I wish I could do my fellow Americans the courtesy of rejoicing with them over the news that, at long last—and nearly 10 years after perpetrating the terrorist attacks that made him the most wanted man on earth—Osama Bin Laden is now well and truly dead. But I’m having difficulty working up the necessary emotions, and I’m far too exhausted to go around faking it anymore. It’s not that the news isn’t good, it’s just that it no longer seems to pertain to me. The cares of 9/11 and all the reactions that followed in its wake belong to a world that I departed from a long time ago. I cannot get close to that world or feel myself to be a living member of it ever again. I can only watch it as through a pane of glass, and make such observations as seem to me supported by the facts. My personal history differs from the greater mass of men; a wrenching private struggle that I did not choose stamped me with a different set of priorities at the time when others were experiencing the horrors of 9/11. As a result, an unbridgeable chasm has grown between me and the larger world, a distance that only seems to broaden and harden with the passing years. It was already very great when that fateful Tuesday morning dawned hot and clear, those many years ago.
What follows is my 9/11 story. Perhaps it is not the most dramatic or the most profound, but it does seem to bear upon the events in a nontrivial way—a way that may find an echo in the experience of others. In any case, it is personal, it is truthful, and it is mine. I hope it will be of some value, for it is the only tale I have to tell.
“Do you remember where you were when the first plane hit?,” goes the question that will ever be asked of the generations who were alive on 09/11/2001. Indeed we are never supposed to forget it, and indeed I never have. I was on a city bus, just east of 92nd and Sheridan, in Westminster, Colorado. I overheard the bus driver mumbling something to one of his regulars, seated just behind him. “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center,” he said. “They think it’s an accident. But now 30 floors of the World Trade Center are on fire.” Thus the day’s news began to trickle in.
I recall that I felt an immediate increase in my general level of bemusement; for in those days, dear reader, I walked around in a cloud of bemusement thick enough to chew. Please forgive me if I say that I felt no pain, or at least not any additional pain. I already had all the pain I could stand, and at that point in time we still had no idea what was really going on.
I was 20 years old at the time, and it’s safe to say that my life had never been worse. Not that it had ever been much good to begin with. The neighborhood I grew up in was poor and blighted; my family had been the very picture of alcoholism, physical abuse, and dysfunction. I spent my teenage years embroiled in drugs and vandalism, got into a few fights, and even dropped out of high school in my junior year. These events precipitated my first complete nervous breakdown—at the age of 16. Nevertheless (and by the grace of God), I somehow managed to avoid serious brushes with the law, and I was even able to return to school and graduate with my class. Having no other plans for my life, I allowed a friend of mine to talk me into applying at a fairly selective engineering college with him; and to my everlasting astonishment, I was accepted. However, nothing in my previous life had taught me how to live independently in civil society, and going off to college was too much of a culture shock for me. While I had always been academically talented, I lacked the moral and character virtues necessary to thrive in my new surroundings. My behavior in college is best left unmentioned, and let us just say that I returned home shortly thereafter, with less glory than shame.
That’s when things really fell apart. My parents divorced, their drinking accelerated, my father became suicidal, and my mother took up with a much younger dirt-bag and moved him into the house. I wasn’t about to stand for that, but I had few legitimate means of recourse. After several months of intolerable tension and infighting, I found myself kicked out of my home (hauled away by police actually, at my mother’s behest), temporarily confined to a locked mental ward (I had committed no crime, but the police felt it necessary to dispose of me somehow—I shudder to recall the complete annihilation of civil rights and personhood that I experienced then), and unemployed and broke. I oscillated between wandering the streets and crashing at my father’s apartment, to which I returned mainly to cook for him and to make sure he was still alive. He tried to kill himself at least three times during that period, and twice he tried to kill me. I struggled to make ends meet by working day labor at a construction site, and thereafter by troubleshooting for Verizon customers at a call center. I did not starve, but there were times when I was grateful to be able to buy a box of cereal.
