Democratic Freedom Dreams After September 11

Democratic Freedom Dreams After September 11

Democratic Freedom Dreams After September 11

A decade later, is there any possibility of turning the tragedy of 9/11 into a political force for progressive ends?


Not long after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Robin Kelley, the award-winning historian of race and labor in the United States, published a book titled Freedom Dreams. It is an intellectual history of the various political projects for achieving freedom and equality that dominated the American landscape in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The bulk of the manuscript was completed before September 11, but the concluding chapter is written in direct response to the events of that day.

In the final chapter, Kelley spins his own “freedom dream” of what might become of Ground Zero. He writes:

What shall we build on the ashes of a nightmare?

We don’t need another hall of finance, wealth and exclusivity, no more symbols of class, power, and privilege. We don’t need another gargantuan modern-day mill where some working people slave over mops and vacuum cleaners in the wee hours of the morning and others over computers and fax machines way past sundown. Yes, jobs are valuable and necessary in a world where everything—even food, shelter, and clothing—is a commodity. But now is the time to think like poets, to envision and make visible a new society, a peaceful, cooperative, loving world without poverty and oppression, limited only by our imagination.

Kelley goes on to imagine Ground Zero as a park “filled with odd, beautiful, play structures intended to force people to engage each other.” I’ve thought a great deal about Kelley’s freedom dream this week. Like many Americans, I found the tenth anniversary of September 11 particularly hard to comprehend and to process emotionally. How could a decade have passed? How could we still be at war? Did anything other than cascades of violence, greed, and division rise from the ashes of ground zero? Were all those lives lost for nothing? As One World Trade ascends, it both asserts the resilience of American capital and mocks Kelley’s dream of a free space.

Now that it is September 13, instead of September 11, I encourage us to consider for a moment not the anniversary of the tragedy but the anniversary of the political choices that were made in its wake. On October 7, 2001, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom and invaded Afghanistan. On October 26, 2001, the United States Congress, with overwhelming bipartisan agreement, passed the USA Patriot Act and it was signed into law by President Bush. In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the UN claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The resulting war in Iraq was repeatedly defended by the Bush administration as a response to the events of 9/11. Many are critical of politicizing memories of September 11. But September 11 was and is a powerful tool of American and international politics that was seized by the right in the days immediately following the attack. Progressives have been far less adept at employing September 11 as a fulcrum to turn the political agenda toward public-supporting ends.

There is one interesting, though not entirely unproblematic, exception. In March 2003, Richard Daley, then mayor of Chicago used the threat of terrorism as an excuse to enact a public works project he’d long hoped to bring to fruition. For nearly a decade Mayor Daley battled to close Meigs Field, a small airstrip along the city’s lakefront and covert the land into a public park. In the middle of the night of March 31, 2003, Mayor Daley sent bulldozers to Meigs Field and gouged large Xs into the runways. He did not give the required notice to the FAA or the private aircraft owners. Daley’s actions were decried as evidence of his increasingly authoritarian style. He was sued and the city eventually returned about a million dollars in FAA funds. He was roundly and regularly criticized.

Mayor Daley defended the closure of Meigs Field, saying that the airstrip posed a potential terrorist threat to downtown Chicago. “I am not willing to wait for a tragedy, as some have asked me to do, to happen before making a very difficult and tough decision.” Given that he had long hoped to close Meigs Field, that there were no credible threats to Chicago and that the small aircraft that used the runways were little threat to downtown, it is pretty clear that protection from terrorism was not the real impetus for Daley’s choice.

What was Meigs Field is now Northerly Island. It boasts great fishing and birding, a state-of-the-art concert venue, walking paths, picnic space and play equipment. Daley exercised coercive government power, justified by the threat of terrorism to turn a private airfield into a public space. President Bush, along with Congressional Democrats and Republicans, used coercive government power and the justification of terrorism to drag America into two wars and to strip away basic civil liberties. Ends do not justify means, but today Northerly Island in Chicago is far closer to Robin Kelley’s imagined free space than is Ground Zero.

While not a model for progressive governing, it is at least an interesting counter-example of how our collective suffering might be turned toward ends that meet our collective needs, rather than used to justify even more suffering.

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