The people who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001, deserved whatever 20th anniversary remembrance they needed. They can mourn any way they want to, til the end of time, and if the media continues to follow their heartbreaking and often inspiring stories, that’s understandable.
The people who were responsible for botching the aftermath of the terror attack, though, did not deserve the staging of grief porn and historical amnesia we watched all weekend.
And by those people, I especially mean former president George W. Bush, who was valorized all over cable news for a short speech that had a few good lines. I felt like history demanded I watch him there in Shanksville, Pa., where 40 passengers crashed an airplane, allegedly intended to make the US Capitol a fireball, into a bright green field near that rural town, population 237.
Bush can sometimes be lucid, while also prone to unexpected displays of emotion, and I thought: What if he’s moved today to admit he missed, or ignored, all the intelligence that Al Qaeda was planning a massive attack on the United States all through that summer of 2001? Or maybe more important, what if he confessed to fucking up the Afghanistan war so extravagantly, going into Iraq so irresponsibly, killing what many sources estimate were hundreds of thousands of people (Americans made up the smallest number; most were Afghan and Iraqi civilians)?
What if he just said, “I’m sorry?”
No, I didn’t really expect that. But if we weren’t getting something like that, I’m not sure why we were all expected to watch. It was the big news event of a mostly made-up news day.
Bush’s speech was, surprisingly, kind of inspiring—if you knew nothing of the truth, either of that awful day, or the 20 years following. (Footnote: We don’t even know for sure where he was that day.) Bush made a lot of the fact that the 40 passengers on United Flight 93 were a random bunch, a flying tin can of everyman, who chose to die deliberately rather than let the hijackers make them a weapon. “The 33 passengers and seven crew of Flight 93 could have been any group of citizens selected by fate,” he said. “In a sense, they stood in for us all. The terrorists soon discovered that a random group of Americans is an exceptional group of people. Facing an impossible circumstance, they comforted their loved ones by phone, braced each other for action, and defeated the designs of evil.”
That was nicely done. But he got major kudos for this quote: “[W]e have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but from violence that gathers within. There’s little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard of human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.” Good on you, GWB. You didn’t mention them, but we know who you’re talking about.
Still, he missed a chance to to say that the 40 heroes who died in Shanksville would have been appalled on January 6, 2021, when they saw a crowd of ugly, violent Americans breach and desecrate the very US Capitol they died to protect. I saw nobody make that direct link all weekend. Certainly not Bush.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The extravaganza erased genuine history. Yes, the cable festivities pointed to our recent handover of Afghanistan to the Taliban in the weeks leading up to this painful American anniversary, but more as a tragic irony, not the result of terrible decisions by American policymakers, starting with Bush (and his evil vice president, Dick Cheney). It was mostly depicted as a kind of fate—Afghanistan as the fabled “graveyard of empires”—not a result of Bush’s decision to take his eye off that country and invade Iraq, 18 months later, with zero justification.
Also on this 20th anniversary we learned, from Bush’s National Security Council’s senior director for the Near East, Bruce Riedel, that Bush told then–British Prime Minister Tony Blair, three days after the terror attack, that he planned to “hit” Iraq soon. Blair, who would become a cheerleader for the war, was shocked, asked for evidence of any link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and got none—because there was none. I didn’t hear that, or Riedel’s other revelations, on any news coverage on Saturday.
By many accounts, the Bush administration’s long-term Iraq plans are why the administration refused to accept the Taliban’s surrender, two months after the fighting began, and their offer to turn over Osama bin Laden. Asked about that decision in 2002, Bush, bizarrely, insisted the conflict was never about bin Laden: “Who knows if he’s hiding in some cave or not; we haven’t heard from him in a long time. And the idea of focusing on one person is—really indicates to me people don’t understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person.… So I don’t know where he is. You know, I just don’t spend that much time on him…to be honest with you.”
By the first 9/11 anniversary, Bush was using the tragedy to roll out his Iraq war plans. Those plans were made in the summer, if not before, but “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August,” chief of staff Andrew Card boasted to The New York Times. “The thought was, in August the president is sort of on vacation,” said Karl Rove. The rollout came that fall, starting on the first anniversary of 9/11, cascading into deadly political attacks on Democrats as irresponsible peaceniks—I’ll always remember Rove and Co. linking disabled veteran Max Cleland, a Democratic senator from Georgia, with bin Laden—that helped the GOP sweep the midterms. The Iraq disaster began in earnest the next March.
No one knows for sure if the Afghanistan mess would have ended differently, somehow better, if Bush had accepted the Taliban’s surrender in December of 2001, and/or if he hadn’t transferred attention and money and military power to Iraq. We do know how it ended: with the Taliban returning to power. And even though all of that happened on the eve of this 20th anniversary of 9/11, that convergence wasn’t enough to shift the media and much of the political establishment away from its nauseating self-congratulation—We came together! We struck back! Al Qaeda is vanquished. Oh, and if there are some lingering problems, it’s Joe Biden’s fault.
To be fair, every president has some responsibility for the last awful 20 years. Disgraced, twice-impeached former president Donald Trump negotiated a one-sided withdrawal agreement directly with the Taliban, and without our (admittedly corrupt and incompetent) Afghan allies. Obama ramped up the drone war, killing more civilians than his administration would ever admit, helping cost us popular support. Under Biden, the last American drone strike in Afghanistan, according to The New York Times, struck an Afghan aid worker allied with the United States, not an ISIS suicide bomber. However horrifying, there’s no more fitting end to that botched project of four American presidents.
But Bush bears the biggest burden—and yet he got the starring role on Saturday. Somehow he’s been rehabilitated in recent years—his weird paintings, the mugging for cameras with Michelle Obama, palling around with Ellen DeGeneres. But apart from all the carnage, I can’t forgive two other things: He and feminist wife Laura declined to vote at all in 2016, setting aside the opportunity to elect Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. And he didn’t even vote for Biden in 2020; he threw away his vote to write in his former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, she who claimed, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted these people…would try to use an airplane as a missile.” Confronted with evidence that in fact some intelligence analysts had predicted that very thing, she told the 9/11 Commission she “misspoke.”
I wish Bush no harm. He should go live in peace and quiet, paint his paintings, enjoy his grandchildren. But he should never again be made the centerpiece of a grotesque extravaganza, allegedly recounting what happened on that tragic day, on his incompetent and corrupt watch. Unless he wants to tell us the truth. And apologize.