Eight Years On

Friday, September 11, 2009 – the eighth anniversary of what everyone now knows as 9/11. And of course a mild light rain fell in lower Manhattan, and we all could watch the ceremonies. Everything fell in place. Obama had declared a day of national service – it would be a good day, and every September 11 forward, for folks to think about the nation as a community where we look out for each other and help each other out. That’s how we got through those awful days.

For a time the right had been livid. This was a day each year for outrage and anger – and for once again vowing vengeance. You ran up the flag and jutted out your chin and swore no one would ever mess with us again. Obama was a fool, being all girly about this.

But the day came and went, and they let it drop. Obama went to where the Pentagon had been hit and said what they needed to hear – “Let us renew our resolve against those who perpetrated this barbaric act and who plot against us still. In pursuit of al-Qaida and its extremist allies, we will never falter.”

Of course – that should go without saying. So most of the speech was about all of us watching each other’s backs in hard times, and making sure no one gets left behind and forgotten. He seems to want us to be like the heroic New York firemen, who did just that, or died trying, and not would-be Rambo’s out to slit a few throats and teach uppity folks a lesson. Which is more appropriate, or more patriotic, will be discussed each September for years to come.

But it was an odd day. MSNBC ran their coverage from that morning years ago – unedited, uninterrupted, without commentary or any screen crawl at the bottom – and it was odd to have three hours of that, as it happened. It took you back. Everyone else had the important folks saying important things about what everyone really should think about, and why. But being told by the right that it was high time once again to kick ass and this time wipe Iran off the map, or being told by the left it was time to bone up on the subtleties of geopolitics and soft power, and get a lot smarter at this, turned real offensive rather quickly. You wanted the Greek tragedy thing – the awful story unfolding, where you already know the ending, which somehow clears the mind and just feels right. This is what happened. This is what suddenly good, or suddenly overwhelmed, people did. You can’t turn your eyes away. Life is like this. You can deal with it.

The rest of the coverage seemed to be detailed documentaries – firefighters, doctors, aviation experts, political or religious scholars or structural engineers – some old items, some new. They filled the day.

But something was slightly off. See Jack Shafer with his item, The 9/11 Anniversary Racket, and his advice – “Blind your eyes and plug your ears!”

He’s Slate’s press critic and he’s had enough:

Those of us born with high-gain news radar have already spotted a flotilla – make that several flotillas – of 9/11 anniversary stories just over the horizon steaming toward readers and viewers. During the next several days, hundreds of poorly executed newspaper articles and TV segments will arrive to commemorate the slaughter and refresh our memories about the attack of eight years ago.

The anniversary story is, in almost all instances, a media scam designed to exploit audiences by reviving memories – usually painful ones – to sell newspapers or boost ratings. In its most naked form, the anniversary article makes no attempt to advance the story or deepen the collective understanding of the selected anniversary event.

Well, he’s a news guy, and prefers news, not rumination. And, if you have to produce nostalgia-death-porn, at least you could do it competently:

In the case of 9/11, manufacturing a cheap and effective anniversary piece need require no more effort than replaying the tape or posing the survivor next to a picture of a victim or otherwise drenching the hanky in tears. … Before and after snapshots of the Manhattan skyline. … The erection of memorials. … First-person pieces about watching from Brooklyn as the second plane struck.

I single 9/11 coverage out for anniversary abuse, but the press indulges in mawkish regurgitation of every disaster, killing spree, and other momentous and bloody historical event it can find in the almanacs – the Normandy invasion, the Lockerbie bombing, the Virginia Tech murders, Stalingrad, Oklahoma City, Kent State, the Kennedy and King assassinations, Katrina, the Tsunami, Mount St. Helens, Attica, the Tet Offensive, the Munich massacre, Hiroshima, Chernobyl, the Branch Davidian massacre, and so on. And then there are the less than incendiary anniversary stories the press force-feeds us – the Woodstock generation kicked out the jams 40 years ago, Hawaii and Alaska became states 50 years ago, NATO was established 60 years ago.

But of course that is what people want to see, or at least what the media think we all want to see. That it’s not news, per se, but it’s something, even if each special can be assembled cheaply and easily and edited into final form in your sleep, or done by a simple software application. That’s how they write screenplays out here in Hollywood – really.

