The 9/11 attacks brought out the best and the worst in America. It would be simplistic to argue that the best could be found in the reactions of individual citizens and the worst in the Bush administration, its apologists and its cheerleaders in the media… but it would be true.
Few who were in New York City that morning can forget the outpouring of heroism by the police force, firefighters and emergency medical technicians, along with all kinds of everyday people, who dropped everything to rush to Lower Manhattan—some traveling thousands of miles—to help. Ditto the statements of solidarity from around the world. Meanwhile, right from the start, the Bush administration sought to manipulate the truth about the attacks and its response, democratic accountability be damned. Nine years later, we still have never been given a true accounting of what actually took place on that day or why the Bush administration, in clear contrast to the impression it later tried to create, took so many panicky, counterproductive measures in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Why, for instance, was Bush able to keep reading to those kids, potentially endangering their lives, when he was a likely target himself? Why, if given a tip about a possible attack on Air Force One, would Bush be rushed to Air Force One? What kind of government lies to rescue workers about the safety of breathing the air in a disaster area? (I brought my kid down there on the basis of those assurances. She was 3 at the time.) And what about the plan to invade Iraq, hatched internally within days of the attack, purely because we could? Were two wars, instead of one, really what the country needed in order to recover?
Many in the media also sought to exploit the attacks. A tiny minority on the left—including contributors to this magazine—took the attacks as an opportunity to tell America we had it coming, but these voices were so vilified and drowned out by condemnation that they functioned in the public only as political punching bags. On the right, ideologues and profiteers successfully steered the debate toward aggressive warmaking. Just days after the attacks, Wall Street Journal editors demanded that President Bush get to work immediately to exploit the tragedy for political gain, calling upon Bush to "spend his windfall of political capital" on such things as tax cuts for the wealthy, offshore drilling, free trade agreements and the approval of his political nominees. Right-wing jihadists like Seth Lipsky, writing in the same pages, called for US attacks "from Afghanistan to Iran to Iraq to Syria to the Palestinian Authority." The New Republic‘s Marty Peretz declared, I kid you not, "We are all Israelis now." And Andrew Sullivan sounded like he wanted to round up "decadent" Gore voters on both coasts for the crime of having voted for the guy who actually got the most votes.
The rest is well-known: the Bush administration deceived the country into invading Iraq, undercutting its military efforts in Afghanistan—around which virtually all Americans were united—and helping to "spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism," as the National Intelligence Council, representing the views of sixteen US intelligence agencies, found in 2006, confirming its explicit (albeit ignored) prewar warnings. Next came civil war, Abu Ghraib, rendition, waterboarding, official McCarthyism, wiretapping and the slow destruction of key constitutional liberties.
But something else happened as well. Remember Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who, one day after being promoted to deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence, boasted to a church audience that his Christian God was "bigger" and more "real" than that of the Muslims, who pray to an "idol"? Nine years after the attacks, the hatred of Islam and contempt for civil liberties has infected much of post-9/11 America. How else to explain the number of citizens who are demanding that we deny American Muslims the right to build a community center two blocks away from where the attacks took place? Sure, the demagogues deserve some credit. Newt Gingrich equates Muslims with Nazis and sputters on like a crazy man about "Islamic triumphalism" in America and continues to be treated like a respected statesman by the mainstream media. Fox News hosts combine ignorance, avarice, prejudice and McCarthyite malice toward Islam to a degree that might have impressed Bernard of Clairvaux. Newsweek puts a scare cover headline of "A Mosque at Ground Zero?" superimposed above a photo of the burned-out towers, when its editors know very well that Park51 is not a mosque and is not at Ground Zero. And pitiful old Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, decides that discrimination on the basis of religion is all right after all. Were I bin Laden, I’d be dancing in my cave.
And perhaps he is. Evan Kohlmann, a terror analyst who tracks militant websites, recently told the New York Times that supporters of Al Qaeda have seized on the Park51 fight "with glee." Radical online forums place it on par with the Florida pastor who wants this September 11 to be "Burn a Koran Day," no doubt proving to many potential Al Qaeda soldiers that we are indeed the enemies of a billion Muslims worldwide, and not just the few who support the violent extremists.
George W. Bush, who kept a lid on this kind of thing among members of his administration, has remained strangely silent this time around. Perhaps he is afraid it will eat into sales of his forthcoming memoir. Perhaps he is afraid to speak on any topic at all without Dick Cheney pulling his strings. Whatever the case, the evidence is clear. Nine years later, Ground Zero remains an undeveloped eyesore and America a less free nation, less true to its own ideals, less honest with itself, less trusted by the rest of the world and more fearful and hostile to Islam than ever. It gives me no pleasure to admit this, but in these respects, at least, it is not us but the terrorists who have won.