I eventually landed a slightly better job at a department store, and I got myself back into university, majoring in philosophy this time. As a fulltime student, with a fulltime job and no car, I spent several hours each day on the bus. That’s where I found myself when the planes began to hit, and that’s why I had but little sympathy to spare on the occasion. I was in a daze, dear reader. My personal 9/11 had begun long before.
That miserable life of mine dragged on and on. I will not assail you with all the details; I will only say that the sadness and anxiety I then experienced pushed me to the ragged edges of endurance, and sometimes beyond them. I cried in my sleep, which was a scant four hours a night. I felt a nameless and hitherto unknown fear in my dreams. It was the fear of waking up, the fear of having to “put on” consciousness once again like an iron maiden. If you have never been chronically depressed, dear reader, I shall describe the sensation for you. It is a hyperawareness that never dissipates. It is rather like being rudely awakened from a deep sleep as though by a drill sergeant, banging trashcan lids and shining a flashlight in your face. In fact, the pain of bright sunlight on eyes used to deep darkness is exactly like the pain of despondency, only it does not fade with adjustment. It becomes a permanent feature of your waking existence. It is like a hot knife in your mind; it is like the shame of public nakedness; it is like falling through swirling black clouds with no solid surface to fall upon. You are driven to strain every nerve in search of a solution, although you have no idea where a solution might be found.
I was weak and humiliated. I was nothing in the face of the world. I felt as vulnerable and helpless as a pinkie mouse, a tasty morsel for some dread creature that had fared better in the fortunes of life. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that I read philosophy obsessively. I had a taste for the modernists—especially Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Tillich—because I felt like I was recapitulating in my own being all the angst and despair of Western civilization. I developed a great love for Oswald Spengler, because I knew that the horrors metastasizing in my own life were but the side effects of a greater societal decay. I dabbled in Baudrillard and Foucault, because I sensed that the electronic media had long been weaving a cocoon of hyperreality about me which I would have to dismantle if I was ever to think clearly. This last consideration would be of immense importance later on.
It is a dangerous matter to lose everything you’ve ever known, dear reader. Such turnings have driven many men to their graves. It is only slightly less dangerous to take seriously the convolutions of modern philosophy; and using them, to attempt to rebuild one’s worldview at the most fundamental level of system architecture. To do both at the same time is sheer madness. It is to creep within the very shadow of Barad-dûr itself. Yet that is what I did. By the grace of God, I had passed through the ultimate anxiety and found a path through the Dead Marshes.
It is regrettable that I did not read Aristotle at that time, but of necessity I began to think after his manner. I needed something good and stable to stand upon, needed to know whether or not reality could be trusted. I’m not sure if very many people know what it’s like to have to do metaphysics—not just to study it, but to actually do it (yes, and epistemology too!)—as if your life depended on it. When you stop treating philosophy as a speculative exercise and demand from it bankable results, you inevitably become an Aristotelian. It was in those awful days that I first started believing in God because it was reasonable to do so. It was then that I started to discover, in my own rudimentary fashion, “ontological proofs” for God’s existence, and something resembling the Five Ways of St. Thomas Aquinas. Looking back on those times, I am rather proud of myself that I was able to reinvent so sublime and noble a wheel, and under such impossible circumstances to boot. But I am also somewhat upset that nobody had ever taught me these simple truths in the first place.
That was the beginning of my regeneration. I had much to suffer yet, and I have much to suffer still. I will not bore you, dear reader, with the details of my escape from the Dark Tower of modernism, my eventual conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, or with any of my present labors. It remains for me now to talk about how these experiences shaped my interpretation of 9/11, and the subsequent US reaction.
(It’s a story about 9/11 after all, so let’s get back to the point.)
