Monday, September 11, 2006

What Really Changed on 9/11?

Another thought about the New York Maganize article “What if 9/11 Never Happened?”: I said that I tended to agree with the authors who believe we would be more-or-less in the same place today if that tragedy had never happened. Why do I say this? Because I don't think very much changed on 9/11.

I remember how on that day, and the days soon after, so many people seemed to be saying the same thing - "This changes everything." It felt so strange to me, like I was living in a different country. How, I thought, could anybody be thinking that? How could they not have known that this was coming?

Throughout the '90s, and perhaps even earlier, I found it both odd and very lucky that we did not suffer the kind of terrorist attacks on our own soil that plagued so many countries. Yes the World Trade Center had been bombed, but that seemed like a shot in the dark. The worst attack had come from one of our own, in Oklahoma, but without any subsequent attacks from people like McVeigh, that too seemed a fluke. Someone had planted a bomb at the Olympics, and the Unabomber was floating around out there, but overall, on our own soil, things were quiet. Too quiet.

To say that everything changed on 9/11, you would have had to believe that the quiet before that day was a natural, normal thing. I thought it was the product of good luck and good work by the CIA, FBI, NSA and the like. I knew that there were people out there who did not like us. I knew that there were murderous groups that had us in their sights. I understood that the politics of terrorism made us target number one for a lot of people. I also knew that it wasn't all that hard to hit us. I didn't worry about planes hitting the WTC - I wasn't that prescient - but I did worry, and I still do, about a stray nuclear bomb in a shipping container on board a cargo ship heading into Boston harbor.

I had a few friends who saw things like I did. We would just look at each other and wonder when people said - "this changes everything." Did we suddenly have brand new enemies on 9/11 that had not been there before? No. Had we suddenly become involved in the contentious politics of the Middle East for the first time? No. Had we suddenly become the world's only superpower, and thus the biggest target around? No. Had we suddenly acquired a militarily so powerful that terrorism was the only realistic weapon available to those who would do us harm? No. So what were people talking about?

What changed is a lot of people who did not know these things suddenly became aware. For them, I suppose, everything did change. Maybe they thought the whole world loved us and were shocked to discover otherwise, but for the world at large, things were much the same after 9/11. Oh things changed for al Qaeda and the Taliban, certainly. Life changed for a lot of people in the U.S. military and the intelligence services, of course. And most assuredly, everything changed for the families of the 3000 people who should have still been alive. But the rest of the world? I don't think much changed for the Iraqis - Saddam was already in Bush's crosshairs on 9/10, before then even. And we were going to confront terrorism more and more, regardless. Maybe with less intensity, but we would have had to face it.

So what changed on 9/11? 3000 people died, first and foremost. Further, the perceptions of millions of Americans who thought they were safe and beloved by the world changed, clearly. But beyond that, we were already on the path to our present day on 9/10. And that's not much comfort to anyone.


lcreekmo said...

I will agree that the reality of our national security didn't change a bit on 9/11. It was just revealed to many folks who'd previously failed to read [fill in the blank: the writing on the wall, the international section, the tea leaves....].

However, what I think did change is this: The event of 9/11 gave the authoritarian right in this country the political authority [sounds redundant but I guess it's not] to pass IMO harmful legislation like the Patriot Act and to bypass the FISA Courts, and a million other seemingly minor infringments on civil liberties.

If I had a dollar for every time someone had said to me, "If you don't do anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about," as I've protested these changes since 9/11, I'd be retired to a Caribbean island by now. Try telling that to the innocent man on death row. It is not just the guilty we must worry about protecting -- though that is one of the [until recently] enduring hallmarks of the American legal system. But we have, until now, worked very hard to protect the innocent. Now, we are throwing babies out with bathwater left and right, and the American people fail to hear their cries.

Dr.T said...

I understand where you are coming from. I tend to believe that 9/11 exacerbated this, but that given the people in power, the shift towards an increasingly imperial presidency and an increasingly authoritarian government was already in the cards. 9/11, I think, made it worse, but didn't create it. Who knows?