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9/11: America Forgot (and We All Know It)
We may have won the War on Terrorism, but we forfeited what made America great in the exchange. Something was stolen from us and we never took it back.
NOTE: Facebook would not allow us to share this with TRS readers in is original form depicting the violence of September 11th, 2001. We have altered the image accordingly and apologize for the repost. ~SVK
Did we drop the torch? One might argue we have despite the cries of our fallen heroes:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep…
John McCrae’s poem Flanders Field is emblematic of the innocence of youth sent to be mowed down in the trenches of the Somme or Passchendaele, where the flower of Europe was mowed down in the face of industrialized mass warfare.
Gone were the glories and romance of the Napoleonic Era as Europe was introduced to the violence which Americans — North and South — absorbed as battlefields such as Manassas and Sharpsburg yielded to the wholescale murder witnessed at Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the trenches of Petersburg. Romanticism simply took another 50 years to dissolve into the horror of the modern age.
Utility had finally displaced meaning in the 20th century.
Yet waiting on the other side in the collapse of throne and empire was postmodernism, where meaning came from social constructs, ideologies, even fanaticism of religions both sacred and secular.
The displacement was seen first in the wake of the evacuation of the British Empire, where Arab and African nationalism understood the imperialist project to be the attempted displacement of traditional values and mores with more modern ones.
Thinkers such as Frantz Fanon — the progenitor of anti-racism and Critical Race Theory — Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, and Saul Bellow among others dissected the nature of not just the Israeli/Arab conflict but the Algerian War, Vietnam, and towards the end Afghanistan right up until the “end of history” was declared by Francis Fukuyama — the victory of neoliberalism, globalization and democracy in the face of communism, nationalism, and authoritarianism embraced by the now-defunct Soviet Union.
Yet hiding around the corner were thinkers such as Sam Huntington and his now-famous challenge to the neoliberal architecture in his “Clash of Civilizations” essay in the Summer 1993 edition of Foreign Affairs:
It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
Huntington has most certainly had examples to demonstrate that his vision of the 21st century is certainly more prescient than Fukuyama’s — though Fukuyama is quick to point out that his “end of history” thesis is more endgame than event. Every nation state strives to become a democracy.
Where Fukuyama has failed — and where democracies fail in general — is that from Thucydides to Aristotle to Plutarch, democracies too often (and perhaps inevitably)_ fall victim to demagogues. In the name of defending democracy, self-styled democrats too often reach for authoritarian means to defend against threats to the body politic — both internal and external.
From 1993 to 2001, Americans were blissfully ignorant of these changes. After all, why should we be concerned at all? We won the Persian Gulf War, battered Somalia, conducted Clintonian style diplomacy-by-Tomahawk long before Obama perfected diplomacy-by-drone. Surely the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993 was a fluke. Surely the world knew that America had won the Cold War. Surely — surely — no one would threaten American interests knowing the consequences.
After September 11th, 2001 the United States spent $8 trillion and killed 900,000 people in order to find Osama Bin Laden. The lesson is as old as the Romans — if you kill Americans, we will scour the earth and exhaust ourselves of opportunities to destroy you and everyone in our way.
Such “cowboy diplomacy” is what forced Ghaddafi to turn over Libya’s chemical weapons program. Such a stance is what preserved the territorial integrity of Kuwait, keeps the Chinese Communists from invading Taiwan, and presently is attempting to preserve the territorial integrity of the Ukraine — even at the cost of back-to-back 10% inflation.
One of the aphorisms repeated by General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis is the oft-repeated line that the enemy always gets a vote.
In the months after 9/11 and on the eve of the 2003 Iraq War, US Army General Carl Stiner reminded us of the nature of the terrorism, especially with regards to the dynamics referred to by Mattis:
Terrorism has been with us for a long time, and it will stay with us as long as men find cause to rage against an establishment they view as oppressive. We no longer just face single individuals with a gripe, or small groups bent on changing a political system. These new terrorists are bent on purging civilization of all those who do not share their beliefs. . .
On September 11, without warning, they committed the most barbaric act ever carried out against the United States, one specifically designed to kill as many innocent people as possible. The most powerful nation in the world could do nothing but watch. All our military might stood passive.
