Brussels—Anniversaries offer an opportunity to assess, with the perspective afforded by the passage of time, who got things right and who did not.
Unfortunately, in an age when so much of our media bows more to power than accuracy, that does not mean that those who got things right will be turned to for advice and counsel.
In fact, quite the opposite.
So it is that, as the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon approached, the most prominently featured 9/11 figure was former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The term employed most frequently by commentators—aside from “Darth Vader”—to describe Cheney’s recollections of 9/11 and its aftermath has been “no apologies.” That is because Cheney has so very much to apologize for.
But not everyone got 9/11 wrong.
On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I joined Mary Robinson, the former Irish president and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in keynoting the “Journalism in the Shadow of Terror Laws” conference at the Centre de Presse International in Brussels.
Robinson said many striking things in her remarks to the session we addressed, but what stuck with me was an off-hand reflection. “I remember,” she said, “the loneliness of speaking out against the declaration of a ‘war on terrorism.’ ”
The language we use to characterize events defines our response to them and when crimes against humanity were defined as acts of war, explained Robinson, then an appropriate demand that those responsible for horrific violence be brought to justice was replaced with the overwrought and overarching demands of “a perpetual war of terror.”
This is a vital reference point for what is actually a week of anniversaries.
September 11 marks a vital anniversary, but so, too, does September 14, the day that the Congress of the United States authorized a “war on terror.” The human toll of that war has been immense, as has the political toll for a United States that has lost both good will and authority over the past decade. And the financial cost, according to new accounting by the National Priorities Project, is staggering: more than $7.6 trillion in defense and homeland security spending.
It is not realistic to suggest that, had there been no attacks on September 11, 2001, all or even most of that $7.6 trillion would have been spent on more necessary and fruitful projects. America had a military-industrial complex before 9/11 and it would have one even if terrorists had not attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But the seemingly permanent “war on terror”—which has redefined America is precisely the way that James Madison worried it would when the father of the Constitution wrote in 1795
Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.