Forsooth, it was some time yet before I had attained the peace of mind necessary to pay attention to external events. When I began to do so again, I found a world very differently constituted from the one that I had left behind. Consider: I had watched virtually no television for the previous three and a half years. In the meantime, “Reality TV” had become a hit phenomenon, the tech-stocks bubble had broken and burst, and nevertheless a sort of internet-savvy chicness, a pink-shirt-and-Starbucking insouciance, had become de rigueur in middleclass circles. I was not online; I didn’t even own a computer. Cultural events of the highest magnitude had passed me by unawares. I had missed Super Bowls, hit television series, the advent of Britney Spears and the boy bands, the collapse of Enron—even the Millennium itself barely registers in my memory. I found that I did not care. I had broken with the world and moved on. I lost all taste for television and never again could I stay absorbed in a mere “show.” Furthermore, I had grown up somewhat. My trials had taught me something about human psychology, and about the dark motives and deceptions that seethe in the hearts of men. Finally, my natural skepticism and my encounters with Baudrillard had taught me to deconstruct the hyperreality of the electronic media. Unwilling to get burned by the world a second time, I wanted to perceive only the reality behind all impressions and dissimulations. So there I stood, bending my mind this way and that—scrutinizing, exacting, demanding—unearthing motives and plots, reading the telltale traces of all the edits and retcons and bluffs with which men inevitably polish their accounts. Such was the mindset I brought to bear on the news when I started watching the War on Terror unfold. It was just about this time that Secretary Colin Powell gave his famous report to the United Nations.
I wasn’t all that impressed. It’s not that I didn’t believe him, it’s just that I didn’t understand what the big deal was supposed to be. A couple of white rectangles on a satellite photo which might have been trailers; trailers which might have been mobile weapons laboratories—was that it? And what did Saddam Hussein have to do with 9/11 anyway? The report was pretty underwhelming just where I demanded to be blown away. Having developed the cautious habit of overestimating the competence of authority, I was expecting the high brass to present something like a Tom Clancy novel come to life. The tiresome lecture given by Powell didn’t satisfy my desire for certainty. This initial disappointment already left me with the feeling that something was very wrong.
That feeling was confirmed by my second, much greater disappointment. It was deeply unsettling to watch the entire news media suddenly effloresce with a number of quite improbable hawks. I found the jingoistic tone at FOX News—that prim, Protestant, from-the-heartland sort of cant which is so characteristic of their reportage—to be both artificial and unwatchable. I remember when the idea of “embedded journalists” was first mooted, and my distress when such an obvious propaganda tactic did not meet with the vociferous objections it deserved. I remember reading Michael Kelly’s editorial, “Making the Moral Case for War in Iraq;” and I remember, a few weeks later, when Michael Kelly became the first embedded Iraqi war journalist to die in his emdeddedness. But most of all, I remember the massive spectator enthusiasm that the media engendered for this war, the ribbons and lapel pins and terror alerts and stupid anthems, the Cult of First Responder Worship which sprang up at about this time (my recent experience of getting railroaded into the psych ward left me none too well-disposed towards the cops), and how people who one month ago couldn’t tell you the difference between a Howitzer and Mauser rifle would now gladly inform you that the battle wagon you saw on the TV screen was a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and not, ahem, an Armored Personnel Carrier.
I couldn’t escape the impression that the whole thing was turning into a circus, but I was still willing to put up with all the media shenanigans on the theory that it was within the range of normal behavior for a people who suddenly had had war foisted upon them. However, once President Bush told me that I needed to help America in its hour of need by going shopping, I was done being generous—the romance was over for me. No longer could I maintain the belief that the captains running this war had any sense of the gravity of their actions. I remained a stalwart Republican of course, a two-time Bush voter and a (blech!) one-time McCain voter; but from that moment on, I was never quite on board with the Administration. Unlike the rabble-rousers on the Left, I always sustained that there was nothing particularly immoral or underhanded about our invasion of Iraq; however, I opposed the invasion on the rather quotidian paleoconservative grounds that it was being managed by idiots, that the objectives were unclear, that the probable benefits were slim to none, and at any rate it was much too expensive. This was the most commonsense position one could hold at the time, which is probably why it was shared by practically nobody.
