On Native Ground
HOW AMERICA'S REALLY CHANGED SINCE SEPT. 11
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- We have heard it often over the past year. Our nation has changed since that warm, clear late summer day last September when an outrageously blue sky was transformed into a color palate of horror - the bright orange of burning aviation fuel, the black smoke of offices aflame, the pink mist of blood and gore falling from 100 stories up, the gray cloud of debris from the collapsing World Trade Center sweeping down city streets like a hurricane's storm surge.
The images of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001 and the days afterward are burned into my brain. I haven't watched any of the Sept. 11 documentaries and have no intention of seeing any of the one-year anniversary programs. As a newspaper editor who was working that day and struggling to assemble something that made sense of unspeakable horror, I saw, heard and read enough accounts of the death and destruction to last me the rest of my life.
If you were in New York, the Pentagon or in the countryside of Western Pennsylvania that morning, if you had family or friends who died that day, if your life and the lives of those you love were completely turned upside down by the attacks, you can honestly say your life has changed.
But how about the rest of America? There was a burst of patriotism and civility in the weeks following the attacks, but it has faded like the flags that went up last September that never got taken down. You don't see young people lined up at the recruiting stations; the armed forces say they've seen little if any change in the number of people wanting to enlist in the military. Instead of a call for wartime sacrifice, Americans were urged after the attacks to travel and go shopping and those who didn't lose their jobs happily complied.
The message from our leaders is that we are at war. If this is wartime, it sure doesn't look or feel like it. The malls and movie theaters remain filled and the shelves in the stores are groaning with stuff to buy. The fuel-thirsty SUVs still clog the highways. The TV programs are as mindless as they've ever been and the glossy magazines are still filled with fluff.
World War II was the last war that required total sacrifice and commitment from every American. With the exception of the families who suffered losses in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania; the families of the victims in last fall's anthrax attack (remember them?) and the families of the servicemen who've died so far in Central Asia, most Americans have experienced few direct hardships from this new war.
America has changed in the past year, but the changes are deeper and they didn't start last Sept. 11. To me, it started on Dec. 12, 2000, when five conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the popular will of a majority of voters and selected George W. Bush to be our president.
Thanks to the Supreme Court, we ended up with a president that - in the words of Gerald Kaufman of Britain's Labour Party - is "the most intellectually backward American president of my political lifetime" who is "surrounded by advisors whose bellicosity is exceeded only by their political, military and diplomatic illiteracy."
The nine months before the Sept. 11 attacks were marked by the Bush administration snubbing the world as they rejected or refused to take action on more international agreements than any administration in memory.
The Bush administration's policy pre-Sept. 11 seemed to be based on one thing - if President Clinton was in favor of it, we're against it. It was decided that there would be no more activity toward brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Plans for foiling the operations of a then somewhat obscure terrorist group called al-Qaida were ignored.
Both decisions would turn out to be costly. The willful ignorance and arrogance of the Bush administration toward the rest of the world set our nation up for a terrible fall.
Sept. 11 was the wake-up call that America is not universally beloved in the world. A wiser president might have chosen a different course, but the Bush administration came into office believing that the U.S. could safely ignore the rest of the world because we are the most powerful nation on earth and they have not wavered from that view.
There was no reexamination of U.S. foreign policy after Sept. 11, starting with considering the reasons why America is so hated and mistrusted by the rest of the world. Or why was so much energy devoted to building an anti-ballistic missile system when 19 guys with box cutters and razor blades turned four jetliners into suicide bombs. Or why we stopped caring about the Mideast peace process until it was too late to avert a bloodbath?
The brief rush of triumph from the unexpectedly quick ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan has given way to the reality that little else has changed in that country and that U.S. troops could stuck there for years trying to stabilize one of the most screwed-up nations on earth. The hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida morphed into a neo-imperial campaign to remake the world in a way that solely benefits American interests.
At home, we saw our Constitutional rights shredded in the name of security and the marginalization of all dissent to an ill-defined and open-ended war that could ultimately lead to U.S. attacks on more than 60 nations. The resemblance between the various "homeland security" proposals and the totalitarian policies of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union is uncanny.
A nation changed? Absolutely.
We now have a president who believes he can unilaterally commit the nation to a global war without consulting Congress or the United Nations. Whatever sympathy that existed in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks has disappeared as the Bush administration has systematically alienated our allies.
We now have a democracy that is clearly on the ropes. The theft of the 2000 presidential election opened the door to the theft of our civil liberties, thanks to a Congress too worried about its own political viability to put up a fight.
We now have more fear and paranoia stoked by an administration that sees its "war on terror" as a political bonanza for the Republican Party while actively stonewalling any investigations into its negligence and inaction prior to Sept. 11.
These are just some of the ways we've changed - ways that probably won't be discussed during the Sept. 11 remembrances. But I'd like to believe that there are many Americans who are not just mourning the 3,000 who died that day, but are also mourning the death of the principles and ideals America is supposed stand for.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).