Monday, September 11, 2006


RESPONSIBILITY. So it's been exactly five years since we all turned on the TV to watch that second plane strike the second tower and begin the 21st century in earnest. Where were you at that moment? And what were your immediate thoughts?

I know there have been a lot of weighty analyses of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 and its meaning. I heard one Saturday on the radio, hosted jointly by NPR and the BBC, with listeners from all over the globe solicited to call in, collect, to offer their own perspectives. Frank Rich was a guest and seemed impressed enough by the dignity of the venue that he actually tried to restrain his Bush hatred and affect an objective point of view. Dorothy Rabinowitz was also on hand as the lone defender of (outmoded) 20th century traditions like patriotism and national security. Whenever she made a point the BBC hostess didn't like, a caller was summoned from the queue to provide an anecdotal rebuttal. The foreign callers were identified by nation of origin -- France, Britain, etc -- but they were invariably muslim and offended to the core by the fact that the U.S. would seek to defend itself against muslim terrorism by scrutinizing muslims more closely than Indiana housewives. The BBC hostess was enjoying herself immensely until Rabinowitz had finally had enough and pummeled the BBC for its venomous anti-American propaganda, which caused her to lapse into relative silence.

Still, it was interesting to hear the American pundits trying, for once, to be less partisan and more reflective about the difficulties America faces in trying to fight a war on terror in the current international climate. Even if it was all for show, the prospect of Frank Rich declaring that the policy decisions were extraordinarily difficult and unavoidably controversial was like the experience of rain after a long drought, almost palpably life-giving. What would the past five years have been like, I couldn't help wondering, if debate and criticism had proceeded atop the civil platform of agreement that the President was really trying to do his best in a terrible crisis that almost no one had anticipated? Imagine that everyone had been sober and serious all along, as if the responsibility were theirs and not someone else's. Imagine that the opposition to the administration's policies had been more substantive than personal, focused on alternative proposals rather than autopsies of irrevocable decisions past. Imagine that all of us were dealing with today's reality instead of pet grievances from months or years ago. Isn't it possible that the critics might have had more impact on events, that the defenders of American policy might have listened and responded more thoughtfully?

You can decide all these questions for yourselves, but I know I would have been more open to opposing views if their proponents had not insisted that doing the right thing required a first step of denouncing the president as a fool, a liar, an opportunist, and a closet tyrant. If I put aside the partisan emotions such postulates inspire, I have enough breathing room to perceive that my own views have changed again and again over the past five years. On September 11, 2001, I wanted to nuke Afghanistan, I wanted the world to tremble in fear of American military might, I wanted to go Roman Empire on the whole smelly, barbarian world. I wanted bin Laden and everyone he had ever met vaporized into a radioactive cloud. But Bush did not launch the B-52s and ICBMs. I was irate when I asked the question a lot of people just like me were asking at the time, "What is he waitng for? Just go DO it."

But you can't nuke a country of 15 million people because some of its residents killed 3,000 Americans. I would have recognized that fact if I had been the one making the decisions in the Oval Office. But I wasn't. I had the luxury of not being responsible for how the nation responded to an act of ultimate depravity and viciousness. Indeed, we have ALL had that luxury. All of us, that is, but the most vilified man on Planet Earth, the one man who has had to be continuously responsible for protecting the United States of America throughout each of the 2,628,000 minutes since the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center.

In honor of the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I propose that all Americans perform two exercises. The first is to compile a list of notable public examples of the luxury of not being responsible for protecting the nation. The list should take in the full five year timeframe, and it should be written down to make it official. I'm offering a sample here, just to illustrate what I mean, but yours will, of course, be different.

On 9/11/01, a day when four airliners were hijacked, two of the world's largest buildings lay in smoking ruins, and U.S. air traffic controllers had to land 4,000 planes in three hours, network anchorman Peter Jennings sneered at the fact that the President of the United States didn't return to the nation's capitol until nightfall.

As newly anointed chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean told a radio audience he considered theories that the President of the United States had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks "interesting."