That the war was largely a media creation none can now doubt. This is true for the obvious reason that relatively few American lives were directly impacted by it. If you were one of the 290 million Americans who were not in New York or Washington on September 11th, if your friends and relations made it through the day unharmed, and if you are not one of the several hundred thousand servicemen who have seen duty in Iraq or Afghanistan (or one of their kin), then your experience of the War on Terror has been something brought to you entirely via TV, news, and internet. Whether your personal opinion inclines toward supporting or opposing the war effort, it matters not; for in what meaningful sense can you support or oppose something that you have nothing to do with? The conclusion is that, for most Americans, the war nearly could have been forgotten (and would have been), were it not for the media’s constant reporting on it, and the manner in which it figured into the domestic policy debate. Important implications follow.
Let us take, for instance, the 9-11 “Truther” movement, execrable insult to good taste that it is. It was late in the year of 2004 when I first heard of them—on CSPAN of all places. I think I must have been flipping through television channels when I saw something that looked like an erudite policy debate. Since I happen to enjoy erudite policy debates, I tuned in for awhile. As it so happens, I caught maybe the last 10 minutes of what turned out to be some sort of blue ribbon Truther panel made up of engineers, professors, and other assorted wonks. Up until that time, it had never even crossed my mind to doubt the accepted version of the September 11th events. I’ll admit that I was intrigued, so I looked into the matter and thought about it carefully. However, I quickly decided that the entire Truther premise was ridiculous. It was so ridiculous, in fact, that one could not long hold to it without compromising one’s common sense. Why were so many “experts” in the natural sciences so willing to lend their names to something which quite clearly insisted upon the bastardization of their respective disciplines? I discounted the fringe benefits that would come from such a move, such as garnering instant popularity among a certain segment of the Left. It had to be some sort of higher-level game they were playing, or perhaps some deep psychological need that drove them onward.
Thus we come, dear reader, to the greatest catastrophe of them all: the general disengagement from reality which has marked this war from the beginning on both sides of the political spectrum. How could it be that tens of millions of Americans had already assumed that the US government was somehow responsible for the 9/11 attacks, scarcely before the dust from the collapsing towers had cleared? How could it be that such carnage, so obviously inflicted by a foreign enemy, could so rapidly be subtilized into a paranoid accusation flung at the heads of the reigning administration? Could it be because, deep down, we all knew that the attack was no more than a fleabite, and that it wasn’t going to make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things? Didn’t we sense (oh, the heresy it would have been to admit it!) that a great battle had been joined, only it wasn’t the Global War on Terror (which merely occupied the visible wavelengths)? It was the battle for political capital on the domestic scene: that was the real object of desire. America the Hegemon herself was on the table, and the victor would control her destiny. In other words, the immediate effects of the 9/11 attacks were of so little consequence that, as soon as everybody had caught their breath, they each begin to think of how to turn the situation to their advantage; and the prize they fought for was the possession of America, the only real prize left in the world.
This will be easier to see if we examine first the case of the Truthers, and analyze their processes of belief formation. Such an analysis (admittedly barebones), would go something like this: There are many people in this country who naturally suspect the government of every sort of foul and malicious behavior. The exact etiology of these beliefs is something which we cannot go into in great detail about here, but let us just say that there is nothing especially abnormal or defective about such people. They have normal human aspirations, unfortunately cathected to the wrong objects. The basic explanation is that their beliefs feel good to them, and provide them with a narrative structure and sense of control over their lives. The essence of this sense of control is freedom from responsibility. Consequently, these people have a very ambiguous relationship with authority, since authority is the embodiment of responsibility. They hate submitting to it always, they will seize it for themselves when they can, and they will wield it arbitrarily when they have it. All ordinary symbols of authority, particularly the Church and the State, become their hated adversaries. The more they hate authority, the greater becomes their sense of power, and the more eager they are to appropriate authority and twist it to their own designs. They are the quintessential liberals and revolutionaries.
