The TV, Facebook, and Internet blogs are all full of 9/11 remembrances. It's one of those iconic conversations now to discuss with others exactly where you were when you first heard of the attacks. (I was at work in Tampa, Florida, where most peopled spent the balance of the day watching TV.) And to remember the utter horror of watching what was happening from fires, to jumpers, to the gut-wrenching collapse of the Towers, one after the other. So many innocent lives, so many families devastated, so much grief, so many tears. What American cannot recall his or her feelings that day?
But let's understand something right now. The familiar phrase we've all heard a hundred times since--"The world changed on 9/11." or "After 9/11, nothing will ever be the same again." or variations. This is just nonsense actually. The United States was the victim of a terrorist attack. That's what happened. The world did not change. Any number of countries before the U.S. had been victims of terrorists, some of them repeatedly for years. What presumption and arrogance we have. The world changes when we're attacked, but not before.
It was not 9/11 that set the course for anything. That's a mistake almost everyone makes. Nothing was written in stone after that attack. For on 9/11/2001, this country still had a raft of choices, a myriad of directions, responses to what had happened. But the little pygmy in the White House and his advisers made the choice for us and quickly set upon probably the worst course possible. It appealed to the lowest of the animal instincts in us: revenge, bloody revenge for the attack. Upon discovering it was the work of Al Quaeda, Bush decided that countries as well as terrorist organizations would be held accountable: any country that harbored or encouraged terrorists would be adjudged equally guilty and equally deserving of punishment. What this decision did was initiate a conflict along familiar nation-state vs nation-state lines, which guaranteed that instead of the U.S. handling terrorist attacks like every other nation on the globe does, that is, as a matter for the police, there would be instead massive engagement by the military establishment, which never saw a war it didn't like, and especially one that would never end.
Thus began the so-called "War on Terror." Which is an insane notion to begin with because, although it plays well on Madison Avenue and on the vapid brains of cable news, it is an open-ended, never-ending enterprise. Bush said as much, and nobody so much as blinked. Eight years later, the country is doing its annual 9/11 ritual--the wreaths, the flags, the pledges to "never forget," countless assertions--all evidence to the contrary ignored--that the U.S. is the greatest country on Earth. Fine, but the way we're going eight years from now, this war won't be over, unless somebody with some sense calls an end to it. I'm not holding my breath.
Update I: Gary Hart argues much as I do about the "war" on terror.