The Quiet American and the Cost of Civic Disengagement since 9/11

Protest circa 1963 Non-Protest circa 2006

George W. Bush likes to say the world changed on September 11, 2001. He’s absolutely right, of course. But then, he should know. He and his administration were the chief architects of that change.

Six years later, it is fascinating and horrible to trace the course of those transformations, and to assess our culpability as citizens of a democracy. We have looked-on like a herd of docile sheep as the Bush administration emasculated Congress, radically altered our conceptions of life in a free society, and embarked on a war contrary to nearly every national value or policy objective one might have otherwise articulated.

Let’s start at the beginning. Improbable as at it seems given the insane path America has traversed since 2001, certain sad aspects our future were suggested as early as Day One.

On the afternoon of September 11, I wrote the following email in reply to a friend serving abroad in the Peace Corps, who wanted to understand what things felt like in America:

Dear Elektra:

Thanks for the note of concern. This is indeed a shocking and tragic day, but one that has an eerie feeling of inevitability about it. For how many decades could high-handed American arrogance co-exist with the homicidal fanaticism that runs rampant in the world? There are far too many who feel they have nothing left to lose; and too many others who allow their ideologies, religious convictions, and bigotries to produce violence.

What causes people to commit mass murder like this? Many things – and many complex, historical chains of things. In time, some will be understood clearly, though I suspect the immediate causes may seem to defy rationality and may stretch our notions of the bounds of premeditated human cruelty; but some will never be revealed, while still others will be ignored. There are certain prisms through which America will never want to look at this episode.

I have a hollow feeling in my stomach when I think about the lives that were lost in the murderous events of this morning. I also have deep fears about how we as a nation, we as an international community, and we as individuals will respond. It seems inevitable that much of the freedom that we enjoy in this society – both the lack of bureaucratic encumbrances we take for granted and our more formal civil liberties – will be restricted. The xenophobia that lies so close to the surface of American society will probably also rear its ugly face. The Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem will have done themselves no great public relations favor with the demonstrations of jubilant celebration at the news of these attacks in the United States; but I would be horrified to think that we are about to re-enter a period when people with Arabic surnames are subjected to racist treatment in this country of immigrants.

The thing that impresses so strongly today is the lack of leadership coming from Washington. In a ridiculous, almost surreal, allusion to his father’s condemnation of Iraq ten years ago, President Bush advised us, “Terrorism against our nation will not stand.” With macho bravado, he vowed that the United States would “hunt down and punish” those responsible. So, we are at war with terrorists we have yet to identify – and our thoughts are focused on some indeterminate retaliation.

The rhetoric used by the president describes terrorism as a “cowardly” act. This banal language is nearly as exasperating to me as the terrorism itself. Name-calling has supplanted thoughtful discourse, real leadership, or meaningful analysis.

If the objective of terrorism is fear and disruption, then today’s attacks have been more successful than even the organizers could ever have hoped. Based largely on the astounding lack of leadership, America has been allowed to shut down. Here in San Francisco, 3,000 miles from the epicenter of the attacks, schools are shut, meetings are cancelled, and downtown, from which I write, looks like a ghost town. Why? What about attempting to salvage something from the awful events of today? While governmental authorities must always act with a degree of caution and prudence, they must also avoid capitulating to the terror. But this is exactly what they have done. If we are indeed engaged in a war, I cannot understand why our “leadership” does little to keep this battle from turning into a rout.

It is interesting to compare the approaches taken by the two cities that face each other across San Francisco Bay. Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland announced that business must carry on as regularly as possible; Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco ordered the city shut down. In the absence of national leadership, local ad hoc decision-making is the best that can be expected.

Everyone I have come into contact with today is understandably numbed by the events of the morning. They are clearing their calendars, canceling meetings, and rearranging appointments. There seems to be a universal psychological need to feel a part of this tragedy – and people are genuinely devastated – even though we are three time zones removed from it. In my view, those of us who live in areas of almost certain safety have an ethical imperative not to allow these attacks to disrupt the patterns of life any more than necessary. There are times when one should sacrifice their emotional needs for the greater good of the society in which they live; this is one of them. Failure to do so compounds the loss, does no honor to those for whom we grieve, and will almost certainly amplify the social consequences to be felt for the rest of our lifetimes.

