Nine years ago today, early in the morning, I woke up to my radio alarm. Usually, classical music woke me. This time, the radio announcer urgently related the horror that an airliner had hit one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. There was no consensus on what it meant, at that early hour, and the announcer offered none. But I immediately knew it was an act of what we call “terrorism.” I hit the snooze button and rolled over. “Finally,” I muttered.
I was not surprised. I was not shocked. Appalled at the massive taking of life? Yes. Later, I was impressed at the planning and daring of the attacks. But, unlike most Americans I talked to that day, I was definitely not startled by the event. Though the largest act of terrorism ever, it was not unprecedented. I had been expecting blowback from U.S. foreign policy for over a decade. I was not unaware that, in matters of aggression, the Laws of Thermodynamics echoed in sociology, if crudely: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. American forces bomb, obliterate, and gun down folks elsewhere? At some point those folks elsewhere are going to strike back.
To not expect this, I figured, was to be incredibly naive.
But I live in America, the land of Never-Ending Naivety. When the president called the terrorists “faceless cowards,” the essential silliness of the epithet did not strike most people as the very opposite of the truth — which it was. And when the president then began talking about a “war on terrorism,” I knew things were going to get bad. Self-righteous talk of “wars” against this and that always get out of hand, and rarely reach their ostensible objectives. Instead, we’d just have wars. And reductions in civil liberties. And such.
The wonder, now, is that things didn’t get worse than they did. But grant the declension its own rate. In 2008, as the financial markets began to collapse, and as the American government threw trillions of dollars at rich people, in fear of chaos, in utter beffuddlement at what to do, I imagined Osama bin Laden, chortling in a cave, rubbing his hands and saying “Excellent, excellent.” The American federal government did pretty much everything that Osama wanted. In its wars on terrorism, it spent itself to the brink of oblivion; it addicted itself to spending. Now, its leaders cannot see the way out of any problem other than spending increasing heaps of borrowed money.
If and when this all collapses — America’s ability to support military bases around the world, America’s ability to pay interest on its own debt — I’ll think, again, on that morning of 9/11/01. On what horrors came so close to home. And on what ended. Lives, yes. But also America’s game of pretending to be for peace while spreading death; the politicians’ game of playing US vs. THEM and never expecting negative feedback “in the homeland”; the citizens’ belligerent insistence on their own innocence even while showing not one jot of interest in what actually happens in the rest of the world — it all began to unravel on 9/11/01.
And that’s good. Vicious fantasies deserve to die. But the everyday folk in the towers, on that day, didn’t deserve their horrible deaths. But then, neither did the innocents in Iraq, or at the aspirin factory in Africa, or in Panama, or too near a thousand other targets of America’s careless “peacekeeping.”
I would rather have had it that we lost our innocence through inquiry, reason, and reflection. But a shocking-to-the-fools comeuppance works, too.