Friday, September 09, 2011

EDITORIAL >>Tomorrow’s Anniversary

Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City and the national capital, “the day that changed America,” in the lexicon of the times. No single event in the last century other than Pearl Harbor seared the national consciousness more indelibly or altered the nation’s destiny more profoundly. The great national exercise this week is to assay exactly how it changed America. A single decade offers opportunity only for the hastiest of historical judgments, but there have been plenty of those, to which we add ours.

Two years after the attacks, Osama bin Laden famously declared his purpose to have been “bleeding America into bankruptcy,” and there is a widely held conclusion that he succeeded in that and in his goal of undermining the country’s cherished freedoms. This gives him far more credit than he deserves, but there is a small measure of truth in it. After all, the U.S. government was “only” $5.8 trillion in debt on Sept. 11, 2001, and the debt now stands at more than $14.4 trillion. One analysis of the spending that grew directly from 9/11 puts it at $3.3 trillion and growing, which is 40 percent of our post-9/11 debt increase. The figure includes the direct costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the care of veterans, the concomitant defense buildup and the vast growth of the homeland security apparatus, which now includes 1,271 government agencies and nearly 2,000 outside contractors.

When they talk of the debt crisis, our national obsession this year, they cannot ignore the elephant in the room, that stupendous effort to make the country safe once again. The other big cause, the financial collapse of 2007-’08 and recession, may prove just as intractable.

Only in the past five years have we as a nation had misgivings that our leaders overreacted and blundered in addressing our discovery on that bright September day that we were not invulnerable anywhere. Sure enough, the political leaders blundered, but the great national consensus after 9/11 made it possible, even easy.

The government blundered both in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have learned in the past 18 months what we should have done in the days after 9/11: go after bin Laden and his small band of terrorists and destroy them. Instead, 9/11 became an opportunity to carry out the central goal of the militarists in the new government, chiefly Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, who had spelled it out in the 1998 manifesto of the Project for the New American Century: Conquer and install pro-American regimes in central Arab countries to project American influence in the oil-rich Middle East.

So instead of going after the 9/11 plotters, President Bush demanded that the flimsy Taliban government in Afghanistan—the people President Reagan had once called “freedom fighters” when they were harassing the Soviet rulers—capture bin Laden and his followers in the eastern mountains and turn them over to us. The Taliban couldn’t and wouldn’t, which provided the premise for the war to overthrow the government. That accomplished in 2002, we turned our attention to Cheney’s real objective, the invasion and conquering of Iraq and its corrupt ruler, Saddam Hussein, an enemy we happened to share with al Qaeda. His reputed ownership of “weapons of mass destruction” was the excuse, but the dictator was equated with bin Laden. We all wanted to be safe from Saddam as well—polls showed that most Americans were convinced in 2003 that Iraq was behind 9/11 because Cheney said it probably was--so the war was a popular and nearly bipartisan undertaking until the administration’s perfidy was revealed and the cost in blood and treasure mounted.

It is far less clear whether the rest of that vast commitment of money and ingenuity, the part to make our cities, skies and ports safe once again, paid off. We clearly are a safer nation, owing if nothing else to the slaughter of bin Laden, his lieutenants and fighters over the past 18 months in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The organization has been decimated and demoralized and its standing in the Muslim world demolished. Although global terrorism has hardly been weakened, the element of it singularly dedicated to harming the United States and Great Britain, which bin Laden viewed as Islam’s and the Middle East’s great enemy, has been quieted.

The construction of a massive national security regime, in law and on the ground, has lowered though not eliminated the risk of a cataclysmic attack on American soil. One plot after another has been stymied—some 22 major plots have been identified--and we can only hope that tomorrow will pass with that conclusion still intact. Lone wolves like those who shot soldiers at Fort Hood and Little Rock may be unstoppable. Chiefly, what is different starting the hour of the 9/11 attacks is the heightened sensitivity of the government to the threat. We will always be left to wonder if things might have been different if President Bush, only six months in office, had paid attention to the security briefing where he was told of a plot to crash airliners.

The other question that yet lingers for the judgment of history is whether 9/11 altered American values and sacrificed traditional freedoms in the search for safety. The disclosures of torture at Abu Graib and at the secret locations of “extraordinary renditions” cost us dearly around the world, crucially in the Middle East, but have we lost some of our own freedoms to the internal security apparatus. Anyone who has flown on a commercial airliner would answer yes, though perhaps most of us may say that safety is worth such invasions of personal privacy and convenience. Unless you are in a suspect class you may never be aware of other intrusions authorized by the Patriot Act and the missions of those 1,271 government agencies.

From the vantage point and safety of the 10th anniversary, Americans should demand of the political leaders that they correct what is foreseeably wrong and fixable with the post-9/11 policies, starting with the orderly departure from Iraq and Afghanistan and a review of the Patriot Act and the vast intrusions of government assumed in the name of security but never to be surrendered until people demand it. —Ernie Dumas