What was played out in the weeks after the attacks was the old, familiar battle between force and human imagination, between the crude instruments of violence and the capacity for empathy and understanding. Human imagination lost. Coldblooded reason, which does not speak the language of the imagination, won. We began to speak and think in the empty, mindless nationalist clichés about terror that the state handed to us. We became what we abhorred. The deaths were used to justify pre-emptive war, invasion, Shock and Awe, prolonged occupation, targeted assassinations, torture, offshore penal colonies, gunning down families at checkpoints, massive aerial bombardments, drone attacks, missile strikes and the killing of dozens and soon hundreds and then thousands and later tens of thousands and finally hundreds of thousands of innocent people. We produced piles of corpses in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and extended the reach of our killing machine to Yemen and Somalia. And by beatifying our dead, by cementing into the national psyche fear and the imperative of permanent war, and by stoking our collective humiliation, the state carried out crimes, atrocities and killings that dwarfed anything carried out against us on 9/11. The best that force can do is impose order. It can never elicit harmony. And force was justified, and is still justified, by the first dead. Ten years later these dead haunt us like Banquo’s ghost.
We have still not woken up to whom we have become, to the fatal erosion of domestic and international law and the senseless waste of lives, resources and trillions of dollars to wage wars that ultimately we can never win. We do not see that our own faces have become as contorted as the faces of the demented hijackers who seized the three commercial jetliners a decade ago. We do not grasp that Osama bin Laden’s twisted vision of a world of indiscriminate violence and terror has triumphed. The attacks turned us into monsters, grotesque ghouls, sadists and killers who drop bombs on village children and waterboard those we kidnap, strip of their rights and hold for years without due process. We acted before we were able to think. And it is the satanic lust of violence that has us locked in its grip.And this is a fitting conclusion to what I'm going to say about the 9/11 anniversary. It's been played to the hilt in the mindless media. Voices like this one above have been drowned out in the nationalistic hollering and whooping, the savage cries of hatred and bigotry. Will there ever be blessed quiet again?
We could have gone another route. We could have built on the profound sympathy and empathy that swept through the world following the attacks. The revulsion over the crimes that took place 10 years ago, including in the Muslim world, where I was working in the weeks and months after 9/11, was nearly universal. The attacks, if we had turned them over to intelligence agencies and diplomats, might have opened possibilities not of war and death but ultimately reconciliation and communication, of redressing the wrongs that we commit in the Middle East and that are committed by Israel with our blessing. It was a moment we squandered. Our brutality and triumphalism, the byproducts of nationalism and our infantile pride, revived the jihadist movement. We became the radical Islamist movement’s most effective recruiting tool. We descended to its barbarity. We became terrorists too. The sad legacy of 9/11 is that the assholes, on each side, won.