - the urgent oath, reduced to lazy execution.
The only positive on 9/11 and the days and weeks that so slowly and painfully followed it was the unanimous humanity, here, and throughout the country. The government, the President in particular, was given every possible measure of support.
Those who did not belong to his party - tabled that.
Those who doubted the mechanics of his election - ignored that.
Those who wondered of his qualifications - forgot that.
History teaches us that nearly unanimous support of a government cannot be taken away from that government by its critics.
It can only be squandered by those who use it not to heal a nation's wounds, but to take political advantage.
Terrorists did not come and steal our newly-regained sense of being American first, and political, fiftieth. Nor did the Democrats. Nor did the media. Nor did the people.
The President - and those around him - did that.
They promised bi-partisanship, and then showed that to them, "bi-partisanship" meant that their party would rule and the rest would have to follow, or be branded, with ever-escalating hysteria, as morally or intellectually confused; as appeasers; as those who, in the Vice President's words yesterday, "validate the strategy of the terrorists."
They promised protection, and then showed that to them "protection" meant going to war against a despot whose hand they had once shaken - a despot who we now learn from our own Senate Intelligence Committee, hated Al-Qaeda as much as we did.
The polite phrase for how so many of us were duped into supporting a war, on the false premise that it had "something to do" with 9/11, is "lying by implication."
The impolite phrase is "impeachable offense."
Not once in now five years has this President ever offered to assume responsibility for the failures that led to this empty space… and to this, the current, curdled, version of our beloved country.
Still, there is a last snapping flame from a final candle of respect and fairness: even his most virulent critics have never suggested he alone bears the full brunt of the blame for 9/11.
Half the time, in fact, this President has been so gently treated, that he has seemed not even to be the man most responsible - for anything - in his own administration.
Yet what is happening this very night?
A mini-series, created, influenced - possibly financed by - the most radical and cold of domestic political Machiavellis, continues to be televised into our homes.
The documented truths of the last fifteen years are replaced by bald-faced lies; the talking points of the current regime parroted; the whole sorry story blurred, by spin, to make the party out of office seem vacillating and impotent, and the party in office, seem like the only option.
How dare you, Mr. President, after taking cynical advantage of the unanimity and love, and transmuting it into fraudulent war and needless death… after monstrously transforming it into fear and suspicion and turning that fear into the campaign slogan of three elections… how dare you or those around you… ever "spin" 9/11.
Just as the terrorists have succeeded - are still succeeding - as long as there is no memorial and no construction here at Ground Zero.
So too have they succeeded, and are still succeeding - as long as this government uses 9/11 as a wedge to pit Americans against Americans.
This is an odd point to cite a television program, especially one from March of 1960. But as Disney's continuing sell-out of the truth (and this country) suggests, even television programs can be powerful things.
And long ago, a series called "The Twilight Zone" broadcast a riveting episode entitled "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street."
In brief: a meteor sparks rumors of an invasion by extra-terrestrials disguised as humans. The electricity goes out. A neighbor pleads for calm.
Suddenly his car - and only his car - starts. Someone suggests he must be the alien. Then another man's lights go on.
As charges and suspicion and panic overtake the street, guns are inevitably produced.
An "alien" is shot - but he turns out to be just another neighbor, returning from going for help.
The camera pulls back to a near-by hill, where two extra-terrestrials are seen, manipulating a small device that can jam electricity. The veteran tells his novice that there's no need to actually attack, that you just turn off a few of the human machines and then, "they pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it's themselves."
And then, in perhaps his finest piece of writing, Rod Serling sums it up with words of remarkable prescience, given where we find ourselves tonight.
"The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices - to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own - for the children, and the children yet unborn."
When those who dissent are told time and time again - as we will be, if not tonight by the President, then tomorrow by his portable public chorus - that he is preserving our freedom, but that if we use any of it, we are somehow un-American…
When we are scolded, that if we merely question, we have "forgotten the lessons of 9/11"… look into this empty space behind me and the bi-partisanship upon which this administration also did not build, and tell me:
Who has left this hole in the ground?
We have not forgotten, Mr. President.
May this country forgive you.
The guy thinks he's Edward R. Murrow. Well, someone has to be these days. He'll do.
So maybe all this will help our attorney friend feel he's not so alone. And, after all, he should be proud that, on his mother's side of the family, he is related to Rod Serling.
Our Lawyer friend responds -
My thoughts regarding 9/11?
I was uptown that day five years ago, but the smoke and smell and stench hung over the entire city for many days.
I reported to my uncle in New Hampshire and my Dad in Rochester via cell phone what I was seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting late into that afternoon five years ago. Both of these men fought it World War II. My uncle proudly served with Patton. Dad kept watch overhead as a ball turret gunner in Italy later in the war. Not coincidentally, my uncle died approximately eight weeks after 911 and Dad followed several months thereafter. As mentioned, my legal mentor was Peter Rodino. He died in May of '05. To a certain extent (and I spoke with each of these men in the months prior to their deaths about 911 and World War II) what they died from was the understanding that all that the "Greatest Generation" lived and died for had been undone rather rapidly and is in the process of being permanently dismantled by Bush.
Rodino had great faith in the self-correcting nature of our government, but by the end he was telling many of us that Nixon was just the opening act for Bush and he was mightily disappointed.
My predictions for Ground Zero?
It will remain empty for the duration of my career as a lawyer (eighteen years).
If there is another attack it is likely to be in this neighborhood once again or NYC as a single parcel.
If neither the House nor Senate are controlled by the Democrats after the mid-term election then we will be both figuratively and literally toast.
In any event I have to get back to the lawyer gig and will do so listening to Brahms's G Major String Quintet as the rain falls outside, thirty-two stories up overlooking the harbor.