One Year Later
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Americans
experienced a mixture of fear and warmth, a quickening of the national
spirit. The extraordinary heroism of the firefighters, police and others
in coping with death and destruction rebuked the mood of "infectious
greed" generated by this era of market dominance. Civil servants and
soldiers, even government itself, were accorded new respect in the face
of real dangers and collective need. These developments contained a
hopeful thread for reconstructing our frayed democracy.
Adding to the sense of possibility were the expressions of sympathy and
solidarity from around the world. We Americans, so often the object of
envy or criticism, found ourselves the recipients of a great outpouring
of concern, with countries all over the globe condemning the callous,
fanatical terrorism that could turn an airplane full of ordinary people
into a weapon of horrific destruction.
But the moment was brief and did not last. One year later, we mark not
only the terrible loss of life suffered that day but the tragic failure
of American leadership since then.
Abroad, the Bush team's initial military victory in breaking up Al Qaeda
cells and routing their Taliban protectors in Afghanistan has been
tarnished by a stream of postwar revelations of needless civilian deaths
from US bombs and of mistreatment of Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.
Meanwhile, the United States is failing the challenge of rebuilding
Afghanistan, leaving its people facing the same chaos, violence and
extortion that prevailed under the warlords whose depredations helped
usher in the Taliban regime.
America's early success in mobilizing an alliance against Al Qaeda has
been squandered. Rather than pursuing a limited military action in
Afghanistan designed to strike a swift blow against the terrorist
leadership responsible for the attacks and then joining in a sustained,
worldwide policing action to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, the
Bush Administration has exploited the tragedy as a license for an
endless war against endless enemies. It has used September 11 to
consecrate an American empire claiming the right to impose its writ
When the President targeted his spurious "axis of evil" and announced a
new doctrine of "pre-emptive attack," he alarmed allies everywhere. As
Jonathan Schell writes in this issue, Bush has claimed "a radically new
conception of America's role in the world," asserting that it has "the
right to overthrow regimes by military force at its sole discretion."
And now, under this unexamined doctrine, the President and his national
security team relentlessly tout inevitable war with Iraq, dismissing the
opposition of many US generals and much of the Republican foreign policy
Whether it is on the issue of invading Iraq or the desirability of an
International Criminal Court or what must be done to bring about peace
in the Middle East or the need to take seriously the dangers of global
warming, the Administration disdains the opinions of even our oldest
allies, making US leadership a source of resentment rather than hope.
Such actions, South African Breyten Breytenbach writes, have led to the
feeling that America is a cowboy state that "has made the world a much
more dangerous place for the rest of us." No US government has been this
isolated since the 1920s.
While pursuing its grandiose Pax Americana, the Administration has
failed to use this opportunity to honestly examine flaws in America's
past policies toward the rest of the world, and at the same time it has
pursued new policies that lose sight of moral means and goals. It
dismisses any attempt to probe the roots of terrorist attacks. Merely
asking, "Why do they hate us?" is deemed "objectively" pro-terrorist.
Terrorism is defined as metaphysical evil, divorced from its context.
Human rights as a foreign policy objective are jettisoned, and
friendships are sealed--no questions asked--with repressive regimes that
seem to be on "our" side. Russia, Indonesia, China, Pakistan and Egypt
have been allowed to hijack the rhetoric of antiterrorism to justify
repression of citizens opposing their current regimes. The lack of a
coherent US role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has allowed
extremists to drown out the voices of peace.
Bush's new international doctrines met with little dissent in the media
or from Congressional Democrats, with the exception of brave legislators
like Dennis Kucinich, Barbara Lee, Russ Feingold and John Kerry. Most
Americans were seduced into passive consent, either prompted by fear of
further attacks or cowed by an Administration that branded criticism as
subversive. The media catered to the hyperpatriotic mood, praising
Bush's every move and rarely, until recently, offering any critique of
his Administration's actions.
At home, the President issued no call for sacrifice. For the first time
in our history, we were summoned to a global war for which the wealthy
were asked to pay less in taxes, even as the federal budget plummeted
into the red. The Administration larded the military with money,
demanding billions for cold war weaponry and missile defense. It
defaulted on the core national security imperative of reducing our
dependence on imported oil, choosing instead to prop up feudal empires
and dictatorships (insuring that we will be widely hated as a cause of
misery and oppression in the Middle East and the rest of the world).
After resisting for months, the President cobbled up a massive "homeland
security" reorganization that omits any reform--and avoids any
investigation--of the intelligence agencies and their failures leading
up to September 11.
John Ashcroft, Bush's Attorney General, has become the worst threat to
civil rights and liberties since J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy
peddled fear and division in the early years of the cold war. As David
Cole writes, "With the exception of the right to bear arms, one would be
hard pressed to name a single constitutional liberty that the Bush
Administration has not overridden in the name of protecting our
freedom." Ashcroft has asserted unprecedented license for the executive
while insisting its acts be shrouded in secrecy. It is a measure of the
Attorney General's extremism that his summary detention policies have
been lambasted by the federal courts. In its first public opinion ever,
the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a conservative body
that has never in its existence denied the Justice Department a warrant,
decried Ashcroft's abuse of authority to undermine constitutional
And now, the Administration and the Republican Party--worried about the
flagging economy, stock market collapse and corporate crime
wave--attempt to exploit September 11 and the war on terrorism for
partisan advantage. The President has used his post-9/11 popularity to
raise unprecedented sums for Republican candidates. His political guru,
Karl Rove, urges Republicans to "focus on the war" and advertise their
loyalty to the President.
The anniversary of September 11 should be a time of renewed, and
genuine, patriotism as well as of grieving. But it should also be an
occasion to reflect on where we've traveled in the past year and what
changes in course need to be made. Americans who disagree with the
direction in which this Administration is leading the country should
start building an effective challenge to its policies, with an eye first
on the fall elections--a challenge founded on the bedrock principles of
justice, human rights and internationalism. Some things have changed,
but those principles have not. Another world was possible before
September 11. It still is.