You will inevitably find such people gravitating toward progressivist causes, all progressivist causes, whether they involve ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class structure, environmentalism, or what have you. They may be under the impression that they actually believe in such causes, but in reality they are simply drawn instinctively toward any political movement calculated to oppose the ordinary power structure. The numerous contradictions in their belief system do not bother them, for it is not truth they are interested in. The secret logic of power knits together all their multitudinous designs. The 9/11 attacks provided them with an opportunity which was too good to lose, from their point of view. For them, it was just as if an oil tanker had broken up on a reef, which event they would have used to pillory Big Oil; or as if a child had died of secondhand smoke inhalation, which they would have used to pillory Big Tobacco. As it so happens, the Ordinary Authority dropped the ball on 9/11, so they used that event to pillory Big Government. An observation of failure quickly became an imputation of incompetence, which became neglect, which became complicity, which became malice. With these key psychological elements in place, there wasn’t much work left to do. The rest of the 9/11 Truther narrative is just literature, just as Marxism and Gender Studies are no more than literature at bottom, unreal in their very marrow. The only thing that matters is the power structures which such literature takes for granted, the power structures that can unite a mass of humanity in a common revolutionary purpose. These books know their own, and their own know them. There you have the anatomy of a Truther.
But we must admit that the Truther movement derived a lot of its impetus from the failure of Ordinary Authority to handle the situation properly. The Neocons, too, had their dreams and their visions, and they were no less opportunistic than the Libs when it came to converting 9/11 into the MacGuffin for the rather bizarre screenplay that followed. The trailer for that movie would have gone something like this: Imagine a realm of marvelous technological wonder and achievement, where Kantian Republics bloom in what once was hostile desert. Where a law called the Bush Doctrine brought peace to a troubled planet, and men from every corner of the earth raised purple fingers skyward in pledges of endless brotherhood. On the day when the towers fell, a nation arose from its slumber; a nation that would become a religion, a religion that would transform a universe!
Such is a peek into the mindset of our Neocon brethren, who with Francis Fukuyama and Leo Strauss were already contemplating the End of History when the smoke alarms started going off in the Pentagon. “This calls for an end of history,” they said; and they found in themselves men admirably suited to play the role of the Ender. Some time they had had to look forward to this, and they had not been idle. Thus it was that they were able to roll out the PATRIOT Act in no time at all, and the preparations were already in place for the invasion of at least two countries. The Department of Homeland Security they established, ostensibly for securing the homeland; and the TSA they did also establish, to secure everybody’s underpants. Flag pins they wore on their swollen chests, and duct tape they gave for our windows. A coalition of think-tankers and hick balladeers was assembled to give the movement some much-needed cultural cachet; and the End of History, a World Federation under the auspices of American democracy, was ever twinkling in their eyes.
If you’ll forgive me for waxing lyrical, dear reader, what I’m trying to say is that the Neoconservative Establishment’s immediate response to the 9/11 attacks was not to bring the terrorists to justice as efficiently as possible, but to implement an orchestrated program of world-improvement for which 9/11 was simply the convenient excuse. To this end they massively expanded the federal bureaucracy, spinning off new departments and offices at a breakneck pace. They appropriated to themselves new powers to surveil and detain the civilian population. And when it came time to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, to the military objectives of the campaigns was added the program of “nation building,” the deliberate attempt to remake the cultural aspect of whole regions of the globe. It was a farfetched notion at best: the sort of “Teach the savages to speak Americano”-type idealism that one often associates with tired colonial powers whose leading men have gone soft in the guts. Not only was this spectacle draining to watch, but it placed in an awkward position those of us who thought that America’s defense was still worth fighting for, and who felt obliged to defend the Administration’s prerogatives on that account.
