In August of 2001, President George W. Bush was bumping along. The economy had entered a cyclical recession. It wasn’t his fault, just one of those things. His popularity was evenly split, just a bit over 50%. He’d taken office with the help of an odd decision by the Supreme Court. Most people had expected him to govern as a moderate, given the razor-thin margins of the election. Indeed he had given early pledges to do just that – to be a uniter. But it wasn’t to be. He’d demanded and gotten large tax cuts, where half the benefits went to the richest 1%. Surveys showed that the American public didn’t much want these tax cuts, but it didn’t matter. He wanted them. His party wanted them. That month a Presidential daily briefing had warned that the terrorist Osama bin Laden hoped to attack within the United States. Did he care about it? We actually know today, years later, that he didn’t. He was on vacation when a CIA briefer came to warn him. He listened, reluctantly. He told the briefer, “Thanks, now you’ve covered your ass.” And that was that. No action was taken. Later, the President would resist all efforts by the 9-11 Commission to review the events which took place.
The day of 9-11 was a calamity, of course. Thousands dead. At first it looked like it would be tens of thousands. The President had looked foolish and weak and unready. He’d read a story to children; he flew about the country in some weird defense of himself, and supposedly the presidency and the country.
There were bright spots. In Pennsylvania, the 40 passengers and crew of United Flight 93, equipped with air phones and cell phones were learning about what was underway. Amazingly, they included a rugby player, an ex-police officer, a judo expert, a weight-lifter, a college linebacker, and a pilot who almost certainly could have landed the plane if the passengers could retake control. And they did for a few moments. When they died, they saved the White House, or Congress, or who knows… the statue of liberty? from being hit.
At the World Trade Center, police and fire personnel converged. 343 firefighters would die. 23 policemen would die. 37 port authority police would die. 2,602 civilians would die in the towers and on the ground. At the Pentagon 125 would die.
Here on our street, we stood outside, open-mouthed, unbelieving, in shock, in grief, in wordless amazement. In anger, and stupidity, we looked up as the last jets of the day landed in mid-morning.
Americans streamed toward New York City. Firefighters, iron workers, EMT’s, nurses, priests, and people who just felt called. They stayed for weeks into months, clearing the site, searching. Of course, we know now that the air they breathed — full of pulverized concrete, glass, and asbestos — was toxic. For some reason, the Bush administration decided to lie about the safety of the air. Scientists at the EPA knew it was dangerous, but somebody higher up in the government told the EPA to lie. It was a puzzling lie. After three thousand people die in the attack, why allow another six thousand to get permanently sick? It’s hard to fathom (hard for a normal person).
We know why they lied to the 9-11 Commission. They had not only failed to prevent the attack. They weren’t really trying. They hadn’t met to discuss terrorism. They hadn’t listened to the “anti-terrorism guy” still onboard from the previous administration. When experts were running around “with their hair on fire,” it wasn’t enough to attract the attention of the new decision makers. It wasn’t a priority at all.
But then when the most massive terror attack in U.S. history actually occurred, it became vitally important to suppress or rewrite their own history. They could have owned up to their failures, they could have sought honestly to make changes, and they could have welcomed a broad bipartisan inquiry. But something in the fearful makeup of the Bush II administration made it impossible to admit a failure, even though it would have been forgiven quickly by the American people.
When the National Security Advisor told the Commission that no one could’ve imagined that someone would fly planes into buildings, it was a lie. You and I hadn’t imagined it, but she was the National Security Advisor to the President of the United States, and the possibility of just such an attack had been foreseen earlier, and defended against more than once, and, in fact, described by terrorists on earlier occasions. But it was just one lie in a tissue of many lies, and at least we could understand why (if they couldn’t go with honesty) they wanted to deflect public understanding of what had actually happened. It was because they had failed to do anything. When their own experts had warned them, they didn’t meet, they didn’t act, they didn’t tell anyone to do anything. They failed. Although it was an obvious and colossal failure, it was also an early failure, too soon to understand that it would be part of a pattern.
It’s a small measure of America’s character that we can, and do, forgive a lot when it comes to the work of our leaders. We know they won’t be perfect. We know that it’s an awesome job and that mistakes will be made. And when the leadership of America makes a mistake, the consequences can be large and hard on blameless people. So I think America would have forgiven the business about lying to the workers at ground zero, shortening their lives with lung disease, for some unknown reason. I think America would have forgiven our leaders for snoozing their way toward 9-11. This was a much greater failure, and it was a black mark against the administration, but it was such a vile attack against blameless civilians that you don’t want to focus on our own failure to be ready. America would have forgiven, to a large extent, the failure of our leaders to do their jobs in the months before 9-11.
But then we witnessed something that will not be forgiven. On 9-11 America united. Nineteen rotten shitballs had snuck into our country and committed mass murder. Nobody didn’t understand that. The world understood it. Every nation was aghast. Iran sent condolences. And they meant it. People looked at the future of ever more-capable public murder, and they said, “No, no, no…. that is not what we want.”
It was in some miraculous way a moment when history was poised at the brink of a new understanding. It was a moment when the world could have turned for the better.
I am ashamed to say that we Americans had not put in place leaders who could see it. We had a miraculous moment when we could have led the world in a better direction. We could have asked for the eyes, and ears, and minds, and good will of people on every acre of this planet to find the murderers, and arrest them. If we had to send troops, we could have sent every kind of other help, too. Even acting on their own, the children of a prosperous America could have contributed enough to rebuild Afghanistan. The grade schoolers of America could have funded new schools with teachers and books and playgrounds all across Afghanistan or anywhere. We adults could have funded roads and bridges. We could have fixed every goddam thing we might have blown up looking for Osama, and fixed it twice as good as it ever was. But no.
Our “leaders” at the time looked around and saw opportunity to pursue a few ideas they’d been thinking about but hadn’t exactly mentioned previously, you know, to us citizens.
So we got tough talk about evil-doers. And then we got some threats about ‘with us or against us’. And then we got some clarification about who was really capable of dealing with the situation – it was supposedly the administration and Republicans in general. And then we had the press secretary warn people to watch what they said. And then it was time to discipline an ungrateful United Nations. And then it was necessary to smear a critic. Soon it was imperative to insult former allies. Quite a show. And then, if you remember the torture and the secret prisons and the general allowance made for it all, it actually got worse.