Ten months before the attacks on the Twin Towers, the United States experienced the most contested and divisive Presidential election in a century. George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore but after the intervention of the Supreme Court in a five/four, conservative-liberal split, he won an electoral college majority and became president. Much of the country ended up considering his victory illegitimate. Two years before this, in a patent abuse of its constitutional powers, the Republican House of Representatives had indulged itself in the impeachment of President Clinton for misleading statements he gave in a deposition, one which would never have occurred had a highly partisan prosecutor not expanded his investigation of Clinton from old land transactions to extra-marital affairs. In short, by September 11th, 2001, a level of partisan viciousness and strong-arming, perpetuated chiefly by the right, had already begun to poison the well of American politics.
In a different era or a different political atmosphere, the destruction of 9/11 might have been overcome in due time: the dead mourned, new structures built, a memorial erected. There might still have been a limited invasion of Afghanistan and a focused international alliance against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Instead, however, the event was quickly conscripted into an existing political fight.
The history of this fight long predates the Bush or Clinton presidencies. For the last forty years the achievements of New Deal liberalism have been under steady and growing attack from the modern conservative alliance of nominally populist, evangelical Christians and economic libertarians. Until the recent emergence of even more radical figures such as Sarah Palin and Rick Perry, George W. Bush was considered the apotheosis of this movement: a reborn Christian from Texas whose signature domestic policy, passed into law just a few months before 9/11, was a massive tax cut for the wealthy.
In foreign policy, a parallel divide had emerged between, roughly, Democratic internationalists and Republican neo-conservatives, who disparaged the UN and argued for the US to assume the posture of an unfettered superpower, employing fear of destruction to achieve its international aims.
The most coherent way to understand 9/11, then, isn’t as the cause of the various catastrophes that have followed in its wake – two wars, state-sponsored torture, a massive recession – but rather as a powerful accelerant. It was the bullet to the powder-keg of an already heated domestic conflict.
In her landmark book, Trauma and Recovery, anatomizing the condition of post-traumatic stress disorder, the psychiatrist Judith Herman made clear that one of the few ways that victims of traumatic violence can recover their psychological balance is by articulating a narrative of what happened to them. Without the outlet of creating a coherent story, the horror of the violence lives on, unmetabolized by the psyche.
This is true of collective violence as well. Herman found that soldiers returning from World War II had a much higher rate of recovery from the effects of what they had witnessed because they were welcomed back into a powerful narrative of their victory over the evil of Nazism. Soldiers returning from Vietnam, on the other hand, had a much harder time because the story of their war was one of defeat and US atrocities.
The violence of 9/11 was different, of course. As an act of terrorism, its victims were as much the spectators as the murdered. And what we were victims of was symbolic not physical harm. There has always been plenty of violence in the US, but not visited upon middle-class white citizens going about their everyday lives in the political and financial capitals of Washington and New York. What 9/11 undid was a bedrock sense of physical security premised on the United States being a nation that existed above and apart from the mess of European and Asian history. Consider that during World War II there were fewer than one hundred civilian casualties on US soil. No fire-bombing of Dresden, no London Blitz, no Hiroshima. Throughout the most deadly century in human history, US civilians remained remarkably safe from foreign aggression. The trauma of 9/11 for most Americans was that it introduced the spectre of such sudden, mass death, not the reality of it. The chief fear was and remains still, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists.
But rather than offering a narrative that helped explain the purpose of the attacks and how most citizens weren’t at risk of immediate harm, the Bush Administration instead amplified their terrorizing effect by using them to induce more fear. They implied that Saddam Hussein had been involved: claiming that he possessed chemical and perhaps even nuclear weapons. Condoleezza Rice said in the lead-up to the Iraq War, ‘We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.’
Those that pointed out how illogical this connection was were accused of being weak and unpatriotic. Eventually, Bush and bin Laden’s political strategies became perversely interlocking. The president’s ersatz cowboy rhetoric stoked resentment among al-Qaeda’s potential recruiting pool, while bin Laden’s menacing videos helped Bush win reelection in 2004.
I remember listening to the mother of a dead US soldier being interviewed on the radio just as the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was becoming undeniable, even for the Bush Administration. She was asked if she thought the President had deceived the country. I’ll never forget her answer: ‘I just can’t believe that,’ she said. ‘If I believe that, then nothing else makes sense.’ This is how big lies work. Like banks, they become too big to fail. Their place in the ideological forcefield becomes so central that people can’t see through them without their entire world view crumbling. To this day, millions of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11.
As a country, we haven’t put the attacks behind us because we don’t share a common story about why they were perpetrated or what they meant. And it hasn’t only been in foreign policy that 9/11 has been used as an accelerant for the rising dominance of right-wing thinking. In one of the largest privatization schemes ever attempted, the Pentagon outsourced hundreds of billions of dollars worth of services previously performed by government personnel. Through the vehicle of the beefed up domestic security industry, vast sums of the public’s money were transferred directly to private companies, often for spurious, fraudulent, or simply ineffective products and services. Meanwhile, workers in the newly-created Transportation Safety Administration were prohibited from unionizing, against the norm of all other federal employees. (President Obama has since reversed this decision.) The recent attacks on the rights of public employees’ unions in states across the US may be new in their brazenness, but they were already afoot in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
Today, the agenda of the extreme right dictates economic policy in Washington. This summer the threat – one might even say the terror – of national default was used to force President Obama to sign off on draconian cuts to government spending in the midst of a recession. This may seem far afield from planes flying into the World Trade Center. But what links them, and what has characterized the last decade of American life is a kind of constant, low-grade panic. A hysterical normalcy in which disaster seems to lurk around every corner. We are told of the dangers every day. No time to think, only to act. And the spoils go to those willing to trade on the peoples’ fear.
Photograph © Tasnayu Taspnaphun, Supports on the Hudson, September 11 2015