So we see that while the Truthers and the Neocons opposed each other in rhetoric, in style and in substance they were really quite similar. They each had a dream they were trying to sell, and within that dream was cloaked the desire to control America’s future. They each offered up some rather flimsy justifications for the changes they were wont to inflict on American life; and they each showed, by the bungle which they made of affairs when the desired power fell at last into their hands, that a true grasp of the situation eluded their comprehension, and exceeded their capacities. The Neocons, be it said, were much closer to the truth, while the ironically-named Truthers were far away from it. But the tactics employed by the Neocons opened up a chance for the Truthers to play their gambit. If there were ever any solid and believable reasons for expanding the government and invading Iraq, the Neocons never presented them. What they offered instead was a sentiment, and the Truthers’ sure instinct for power sensed that behind that sentiment lay a bid for domestic supremacy. The Truthers, not to be outdone, countered with an alternative version of reality, saying, in effect, “You have your sentiments, and we have ours.” While the Neocons had some inkling of the truth, they never justified it: They offered unjustified true beliefs. The Truthers responded with unjustified false beliefs. And if the Neocons openly accused the Truthers of having ulterior motives, the Truthers would just stare back at them across the table, knowing that the Establishment had ulterior motives of its own, and that they would never willingly throw down their own cards. Thus was a situation created which was tailor-made to prevent any facts from coming to light. The War on Terror became kabuki theater in the battle for domestic sentiments. For where there are no facts, dear reader, sentiment rules.
And so the long middle years of the Iraqi invasion rolled on…2004…2005…2006. These were the years when the news media really came into its own as the decisive factor in shaping the national mood. It was an era of exposé books and hit pieces in the major periodicals (think Fiasco and Seymour Hersh). It was the setting for a fierce, protracted duel between Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, and the networks they represented. And above all it was the Age of the Blogger, the advent of the independent world-improver. For now a new contender appeared in the lists of battle to add to the confusion and the noise. Across the crackling channels of cyberspace there arose a mighty din, an endless stream of commentary and criticism which inflated the 24-hour news cycle to thunderhead proportions. Long had this mass been kept silent. Before the internet came, they had lain in smoldering resentment; for, unable to breech the corridors of official publication, they had had to content themselves with firing off the occasional letter to the editor. But now, empowered by easy access to data and at least a theoretical audience, they woke up and felt that they were strong. Wielding Excel charts and Google Earth pics, they charged into the fray with all the gusto of their long-repressed emotion. And for once, high up in their unassailable battlements, the powers of the mainstream media were shaken. Pressing, clamoring, and inexorable, the Peanut Gallery was on the march.
I’ll admit that I was seduced, dear reader. There was so much going on in this Brave New World that I, too, wanted to be a part of it. Persons who had hitherto labored in obscurity were out there making names for themselves, and I thought, “Why not me?” After all I had read a little history and philosophy, and I had thought long and hard about these subjects. I could turn a phrase reasonably well when the proper mood struck me, and in the past my essays had met with some attention in some not too inconsiderable venues. I began to think I had a future in policy analysis. I wanted to make some meaningful contribution to society and thereby resurrect my life from the doldrums to which fate had consigned it; I wanted to be where the action was; and above all, I wanted to exercise my dearly-bought Baudrillardian skepticism and get to the bottom of things. Surely there would be an appetite for that?
So when the Great Host of the Peanut Gallery (shall we call them the Pea-orns?) went marching by, I eventually joined with the assembly. But I needed more information, needed to stay abreast of things, so it was unavoidable that I started watching the news again. This I did with an enthusiasm fit to balance the scales against my previous media fast. Every day I tracked the financial markets, meditating deeply on the foreign exchange rates and the spot price of commodities (though I don’t have a penny invested in anything). The foreign news, too, I watched, Deutsche Welle and the BBC. I stayed glued to CNN, MSNBC, and even to Charlie Rose (an interruptive blabbermouth he is, but he seems to get all the good guests). And I worked over everything I saw with the highest degree of philosophical exactitude I could muster.