Congressman John Conyers, who would chair the committee responsible for drawing up articles of impeachment if the Democrats win a House majority in the 2006 elections, presided over a mock trial of the President in which he tolerated "evidence" that 9/11 was planned and executed by Jews.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, this week, denounced the President of the United States for deliberately lying and misleading the nation into the war in Iraq despite the fact that he himself had described Saddam Hussein as an "imminent threat" to the United States (which the President never did), citing intelligence indicating that Saddam was possibly only months away from nuclear weapons (which the President never did).

Former Vice President Al Gore stormed at a partisan crowd that the President of the United States "betrayed us" and subsequently undertook a promotional tour for a book and movie arguing that the greatest current threat to the United States of America is a theoretical climate condition demonstrated by mathematical models in a "science" that has yet to produce a single mathematical model capable of predicting what the climate will do next week.

A former President of of the United States, this week, demanded that a national television network withdraw a miniseries implying that his administration failed to take the threat posed by al Qaida seriously enough to kill or capture its leader when it had the chance, despite this record. Further, his political allies -- supposedly devoted to the inviolability of he First Amendment under all circumstances, including the rawest pornography -- backed up his demand by implying that the network could lose its license to broadcast if the miniseries was aired on national television.

The Senate Minority Leader boasted on network television that his party had "killed the Patriot Act," which permits the federal government expanded powers to investigate terrorist threats, and subsequently claimed -- also on network television -- that America is "less safe" from terrorist attack because of the President's lackadaisical attitude about national security.

The country's major opposition party has continuously derided and scorned the policies of Defense Department Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in particular his determination to invade and reorganize Iraq with too few troops, and this week, published a document calling for his immediate dismissal, a document which also contained as its one military proposal a demand to increase funding for special operations forces; that is, the smallest and most specialized military forces there are.

The mainstream media, led by the prestigious New York Times, have perpetuated a three-year (unfounded, as it turns out) assault on the President of the United States and his staff for exposing an "undercover" CIA operative in retribution for a diplomatic leak by a former ambassador that was itself a lie, arguing that the leak of a CIA operative's identity was tantamount to treason while, at the same time, publishing details of classified intelligence operations which were both legal and effective on the basis that the public's right to know trumps ALL questions of national security.

The country's major opposition party has refused to publicly and officially condemn the absurd position taken by approximately 33 percent of Americans (some overlap with the 33 percent of Americans who are registered Democrats?) who believe -- in defiance of the voluminously documented evidence to the contrary -- that the 9/11 attack was either planned by the President of the United States or permitted to happen despite complete, detailed knowledge of the plot in advance.

Well, I could go on, but you get the idea. As I said, everyone can draw up his own list. There are absurdities on every side, and I'm sure that those who are so disposed can find laughable examples that suit their own political biases. My overriding point is that all of our positions, causes, pet peeves, and raging hatreds are luxuries. Only one of the 300 million people who live in America wake up every day to a briefing from the nation's intelligence agencies about what threats might become reailty today. That's a fact. The man's name is George W. Bush.

I'm NOT saying this makes him immune from criticism. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Forget all the invective about his cowardice or shirking of military duty when he was a twenty-something. Five years of such briefings would be enough to give most of us Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's probably the case that the President of the United States has been damaged by what he's been through. It's the most obvious explanation conceivable for why the White House seems so slow to respond to the daily firestorms the mass media engender. My guess is, not too many of us would want to be living inside George W. Bush's head right now. It's too much. For anyone. He needs advice and constructive criticism and thoughtful opposition. But who -- and I'm including all of you in this -- is served by characterizing the advice, criticism, and opposition as the obvious response to a criminal idiot?

But that's right. You, me, all of us, we're so much smarter than the oil monkey who's been getting the daily briefings for five years. That brings me to the second exercise. Make a list  -- and write IT down too -- of the extreme positions you have taken personally over the past five years, beginning with 9/11.  What are the worst things you have thought? What are the wildest positions you have espoused in your times of greatest personal weakness, disgust, anger, fatigue, despair? Measure them against the imaginary state in which you are responsible, day after day after day after day after day... Define loneliness. Could you bear it?

Now. That done, how would you really go about discussing your differences with the President of the United States? If you answer this question truthfully, I'm sure he'd be prepared to listen.

UPDATE. Thanks to Glenn Reynolds and to all the commenters who have been so kind.

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