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 worldwide.
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 establishment.
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 rights.
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.