by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
September 8, 2011
9/1+10: A DECADE OF MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- We're 10 years removed from that tragic September morning of death and destruction in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
The images of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and the days afterward, are burned into my brain. I have no intention of seeing any of the 10-year anniversary programs. As a newspaper editor who was working that day and struggled 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.
In the days after the 9/11 attacks, I did some of my best work as a editor. With little support and even fewer resources, I put together what I thought were comprehensive editions that covered every aspect of what happened and why - especially the why. I went out of my way to include lots of explanatory material to educate my readers about the new world that was born that day.
Journalism became a very serious business in the days following those attacks. I felt tremendous pride in my profession. I felt that I was performing a public service and the energy I threw into putting out a daily newspaper helped ease the tremendous pain I felt over the horrors of 9/11.
Many say the world changed after 9/11. But I would say, for the sake of argument, the road to 9/11 began 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.
History now shows that we had the wrong President at the wrong time, making wrong decisions that would prove fateful to our nation's future.
When Mr. Bush took office in January 2001, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, a Defense Department-chartered commission headed by former U.S. Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, had just produced a report that concluded that "a direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century."
While Congress apparently was taking the Hart-Rudman report seriously, the Bush Administration decided to shove it aside and prepare its own response to the issue.
In May 2001, the Administration announced that Vice President Dick Cheney would study the problem of domestic terrorism and assign primary responsibility for dealing with it to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Before the Bush Administration decided to go its own way, Hart and Rudman had briefed then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and urged them to spend more time dealing with terrorism and the rising threat of Osama bin Laden and his group, al-Qaida.
How seriously was the Bush White House taking the threat of terrorism prior to 9/11? Ashcroft, the nation's chief law enforcement officer, spent more energy on raiding medical marijuana clubs in California and fighting child pornography than on counter-terrorism. His Justice Department didn't consider terrorism to be a priority before Sept. 11; the day before the attacks, he rejected an FBI request for $58 million to hire more counter-terrorism field agents, analysts and translators and proposed a $65 million cut in funds for state and local counter-terrorism programs.
The willful ignorance and arrogance of the Bush Administration toward the rest of the world set our nation up for a terrible fall. We ended up with a President who believed he could unilaterally commit the nation to a global war without consulting Congress or the United Nations.
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.
Remember the headline, Nous sommes tous des Américains ("We are all Americans") that appeared in the Paris paper Le Monde the day after the 9/11 attacks? The level of global unity and support for the United States at the time was astounding. And every bit of it was squandered in a matter of months by an Administration hell-bent on empire.
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. And why so much energy was devoted to building an anti-ballistic missile system, when 19 guys with box-cutters and razor blades turned four jetliners into suicide bombs?
At home, we saw our Constitutional rights shredded in the name of security and the marginalization of all dissent. Patriotism was used as a club to beat those who dared to challenge the national narrative of waging war for peace. The history of the last decade is littered with examples of dissenters who have been publicly vilified, who have lost their jobs, who have been arrested, who have been physically attacked - all for exercising their right to freedom of speech and thought.
If the Bush Administration treated the 9/11 attacks for what they were - a crime, rather than an act of war - and committed the nation's resources to tracking and apprehending its masterminds, President Bush would be a hero right now.
But the decision was made to use 9/11 to not only invade Iraq, but to ram through all sorts of measures that made mincemeat of our Constitution. From the Patriot Act to Guantanamo Bay to illegal spying on Americans to the suspension of habeas corpus, 9/11 has become the justification for some of the worst infringements on our civil liberties in our nation's history.
Even though there is a new President in the White House, the Bush policies still continue under President Obama. Guantanamo is still open. The secret prisons and "black sites" where terror suspects are whisked away to be tortured are still there. Terror suspects are still being held without trial.
That's because once a president claims extraordinary powers for himself, and Congress and the American people lets him get away with it, there is rarely a rollback of those powers. The most recent example is President Obama's unilateral decision to start bombing Libya without consulting Congress. Without the Bush Administration's precedent in Iraq, Mr. Obama would have never done that.
While it was President Obama, and not Mr. Bush, that finally killed Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, achieving a certain amount of closure, the damage has been done.
The money that could be helping our nation recover from the worst economic downturn since the 1930s is being spent on waging endless war against a ill-defined, shadowy foe.
Our nation is still in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in military actions in Libya, Somalia, and Yemen; the price tag is $3 trillion, and the deaths of more than 6,000 American soldiers. How different would our nation be if all that money had been used at home instead?
Our public spaces are still armed fortresses. Our civil liberties are still in shambles. Fear still dominates the political debate. How different would our nation be if we didn't use 9/11 as an excuse to turn our nation from a republic to an empire?
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, like me, are not just mourning the 3,000 who died that day, but are also mourning the death of principles and ideals America is supposed to stand for.
Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.