Such scenes and our feelings of helplessness will remain etched in our minds forever.
Their objective was to cause us to lose trust in one another and in our government's ability to protect its citizens, to cause us to imprison ourselves.
“We won’t do that,” argued Stiner, “But if we are smart, this will serve as a wake up call.”
Instead, Stiner’s brag served to be more prophetic than cautionary.
Here we are 22 years after September 11th and we are more divided as a nation than ever before, with self-styled defenders of democracy becoming increasingly authoritarian by the day, with demagogues dominating our political discourse, and with Kiev proving to be our Thucydidean equivalent to Syracuse. From what can be gathered, the United States has spent over $76 billion supporting the Ukraine so far — but that is only what we can measure — certainly not a number which threatens the United States with bankruptcy, but certainly one which adds to the increasing cost of maintaining the Pax Americana.
Americans are reasonably far enough from Never Forget to realize that we have forgotten a great deal about America. Remember what it was like to greet a loved one at the airport? Remember what it was like to buy a book without knowing that your reading history was going into some massive database? Remember what it was like to travel somewhere without being bombarded by advertising uniquely suited to your route, search history, and past buying history? Remember what it was like not to have to walk through a metal detector to attend a sporting event?
Putting the price on safety over freedom hasn’t just impacted the obvious. Our politics are now supremely concerned over making people feel secure about their gender pronouns, what they can and cannot read, whether I can still be trusted with my 2A rights, whether banks can be bailed out while the American taxpayer is hung out to dry, whether our education system should measure predicable and measurable outcomes rather than be asked to actually think for themselves.
We have changed from a nation of explorers, innovators, and pioneers into a nation which prizes stability, safety, and security above all things.
Our price tag on human life cheapened — who would have thought that ending Roe would have resulted in a whopping 40% increase in abortion? — and our demands that government not only provide but exists to validate life decisions — gay marriage, taxpayer-funded transgenderism, even government enforced gender pronouns — is so overwhelming as to produce actual rioting in three dozen cities across America causing billions of dollars in property damages, dozens of casualties, and barely a peep of condemnation from the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, Republicans have distanced themselves from the values which helped us destroy the Soviet Empire — Reagan, Goldwater, Buckley — in exchange for the politics of William Jennings Bryan, Charles Lindbergh, and Andrew Jackson. Instead of a vision of America as primus inter pares we decided America First. We chose safety over liberty and are now shocked somehow to discover we have neither.
Make America Great Again? When did America stop being great, one might ask?
Well — we stopped being great on September 11th, 2001 the very moment we rationalized trading freedom and trusting one another for a little bit of safety and security without asking the harder questions: Safety for whom? Security for whom? Stability for whom?
You got your answers, ladies and gentlemen: Safety for government, security for its own sake, stability for banks — and screw you regardless of political affiliation. Most Americans are too dumb to see past their own prejudices and biases, they claim. Pit one half of the nation against the other and cash out the public trust while we can., they laugh. Outrage is profitable; families are expendable.
Our veterans and the fallen? Wilfred Owen speaks to us from the trenches of the First Wolrd War on that score:
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Osama Bin Laden deserved to die, of that there is no question. Was he worth burning through $8 trillion dollars to do so? Most likely — though one wonders whether such money invested rather than expended in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan might have done more. Was it worth the 900,000 people we killed? Was it worth the idea of America?
Was the grand total worth 5,500 American soldiers sacrificed on the altar — men and women? Was it worth the 50,000 wounded? Was it worth politics? Our soul?
Allow me to submit the most sobering of conclusions.
Not only did America forget, but America changed. Did America win the war on terrorism only to forfeit what made us American in the first place? The answer in retrospect is a resounding yes — and it remains to those of us who remember a better America to retore the Spirit of 1776 before it is surrendered to the Orwellianism of 1984.
I don’t know how that project begins, but I do now that the way we talk about so much of what impacts us as Americans — our politics — is a good start.
Don’t worry — I’ll go back to beating up on the political left in due course. But deep down, I think we all know — left, right, and center — that something was stolen from us on September 11th. We have done a terrible job of taking that thing back.
Shaun Kenney is the editor of The Republican Standard, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fluvanna County, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.