Of course you can argue that newspapers have always reserved space to revive memories of things in the past, “giving young readers a sense of history and allowing older readers to relive yesterday.” But Shafer says such “continuing education” does not belong on Page One. And it’s not very good stuff anyway:

Journalists love anniversary stories because they take no more imagination to find than dialing in a site like On This Day, picking a ripe anniversary, and banking the hastily assembled copy for the appropriate date on the publication calendar. No matter what a reporter’s beat – sports, business, politics, technology – there’s always a quick and easy anniversary story out there to execute. Just Nexis a few stories, make a couple of phone calls, type up the results, and hit send.

And it’s a closed loop. Readers and viewers “delight in the retreaded tales for the same reason kids want to be told the same nighttime stories. They’re lazy and they crave the psychological stimulation that the familiar brings. Like overworked parents, journalists are all too happy to indulge their readers.”

And you know just what you’ll get:

A timeline of the attacks. Profiles of the attackers. The rebellion of the passengers on Flight 93. The many ways in which the steel salvaged from the tower site has been reused. More about the “forgotten” Pentagon attack and the Pennsylvania crash. Checking in with the 9/11 widows. Checking in with the surviving members of the FDNY. Checking in with Rudy Giuliani. Checking in with the journalists who covered 9/11. Acts of heroism. Acts of desperation. On the Web, a slide show of the 9/11 devastation. The Bush and Cheney response, etc.

And that is what we got. Like Rudolf and the original Grinch at Christmas, along with Charlie Brown and his scraggly tree, it has become tradition. Shafer is not impressed.

And at True Slant, Ryan Sager says Shafer has it all wrong:

Why do we pull the memory of 9/11 out of a box once a year, as a nation, and run our fingers over it? Not to advance the story. Not to deepen our understanding. But to keep the memory accessible. To make sure we know where it is. To remember where we were that day. To trigger little details that might be lost forever if we don’t touch them again this year.

Is this an unequivocally good thing? Too much memory can be a bad thing; rumination seems to be a key factor in depression and PTSD. But within the normal range, there’s nothing wrong with ruminating on the sad events in one’s life – in fact, it’s much healthier than the alternative of actively trying to repress the ugliness of the past.

So, as 9/11 becomes more distant, and you ask yourself why we should bother remembering at all, remember this: We don’t remember to learn; we don’t remember to stay angry; we don’t remember to keep from moving on; we remember because we’re human, and that’s how we process our world and keep from coming unmoored.

And that is what Greek tragedy was all about too. Everyone knew exactly what was going to happen to Oedipus, in detail. That was the whole point. Remembering things, looking at them, keeps you sane.

Anyway, we did what we did in response, and fixed things, or so says General Stanley McChrystal – “I do not see indications of a large al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan now.” That’s done, maybe.

Of course we also did all that torture and rendition stuff, the Cheney Doctrine. And that undid a lot. Charles C. Krulak was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999 and Joseph P. Hoar was commander in chief of US Central Command from 1991 to 1994, and in this special day’s Miami Herald they write that we screwed up our response to 9/11:

On this solemn day we pause to remember those who lost their lives on 9/11. As our leaders work to prevent terrorists from again striking on our soil, they should remember the fundamental precept of counterinsurgency we’ve relearned in Afghanistan and Iraq: Undermine the enemy’s legitimacy while building our own. These wars will not be won on the battlefield. They will be won in the hearts of young men who decide not to sign up to be fighters and young women who decline to be suicide bombers. If Americans torture and it comes to light – as it inevitably will – it embitters and alienates the very people we need most.

One should be careful how one reacts to 9/11 – then and now. See this from the Economist:

America took a specific approach in the aftermath of 9/11. Neoconservative American leaders believed that terrorism was fundamentally a type of proxy warfare carried out by hostile states. So we responded by turning two anti-American regimes into failed states between 2001 and 2003. (Well, one was already pretty much failed, but we double-failed it.) That was the wrong approach. An alternative approach, advanced by some at the time, was to view terrorism as a phenomenon that mostly emerges out of states that are already failed or failing. The relevant military approach is counterinsurgency, to help turn failed states into sustainable states, rather than the other way around.

