Sunday, September 11, 2011

The 9/12 Mentality

Late in the day on September 11, 2001, a day tumbled in a swash of unhappy and roiled emotions, I sought to escape by sitting down and collecting my thoughts instead. What emerged was a letter to the editor of the (Portland) Oregonian newspaper.

On 9/12, I was surprised when I opened my newspaper and found my letter, under the heading "Leaven Outrage With Reason," leading the day's letters, at the top of the Op-Ed page. It read:

Now there will be an outcry to "do something" -- as we should, by punishing those responsible and strengthening our nation's defense and intelligence installations in effective ways.

However, I hope our anger does not make us react unwisely. I fear these tragedies soon will be cited to justify "hawkish" actions such as withdrawing from peacekeeping missions or overspending on missile defense, at the expense of our other commitments.

To do so would please these terrorists almost as much as killing our people. I hope our leaders are resolute enough to punish those responsible swiftly and terribly, and wise enough to leaven their outrage with reason and a larger view of the nation's and the world's best interest.

Remaining true to our principles, supporting those around the world who honor democracy, healing our economy, and in general "staying the course" is the best and bravest response to those who wish us harm.

Re-reading that letter today, I am struck not by my prescience, but by my naivete.

I chose the word "hawkish" rather than "conservative" that day because I did not want to alienate my conservative compatriots. Like most liberals, I instinctively sought to place partisan and ideological divides behind me. Conservatives, I believed that day, were my allies against the people who wished us harm. And so I chose to narrow my concern to "hawks" rather than broaden it to "conservatives," even though "conservatives" was the first word that came to my mind.

And my perception even of that subset of conservatives, "hawks," was relatively mild back on September 12, 2001. On 9/12, the worst I could imagine of America's "hawks" was that they might lobby for us to withdraw from peacekeeping missions or waste a few billion dollars on an unneeded weapons program. I correctly feared that conservatives would seize the opportunity to advance military-industrial goals; but I did not conceive that they would so rapidly conflate Al Qaeda (evil people intending us harm) with the Taliban (ignorant rural yahoos generally content with destroying Buddhist bas-reliefs and oppressing their own wives and daughters). I could not imagine that they would launch us into the longest war in America's history; that they would persuade our own citizens that Saddam Hussein somehow was involved in the attack and start a new war there; or that their greed for war profits would contribute substantially to their bankrupting the nation, doubling the national debt and launching the Great Recession. I did not, on 9/12, realize how bad these people are.

Now I do.

Conservatives love to remind us how, on 9/12, we suspended our political and ideological differences and, briefly, considered ourselves to be one nation, indivisible and undivided. But the consequences of that suspension of ideology have been terrible: because of 9/11, liberals allowed conservatives to launch two wars, alienate a world that (on 9/12) universally supported us, pass the Patriot Act, steal money from education and healthcare to give to "defense" (i.e., offense), create new espionage and warmaking institutions, and turn our national self-image inward just when it should have been turned outward by injecting the Orwellian, totalitarian word "homeland" into our lexicon.

Liberals, Progressives and even Libertarians did not serve our nation well by adopting a "9/12 mentality." Quite the opposite: the 9/12 mentality -- well-intentioned, unable to conceive how deeply malevolent the Dick Cheneys of the world are -- allowed those malevolents to harm America far more mortally than Osama bin Laden ever could have.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/12, then, we on the Left should calmly but firmly reject the calls to adopt the 9/12 mentality again. We are not, today, as naive as we were ten years ago -- and America cannot afford for us to allow ourselves to be fooled again.