8 years ago, New York City and Arlington, Virginia were attacked by terrorists of Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda Islamist Jihad group. Everybody in the world knows the story of this horrid day – certainly I remember it being seared into my mind when Jim Burns came on the PA at school and announced it to a shocked group of teens in smalltown Nova Scotia. So I shan’t recant the moment for you.
Instead, I want to remind you of Jon Stewart’s thoughts when the Daily Show came back a couple weeks later. Or of Keith Olbermann’s thoughts three years ago. Or alternately, of the cartoons that ran in the local paper a few days after September 11th. I want to remind you, my devoted readers (lol) about the realities of the situation, and the differences of the horrors of today compared to the horrors of the past.
September 11th is a horrible day, a terrible time in human history. But the wholesale and brutal slaughter of 3017 people is but a drop of dead in the timeline of the United States, as an example. 19,246 soldiers were killed in the Battle of the Bulge. 3654 Americans, north and south, died at the Battle of Antietam. What sets 9/11 apart is the sheer number of American civilian casualties.
We must remind ourselves that the Americans have never seen such civilian casualties in their history from a foreign source. The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 never truly damaged the civilian population – those weapons didn’t yet exist to cause mass civilian casualties without long, protracted sieges of starvation. The Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II never came to US soil in any meaningful way. The Cold War never became hot.
Of course, America was very good at damaging civilian infrastructure, and still is. Just go ask the Afghans and the Iraqis. So what 9/11 was, was a shock that people could actually strike a city that hadn’t seen war in hundreds of years: New York. That the heart of the US military was not immune: the Pentagon. It was a crack in the myth of American invulnerability, a myth that had faded following Vietnam but returned in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the one-sided Gulf War. And this crack went straight to the heart of both the economic and military spheres of American life.
This isn’t a bad thing. Every great nation has moments that shake it to its very core. How those nations are defined is the mannerism in which they act following this. Afterwards, everyone expected the United States to perform exactly as it had the last two times there was such a moment. They expected the (glorified and near-mythological) reaction of the North following Fort Sumter; a great uprising of the massive Union to put down the evil of terrorism. They expected the (less glorified and only semi-mythological) awakening of the giant following the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor. In short, they expected the United States to act as the magnanimous but powerful superpower face it always put forward.
I remember the Bruce MacKinnon cartoons of Sept 12, 13, and 14, each detailing the image of Uncle Sam. The first had Uncle Sam on his knee, a thick knife titled terrorism stuck deep in his back. The second showed Uncle Sam struggling to his feet, reaching for the blade. The third showed the blade discarded, and Uncle Sam striding confidently, powerfully, towards the light. It was a powerful image of the way the United States has always, in the past, acted.
Five years later, Keith Olbermann gave a monologue from Ground Zero in New York City:
The world has changed, and the United States failed the challenge. They allowed themselves to be deluded by fuzzy photos and false reports on yellowcake and invaded Iraq for no good reason. Yes, they toppled an evil dictator, but they killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people in the process – and 4,334 US soldiers. The United States allowed itself to be manipulated by the government, who extended a hand saying patriotism whilst the other hand pushed the Constitution under the rug.
Yet a failure doesn’t mean the dream is dead. One poor decision, or one poor government is not a permanent blemish on the Great American Experiment concocted by Jefferson, Madison, Adams, et al. After all, they lived through the Civil War; through the presidencies of Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan. George W. Bush could not be worse, could he? There’s no way he’s irrevocably damaged the Union…is there?
This is the question we hope will be answered by the Obama presidency, be it one term or two. I’m not saying that Obama is a saviour – I’m simply questioning whether or not the Union can work in the way it has for the past couple hundred years in the post Bush era. We’re watching the health care bill right now, watching as people scream and deride and spit out the most vicious nonsense I’ve ever heard in political discourse – even the visceral hatred of Bush by the extreme left never hit this level of nastiness. Obama has 4 times more threats on his life in a day than Bush did.
If the government can still function in this morass, we just might be on the way forward. But I won’t be happy until BOTH sides sit down and pass an important bill without the ideological discrimination that has dominated the Congress since, well, Gingrich. That’s when we know the Union will be going forward, and not drowning out reason and sense in screams and spitting and angry rhetoric.
People have freedom of speech and can say what they want, but the same people should attempt to educate themselves as to what they’re actually saying, instead of listening to the talking heads, who absolutely do not tell it how it is. The fear that came from 9/11 – that the United States is somehow vulnerable to evil forces like terrorism, or socialism, or illegal immigration, or you name it, is being exploited by the left and right instead of healed. It is not from without that the Union is vulnerable. It is from within – it is when Americans learn to hate other Americans that the real danger comes, and I think they are learning that right now.