That approach has been much more successful than the Rumsfeld strategy. It may be too late, at this point, to salvage anything like the goals which a counterinsurgency approach would have targeted in Afghanistan in 2002. And maybe we wouldn’t have achieved those goals anyway. But it would have been the right way to fight the war, and we should keep that in mind the next time we get into a similar conflict.

That item also cites John Nagl’s book on counterinsurgency – this has been “learning to eat soup with a knife.” Matthew Yglesias riffs on that:

One thing you might ask yourself, of course, is why would you do that? And it’s hard to say. I mean, even a starving man with a bowl of soup and no spoon is just going to drink directly from a bowl. Of course you can devise some kind of scenario in which it might be necessary to eat soup with a knife, but your basic game plan in life is going to be to avoid being in those kind of situations. And much the same, it seems to me, with the lessons of counterinsurgency. This is very difficult stuff. Like eating soup with a knife. Your top policy priority should be to avoid the situations in which it arises.

Ah, a lesson from 9/11 – don’t do stupid things. But at American Scene, Noah Millman argues that what we should have done differently in Afghanistan isn’t at all clear:

This is what is meant by tragedy: when you feel compelled to do something that will only lead to pain and failure. You can talk all you want now about the need to win, and you can talk all you want now about simply declaring victory and going home, but the fact that will be plain in the first case is that we keep staying because we can’t figure out how to “win” and in the second case it will be plain that we left because we lost.

We were fated to go there, and stay forever. The fates are like that. Your essential character is your fate, and like Oedipus, we have a tragic flaw, as elsewhere Millman says this:

The main reason we wouldn’t have simply packed up and left Afghanistan after (hypothetically) taking Osama bin Laden’s scalp is not that nation-building in Afghanistan was vital to defeating al Qaeda or ending the threat of terrorism, but that, our vulnerability having been demonstrated so dramatically, our response had to be grander than that. These guys had punched a hole in the greatest city in the world, and bombed the command center for our military decision-making. Whether a huge military response had any plausible war aims at all, we had to have one, somewhere.

That’s why I describe the situation as a tragedy.

The Greeks called it hubris. After 9/11 it was the next tragedy ready to happen. At the Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami, unwittingly shows just what that means:

Those were not Afghans who had struck American soil on 9/11. They were Arabs. Their terrorism came out of the pathologies of Arab political life. Their financiers were Arabs, and so were those crowds in Cairo and Nablus and Amman that had winked at the terror and had seen those attacks as America getting its comeuppance on that terrible day. Kabul had not sufficed as a return address in that twilight war; it was important to take the war into the Arab world itself, and the despot in Baghdad had drawn the short straw. He had been brazen and defiant at a time of genuine American concern, and a lesson was made of him.

That’s when the fates bring everything down on your head. It’s very Greek.

And see Andrew Sullivan on the other lessons from 9/11:

The human psyche is built to recover from trauma, and so we should not be surprised or alarmed that the emotions of that day are less vivid to us now. But it is worth, it seems to me, remembering its extraordinary power. It was one of the most despicable mass murders in human history, conducted by religious fanatics bent on destroying Western civilization. It was terrifying because they achieved this with only 19 men, some box-cutters and the small freedoms that we once took for granted in this country and now have no longer.

It’s worth also recalling, after the bitter and often justified criticism of the last president’s subsequent war policy, how intense and terrifying it was for those in power back then. They deserved the support they were given because they were our elected leaders, regardless of party, and the nation had been attacked. It was extremely hard to know what to do in the absence of actionable intelligence and a display of such theatrical nihilism. Emergency measures in the aftermath are what the executive branch is there for. Mistakes are and should be forgivable at a moment like that.

But the fates will catch up with you anyway. Mistakes are like that. And because we are in a bit of a classic tragedy, we need to understand what we can learn from it:

The first is that total security is impossible in a free society.

I understand deeply the hankering for it in the ashes of the World Trade Center. But we should all acknowledge that a free society will never be able to have 100 percent level of success against those who are prepared to kill themselves in acts of terror. The Cheney promise is a mirage – and getting there could mean losing far more than we gain.

The second is that defeating this menace is not amenable to conventional military power; and that intervention in Muslim countries needs to be calibrated very, very carefully to avoid generating more terror than we manage to suppress.