I tell you this because I am now slightly chagrined by it. When I look back at my writings from that period, I am heartened by my occasional flashes of brilliance; but I am also unnerved by the overwrought thinkiness of it all: World-historical implications attributed to events of transitory significance, a trifling federal interest rate fluctuation parsed in Heideggerian terminology—and all of it couched in a tone that not infrequently exhibited signs of an underlying mental disturbance. I suppose I could be forgiven for that, though. I was effectively fatherless; I had no real life and no prospects; I was desperate for recognition and very insecure about ever being taken seriously, so I poured all my energy into every little post and comment. Needless to say, I took disagreement quite personally. I wanted to stand as a beacon in the storm, to acquire prudence and to become a man. In the end it appears that I was not entirely unsuccessful, although my success came in a manner that I never expected. For throughout the long middle years of the invasion, I could never repress the intuition that I was wasting my time “getting to the bottom of it.” Amid all the media smoke and noise, all the policy and theory and analysis that so delighted my intellect, I was missing out on what was really important. The key to understanding any war is not to be found in the annals of strategy and correspondence; it is found in knowing where you stand and what you are fighting for—and I didn’t. Home and hearth, family and friends, God and grace—those should have been my concerns. Although I greatly wished to be relevant to the times, all the events and decisions were taking place far beyond my reach (by design), and I had no means to influence them. By this time my impression of the War on Terror was one of pageantry repeated ad nauseum. The talking heads had chattered their teeth down to the nubs, and the trumpets had blared too long. I didn’t want another drink of this draught, thank you. I was getting queasy, and I was sobering up. It was time for me to go home, dear reader. I’d had enough.
Apparently the country, too, had had enough. The 2006 Congressional Elections swept into office a wave of Democrats, and nobody could have honestly said they were surprised by the result. The tide had turned, and the opposition was starting to win the battle for US sentiment. It is interesting to note that the sort of wedge issues which traditionally serve as a proxy for registering increases in liberal attitudes—the legalization of gay marriage, for instance—went down in ignominious defeat at the very moment when the party long associated with liberalism was garnering its biggest electoral victory in decades. But the American people were not voting for liberalism; they were voting for a return to normalcy. What transpired in the interim was, I think, a nation-sized version of my personal transmigration from initial enthusiasm to toleration to disgust. For by now it had dawned, even among those directly engaged in fighting the war, that the matter had become solipsistic, completely captured by the exigencies of domestic party politics. The American people felt like they were not being heard, and they were tired of needlessly shedding blood and treasure on a campaign for which they were offered no clear exit strategy, but every convenient excuse. What’s more, the time had long expired when the average person could see how his contributions to the war effort were making any difference. Under such circumstances, it was inevitable that support for the endeavor waned. And it will not do to say, as so many Neocons at the time were wont to say, that the only reason why so many unpatriotic Americans were able to criticize the war effort in peace and comfort, was because valiant men were defending them on distant fields of battle, spilling their blood for the country that they (at least) still loved, un-thanked and unappreciated. The truth is only a few cranks ever dared to disparage the efforts of our soldiers. Indeed not since World War II had American servicemen been lauded with so much genuine fanfare. It was the American people who were unappreciated, dismissed, and lied to. It was they who had seen their freedoms confiscated and their national deficits balloon. And it was then, in the long middle years, that the realization set in, grim and irrevocable, that the American people were just an object, a source of votes and revenues for the bureaucratic coterie in Washington, who managed the affairs of the world with an eye toward their own preservation, and took but little notice of the restiveness brooding throughout the land. So it came to pass that in November of 2006, the American people, without much ado, and admirable in their restraint, turned up in astonishing numbers for a midterm election, and voted to go home.
Finally, it was no coincidence that the long middle years saw attention to the Iraqi campaign increase out of all proportion to its importance in the actual War on Terror, at least as far as the domestic policy battle was concerned. Iraq: the word will forever remain synonymous with the War on Terror, even though the only proper theater of combat, if combat there must be, was arguably in Afghanistan. Thus it was that Iraq became the real bone of contention in the ideological conflict which ensued, the target of the most blistering criticisms as well as the object of the most pompous defenses. Depending on the ferocity of the particular attacker, the Administration’s motives for embarking on the Iraqi campaign were adjudged to be either imprudent or base; and these attacks naturally elicited rebuttals from the Establishment which sounded more like obfuscatory rhetoric than reasoned explanations. The acrimony that was engendered by this is what drove the entire debate, and much that should have been done or explained was left to fall through the cracks. It was only rarely, and almost as an afterthought to the intense media focus on the Iraqi theater, that somebody would moot the fatal question, “Hey, whatever happened to that Bin Laden guy?” Perhaps that was why many of us just assumed he was already dead.
