Over the next few days, as we mark the fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001, Americans will watch endless replays of the attacks on the World Trade Center. They will relive the horrifying moments when the Twin Towers collapsed, sending up smoke and dust that called to mind the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima.
That terrifying but false parallel, reinforced by decades of films about nuclear Armageddon, helps explain why the Bush Administration was able to convince Americans to go along with its post-9/11 agenda, as Tom Engelhardt argues in his provocative essay in this issue. What would have happened, he asks, if there had been no such images: “Would state-to-state ‘war’ and ‘acts of terror’ have been so quickly conjoined in the media as a ‘war on terror’ and would that phrase have made it, in just over a week, into a major presidential address?” And would the Administration’s fantasy mushroom clouds rising over US cities “have so dominated American consciousness?”
It is a question worth pondering as we look back on the disastrous path down which George W. Bush has led the country, and contemplate what it will take to set this nation right again. Seizing on the fears of traumatized citizens (and abetted by media hype, as Eric Boehlert details on page 30), this Administration used–and is still using–the images of 9/11 to advance its partisan agenda. Abroad, that includes the Iraq invasion and the expansion of military power; at home, the overriding of constitutional liberties in the name of protecting our freedom. As this magazine wrote on the first anniversary of 9/11, “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.”
At long last, however, it appears that Americans are beginning to distinguish between the need to combat terrorism effectively and a messianic crusade in the Middle East. Three out of five now think the war in Iraq made a terrorist attack in the United States more likely. Another sign that people are seeing through the White House lies: In 2003 Americans queried by a New York Times/CBS poll agreed two to one that the Iraq War was part of the “war on terror.” Recently a similar poll found that Americans reject that idea by 51 to 44 percent. So, too, are Americans increasingly questioning the leadership of a President who refuses to hold anyone responsible for the errors surrounding 9/11 and who has even tried to block investigations of the failures. Recent polls show Bush’s approval rating below 40 percent. Yet the chief architects of his policies–most notoriously Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld–are still in charge, lashing out at their critics as engaging in “appeasement,” while Bush’s Congressional allies try to play the 9/11 card one more time.
Will it play? Perhaps. But there is a growing view–on the part of independents and members of both parties–that this Administration should be held accountable for its profound mistakes and arrogant miscalculations. The results of those policies are painful to recount: An increasingly violent war in Iraq that has claimed thousands of American and Iraqi lives and unleashed chaos in the Middle East; a new generation of jihadists; the prospect of perpetual war; loss of respect even among America’s traditional allies; and the undermining of democracy at home.
The fifth anniversary of 9/11 prompts grief and sadness, but also anger. This country has endured a terrible failure of leadership. In the long run, we must free ourselves from the idea that the “war on terror” is an organizing principle for our foreign policy. In the short term, we need to change course.