The third is that nation-building and counter-insurgency in countries which are barely nations and failed states is a century-long enterprise. Occupations that long are imperial ventures. Imperial ventures can become self-sustaining. They are harder to end than government programs, because they are, in part, a government program. Unless they can be shown to drastically reduce the terror threat to the West, they can be ghastly errors. The war in Iraq remains such a ghastly error. The war in Afghanistan, alas, now another. A great power with the debt levels of the US right now is not Britain in the early 19th century; it’s Britain in the early 20th century. Empire has to be paid for. And we have long since run out of money.

Fourth. We should not grant the enemy more allure than he deserves. Al Qaeda is now weaker than it once was – rejected by the people in Iraq and Jordan, decimated by the military and CIA under Bush and Obama. They did not have access to weapons of mass destruction, or they would have used them a long time ago. Smarter, more targeted detection, surveillance, skilled interrogation (not sadistic brutality), more skilled and culturally-attuned human intelligence: these are the skills we need.

But other than that we reacted magnificently.

And Sullivan is big on learning from such things:

I was devastated that day by what was done to America. It was a rape of sorts. Nothing justified it. Nothing will ever erase our memory of it. Moreover, we still have a civilization to defend. What I have since learned – and learned hard – is that we can undermine it ourselves more surely than the enemy can. We have to be as aware of our own failures as much as the enemy’s evil. This makes it a very difficult and long war. But in the names of all those who perished that day, we must still win it – if by subtler, shrewder, cannier moves than we have managed so far.

Oedipus didn’t get a second chance. We may.

And there is a way out. Matthew Yglesias suggests how:

The important question that lingers on the eighth anniversary of 9/11 is how does this end, exactly? On the one hand, for all the terrible things that have happened since that terrible morning, our worst post-attack fears have very much not materialized. Insofar as America seems to be in rickety shape right now, that has far more to do with the collapse of an asset bubble and the grim medium-term fiscal outlook than with anything al-Qaeda is plausibly going to do. At the same time, despite some recent wins against al-Qaeda in the Pakistani frontier regions it doesn’t seem likely that we’re going to totally eliminate jihadist activity in various far-flung corners of the globe.

So does it make sense to spend years and years more on a permanent emergency footing? It seems to me that it doesn’t, and that James Fallows’ September 2006 article “Declaring Victory” is still one of the most important and relevant things published since 9/11. Obviously to some extent you need to update the thinking to take into account the past two years’ worth of activity, but it basically rings true to me today.

That article is here, and it is cool:

Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents. Kilcullen, who as an Australian army officer commanded counter-insurgency units in East Timor, recently served as an adviser in the Pentagon and is now a senior adviser on counterterrorism at the State Department. He was referring to the argument about whether the terrorism of the twenty-first century endangers the very existence of the United States and its allies, as the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons did throughout the Cold War (and as the remnants of that arsenal still might).

“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.

“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. “Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”

Since 9/11, this equation has worked in al-Qaeda’s favor. That can be reversed.

We just say we’ve won. Otherwise, we’ve lost:

America’s glory has been its openness and idealism, internally and externally. Each has been constrained from time to time, but not for as long or in as open-ended a way as now. “We are slowly changing their way of life,” Michael Scheuer’s fictional adviser to bin Laden says in his briefing. The Americans’ capital city is more bunker-like than it was during World War II, he comments; the people live as if terrified, and watch passively as elementary-school children go through metal detectors before entering museums.

“There is one thing above all that bin Laden can feel relieved about,” Caleb Carr told me. “It’s that we have never stopped to reassess our situation. We have been so busy reacting that we have not yet said, ‘We’ve made some mistakes, we’ve done serious damage to ourselves, so let’s think about our position and strategies.'”

The United States is immeasurably stronger than al-Qaeda, but against jujitsu forms of attack its strength has been its disadvantage. The predictability of the U.S. response has allowed opponents to turn our bulk and momentum against us. Al-Qaeda can do more harm to the United States than to, say, Italy because the self-damaging potential of an uncontrolled American reaction is so vast.

How can the United States escape this trap? Very simply: by declaring that the “global war on terror” is over, and that we have won.

In short, the United States can declare victory by saying that what is controllable has been controlled – Al-Qaeda Central has been broken up, just like the general said. What is uncontrollable we’ll deal with as it comes up. And, whether any wonderful buildings ever go up at Ground Zero, that will bring this matter to a close. They did this, and we took care of things. And actually, we did.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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