When Tears are Right 

How 9/11 really changed us

Like a lot of people, I label my life as before 9/11 and after 9/11. Our government does the same. It has passed laws to ensure the country won't ever be able to return to the trivialities of, say, the Clinton administration, when all we had to worry about was what to do with the federal surplus and whether or not Monica Lewinsky had committed an impeachable act.

Instead, we are at war, and we'll be at war as long as someone somewhere on the planet can be accused of terrorism.

The destruction of the World Trade Center towers set off an autoimmune response that caused America to attack its own institutions and people. For ordinary citizens, life has been deprived of content--in both senses of the word--as liberty has been traded for security, a national sense of adventure has been traded for fear, and economic justice has been traded for the shell games of an insecure and ethically illiterate financial oligarchy.

For the troops who died or were damaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, the tradeoffs were more literal. As a child of the '60s, I've wondered why more young people didn't protest two wars that were clearly optional. A legal system was in place to deal with the criminals who took down the towers, and letting it operate would have cost less and shown more light on the whys and wherefores of their crime than the wars have. Many more Americans--not to mention Iraqis and Afghans--would be alive, and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and Bradley (Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden wouldn't come up whenever we mention America, truth and fair play in the same sentence.

Osama bin Laden, whoever he was and whomever he worked for, succeeded beyond his fondest expectations. He made the world safe for mindless fundamentalism in its least attractive Muslim, Christian and nationalist forms. Empathy and forgiveness, the ability to see shades of gray, the knowledge that every human heart contains both good and evil, and the belief that humanity need not exist in a permanent state of war--all these fell with the towers.

It didn't have to be that way. We lost some office space in a country that had plenty of empty office space, not all of it in Detroit. We lost 3,000 citizens, but we lose 10 times that many each year to auto accidents. We lose another 30,000 each year to cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol-related cancer. We lose half-a-million each year to tobacco.

These deaths, too, leave behind grief-wrecked loved ones, yet as a nation, we don't get much upset about them. We don't hunt down and kill the people we see as responsible for them. We don't spend trillions of dollars making sure that nothing remotely similar can ever happen again. We tough things out, accept that death is part of life, mourn and return to the concerns of the still-living.

We weren't that emotionally tough when the towers went down. Instead of withdrawing into cold adult grief, we struck out in hot blind childish rage.

It would have been a good time to demonstrate our nation's Christian heritage. We could have turned the other cheek, not so we could be victimized again, but so the world could have seen how stupid, brutal and soulless you have to be to destroy two tall buildings full of people who have done you no harm. But we got stupid and brutal ourselves, invading the wrong countries, killing far more than 3,000 civilians, and installing the wrong people in power. The world's gaze shifted from a criminal act to the knee-jerk realpolitik of bumbling empire.

It would have been a good time to stand on our honor and our traditions and our reverence for the rule of law. There is little glory in being a criminal when your victim turns away from you and, with simple dignity, begins to repair the damage you've done.

Eventually you become an embarrassment to any country that will tolerate you on its soil. And eventually, you start going over and over the crime you've committed, and it begins to lose its ability to make you feel good about yourself. Self-consciousness creeps in and ruins self-righteousness. An act committed in God's name begins to look like something God might have some trouble with.

Instead, we gave Osama bin Laden the shining status of a warrior. Our response indicated he was a worthy opponent when he could have been brushed off as a Gollum, a thing made foul and twisted and sick by power. We would have saved a lot of blood and treasure in the process, and Bin Laden might have died unmourned rather than acclaimed as a martyr.

Look at what happened to the Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, dead in his International Court of Justice jail cell, remembered not for his service to his country but for his venality, corruption, ignorance and sadism. Look what happened to the disgraced Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who spent his golden years shunned by his former colleagues, fighting extradition to Spain, escaping into dementia when faced with the honest grief of his murdered victims' families.

There are enough parallels between America and ancient Rome that I've wished we had come up with the incantation that would have caused the emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius to appear, in full regalia, on the steps of the Supreme Court, in August 2001. The Court, following recent precedent, could have installed him as president, and this country would have had a leader who knew firsthand the horrors of war, as well as the power of forbearance and the subtle uses of moral authority.

That's not the leader we had on Sept. 11, 2001. It's a crying shame that we didn't.

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