Looking back, it is easy to see how the Tide of 2006 adumbrated the political reversals of 2008; and here we must pay heed to something we overlook only at our peril. The Republican Establishment bears the blame for the sole American defeat ever suffered in the War on Terror: the election of Barack Hussein Obama, the greatest “man caused disaster” ever to befall the country, greater by far than 9/11 itself. I said openly at the time that it was “love” that caused his election; but it wasn’t the love of him, still less the love of the liberal policies he represented. It was love for the America we once knew, love of home and peace and normalcy. The Republicans, with their endless prevarications, their bluster and bravado and ham-fisted insouciance, had practically assured the election of a Democrat in 2008; and beyond that, they assured the primary election of the most liberal, most exotic, most machine-oiled Democrat the country could find. Here we are left to ponder the irony of the fact that a man whose mindset stands closer to America’s enemies than to America’s, had the fortune to be leading the country on the day when America’s War on Terror finally swept to its conclusion.
So it was that on Sunday, May 1st, in the year 2011, the third in the reign of King Hussein I, the country rejoiced to learn that Osama Bin Laden had been found and destroyed. Almost immediately, though, there was cause for misgiving. The initial reports were much varied and contradictory; the body was ceremoniously dumped in an unknown sea; and after some initial waffling, we were informed that no pictures of the corpse would ever be made public. “Don’t you worry,” our government reassured us. “We have the DNA evidence. We got him.” Yet many people have remained stubbornly un-reassured. I’ll admit that I, too, succumbed to some temporary Obama Derangement Syndrome. After all, he certainly doesn’t deserve to go down in history as the president who felled America’s Most Wanted. From what we know about his character, we cannot put it past him to lie about such an event, or at least to distort the facts beyond recognition in order to enhance his own popularity. But whatever the true events were, it appears to me upon reflection that at least the kernel of the story must be accepted as fact. Bin Laden was either killed last week or he was already dead. I doubt very much that he is still alive.
One thing, though, I do not doubt: the American people deserve better than this. Here at the conclusion of this long and nasty conflict, we deserve better than an Obama photo-op and a breezy assertation that all is well, and never mind the lack of evidence. Haven’t we had enough of that attitude already? Isn’t this, in fact, more of the very same attitude that needlessly prolonged this war, and caused so much heartsickness and division here at home? It is good that Osama Bin Laden is dead, but it did not need to take 10 years. It did not need to come at the cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. It did not need to involve such draconian changes to American society as we have had to endure. And it did not require us to sell out to the Pakistanis, as so many marginalized voices long warned us we were doing. Let us take stock of all that has transpired since 9/11, and ask what changes we can now demand of our government, now that the man who started it all has finally met his demise. Don’t we now have a good enough reason for pulling out of Afghanistan? I think we have at minimum a good enough reason for getting rid of the TSA. Surely we can expect some of these changes to take place. If they do not, it is proof that the war was never about Bin Laden. It was always about domestic policy, about Washington and who would control its wealth-absorbing power; and that is a pretty sad commentary on the state of affairs. I think, after all is said and done, that the American people are at least entitled to closure. Closure and freedom.
So you see, dear reader, for me this war has ended pretty much as it began, in a collage of media reports that cannot be absorbed or assimilated, in an overweening government that permits no one to peer into its mysterious doings. And if I may be permitted to append a personal request at the conclusion of this overlong remembrance, let it be a request that all Americans now strive to retake the freedom and dignity which we let slip away in the terror of darker days. Let not Bin Laden’s legacy be an America sickened and spavined and reduced to groveling at the table of nations, but stronger, freer, and self-reliant. Let all those things that once were good and cherished, be so again. And if war should ever menace our shores anew, let us not forget who we are, and what we’re fighting for.
The long war is over, my brothers. Let’s go home.