One hopes that violence and tragedy might somehow serve as object lessons – that events like these might somehow produce a world of greater compassion, and diminished exploitation, conflict, and cruelty. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Pragmatism, not human kindness, seems to guide our beneficence; and our instincts for retribution seem stronger than our desire for peace. It will be interesting, and very likely sad, to see what comes of all this.

Although our world will be profoundly changed by the events of this morning, my hope for you and all my friends is that your lives are touched as little as possible.


There was no way of foreseeing, at the time, just how thorough a victory Al Qaeda had won on the day; or how George W. Bush, would metamorphose from the relatively benign tool of his corporate buddies into an unchallengeable autocrat; or how perversely symbiotic the relationship between these two manifestations would be.

The irony of terrorism is that the terrorists sometimes find their closest allies – those who help transform their acts from violence to terror – in the halls of power of the countries at which they strike. Al Qaeda never had a truer friend than George W. Bush. Once he donned the mantel of Commander in Chief of the Global War on Terrorism, their perfect victory was won.

Many wondered why Al Qaeda never followed their devastatingly spectacular attacks of September 11 with more violence inside the U.S. One answer is they had no capacity to do so; another is that they lacked the imagination to see how easily small, modest actions would humble us, especially during that time frame. But perhaps the real answer is: because they didn’t need to, they had already won.

If the objective of terrorism is to use civilian-directed violence to provoke a fear so strong that a society looses its bearings and abandons its basic policies, then terrorism won the day in the United States. Mr. Bush used to describe the motivation of Al Qaeda in an awkward, absurd phrase: “They hate our freedoms.” If that was really how he understood their mission, he couldn’t have been more helpful in fostering the roll-back of American liberty he thought they wanted; not to deliberately concede victory to them, of course, but to achieve a venal political victories and consolidation of power for himself.

The Bush administration scared us like nobody scared us. There was no issue on the domestic or international agenda that was not somehow or another tied to our mortal battle with “terrorists” and for which our personal security was not considered to be at stake. From color-coded alerts which drove our paranoia through Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign to the establishment of extra-judicial prison camps, from the deprivation of American liberties authorized by the USA Patriot Act to the illegal and immoral war on Iraq, the Bush administration has fostered and consolidated power on the irrational fear of millions of Americans that events like those of September 11 could happen in their hometowns. Sure, the attacks of September 11 could hardly have been more dramatic; but not even Osama bin Laden has been as determined as George W. Bush to see that each of us resonate with paranoid, fantastical insecurities.

Then, of course, there is George W. Bush, recruiting agent for Al Qaeda in Iraq, and other branch offices. His mantra, “We will fight the terrorists abroad so that we do not have to fight them at home,” became self-fulfilling – well, at least the first part of the formulation. “Bring it on!”

Just as Al Qaeda had an unlikely ally-in-chief in the U.S. White House, Mr. Bush has been handed his biggest opportunities by his putative political rivals. The Democrats, usually noisy and ineffective, became quite and ineffective after the World Trade Center fell. Their utter capitulation to the Bush Agenda will stand, in retrospect, as one of the most baffling betrayals of the public trust in the history of American politics. In America, our system is based on the notion that the guys in the White House, drunk with their own power, will always try to overextend their mandate. This is the boys-will-be-boys theory of government, which the U.S. Constitution attempts to handle with those famous “checks and balances,” and which our two-party democratic electoral process addresses through its inherently adversarial process. Both these systems were broken at once, thanks to an all-fronts collapse of reason within the Democratic Party.

The consequences for the nation have been breathtaking; and it may take decades to repair the constitutional damage. The consequences for the Middle East and American foreign policy have been catastrophic; and they are likely irreversible.

