Posted by Lilly from D007103.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu (188.8.131.52) on Thursday, September 05, 2002 at 11:58PM :
September 5-11, 2002
Will we do justice to 9/11?
By Bruce Barry
What will next Wednesday be like? A year after the day that everything supposedly changed, the calendar seduces us to pause and reflect, and this can go a couple of ways: a sober look at the impact of a staggeringly memorable day on the American enterprise, or an overproduced exercise in cynical patriotic self-aggrandizement. One hopes for the former but ruefully expects the latter.
Let's be clear off the top that many people lived through the unimaginable loss of a spouse, partner, child, parent, colleague or friend on that day--essentially watching it happen on television, over and over again. I won't pretend to know what that feels like or suggest how survivors should act a year later. Some presumably will gravitate toward the collective comfort of public ceremonies, while others choose grief and consolation in private. Certainly there will be remembrances that are emotional and moving. Perhaps the networks will manage to restrain themselves from the mawkish voyeurism of disaster footage played over and over again and microphones shoved in the faces of grieving survivors. I'm not holding my breath.
But if somber memorials are inescapable, they are not nearly sufficient. We have allowed 9/11 and its aftermath to twist our sense of national destiny into an unrecognizable tangle of domestic tyranny and international bellicosity. Some of the most unsavory impulses occupying the fringes of political consciousness before those planes hit the towers--arrogance, self-absorption, egoism, mistrust, intolerance, vanity--took center stage soon after, and haven't left. If we spend next Wednesday celebrating them, we will have tragically missed the point.
At the heart of the matter is George W. Bush's near-imperial presidency, manufactured during the past year over only mild objections from political opponents and the press. Right after 9/11, Bush and his aides chose the facile discourse of cartoon violence--good vs. evil--to frame not just their outrage but also future geopolitical strategy. The virtue of this approach lies in its inherently narrow simplicity. "Evil is real, but good will prevail," Bush declared in a speech at the U.N. last November, effectively reinventing his presidency as a moral crusade with little room or patience for rational debate.
Bush said last fall that, "We choose lawful change and civil disagreement over coercion, subversion and chaos," but it was homily without substance. The executive branch breezily deflates constitutional due process rights at every opportunity in its treatment of detained "suspects." Civil disagreement is not merely discouraged, it is pilloried.
Several courts have crisply rejected this assault on the constitution, the most recent a stinging federal appeals court ruling that the administration unlawfully held hundreds of deportation hearings in secret based on vague assertions of suspected terrorism links. Beyond the courts, unfortunately, cooler heads have not prevailed. The latest round of an annual poll by the First Amendment Center finds a hefty increase over the last year in the proportion of Americans (now 49 percent) who think that First Amendment protections go too far, and a sizeable decline in support for allowing the news media to criticize military strategy and performance freely.
Internationally, the events of the last 12 months have done virtually nothing to enlighten U.S. foreign policy. Following 9/11, there was plenty of sympathetic diplomacy from both friends and arms-length acquaintances abroad, and a good measure of high-minded talk about international coalition building. At times, Bush's speechwriters put the right words in his mouth, such as this remark in Berlin last May: "Poverty doesn't create terror--yet, terror takes root in failing nations that cannot police themselves or provide for their people...."
But the Bush administration has made it perfectly clear on numerous global fronts--not just terrorism, but inequality, economic development, the environment and of course the Iraq obsession--that coalitions and multilateralism are manageable only on its terms, which is to say not really acceptable at all. The political establishment laps up this misguided American exceptionalism, while the rest of the world looks on in resentful disbelief. I'm not talking about the ravings of fringe anti-globalists. For example, Norbert Walker, chief economist at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, in a New York Times op-ed last week, referred to the "unbearable arrogance" of U.S. environmental policy. By ignoring the views of other countries, Walker wrote, the U.S. "may no longer be viewed as a leader or reliable partner in policymaking."
Soon after 9/11, the writer Susan Sontag was widely vilified for a short essay in The New Yorker that challenged a manipulative campaign by public figures and media commentators to "infantilize the public" rather than thoughtfully consider America's role in the world it occupies. "The politics of a democracy," she wrote, "has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together." If her critique was for some a bit too raw too soon after the horror of that day, it certainly seems trenchant now as a description of the last year in American political life.
There's little room for optimism, then, that Wednesday will rise much above sanctimonious narcissism. Sunday's Tennessean came with a little gift: an American flag poster for readers to commemorate the anniversary. The flag was wrapped around a bundle of advertising inserts pushing products assembled by cheap overseas labor that most Americans don't need and most of the world can't afford. Tragic irony of the first rank, but that's OK, because we're the good guys, right?
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