Iraq is the poster-child of the post 9/11 imperial presidency. The great neo-conservative game of democratic dominoes is looking more like international pick-up-sticks. Rather than democratize the Middle East, they have quite predictably succeeded in radicalizing it. I say “predictably” because if you hand a democratic vote to theocracy-loving people, chances are pretty good you’ll wind up with a theocracy. This is somewhat problematic for a deeply divided, non-homogeneous country like Iraq.

Even the bungling U.S. policy makers understood this at some level. From the Bremer regime of the early occupying authority to the political formulations that lead to the drafting of the constitution and the structuring of the electoral process, America did what it could to skew the results in favor of pro-American secularism. But as we are seeing elsewhere in the Middle East, sometimes people are finding that American backing alone is sufficient reason to vote against something.

The chickens came home to roost astonishingly quickly in the case of Iraq. In sports or business – or in just about any other context I can imagine – the managers responsible for a debacle of this order would be fired or would resign in disgrace. Acknowledgement of wrongdoing, or even of bad decision-making, is not, however, a trademark of the Bush Administration. Presidential Medals of Freedom (earned by Donald Rumsfeld, General Tommy Franks, Paul Bremer, and George Tenant) have replaced badges of shame.

But the American people, as a whole, also need a lesson in responsibility-taking. Some will say that, as complicated events are playing themselves out in far corners of the world, we lack the perspective to understand the implications and that we must rely on our leaders. That is a lame excuse in a democratic society.

The current rhetoric is that we were “misled into the war” by the trumped-up intelligence and bald lies elicited by Vice-President Cheney, Mr. Bush’s political advisers, and the National Security team. This is only true in the narrowest sense. Yes, the administration did its level-best to lie to us about Iraq’s destructive capacity and to distort its purportedly malicious intentions and associations. But even with a docile, compliant, somnolent press, we essentially knew that they were lying, even before the war. Even the Bush Administration was forced to change its tune. The ultimate justification for invading Iraq was said to be “regime change,” pure and simple.

How could we, as a democratic society, permit our leaders to engage in a war for the purpose of regime change? How does America, which so prizes the sovereignty of nations that it will not recognize the International Criminal Court, justify initiating mass bloodshed in order to depose the government of a sovereign state, no matter how evil or corrupt it might be. (And if evil and corruption were the gold-standard, Saddam would still be waiting for a battle-date while U.S. forces were busy wiping out a number of other, better candidates.) One does not need to have read much international law – though I have – to quickly come to the opinion that the waging of war in Iraq for purposes of regime change was flatly illegal. The concept is quite simple: for sovereign nations, regime change should begin (and end) at home.

So what is our responsibility, as “average American citizens,” for this blood-soaked, death-haunted fiasco? We have historically been quite ready to blame the common German citizen for the domestic and war crimes of their Nazi government and armed forces. The claims of “we didn’t know what was going on” and “after we voted them into power they became unmanageable” always sounded facile and disingenuous to our ears. But the German arguments against inculpation are no less feeble than our current apologia. In fact, they are essentially the same.

As Iraq spirals out of control, and killing begets evermore killing, and the Middle East dominoes start bouncing in ways that Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney never imagined through the euphoria of their global market vision, ask yourself: how much effort did I put forth to try to stop this Administration and to try to stop this war? This is a time of vast shame; and we should all be feeling it.

This should be a matter of introspection for all Americans; but our immediate concern must be the future of Iraq, and of America, not attribution of responsibility for errors already made.

In August of 2005, I wrote that we must reassess Colin Powell’s evocative “Pottery Barn Rule” — you break Iraq, you buy it. America desperately needed to shift the terms of debate from the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq war – a matter of seeming moral obviousness, but little current relevance – to a discussion about how and why to disengage. How far have we progressed in the last two years?

Since taking a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, and achieving an effective stalemate in the Senate, the democrats have been partially successful in refocusing the discussion. “To be (there) or not to be (there)?” is certainly the Shakespearean question-du-jour – if only because Richard III, like Mr. Bush, was scripted by his speechwriter in haughty declamations rather than soulful inquiry. Still, the disarray of the discourse is a perfect reflection of the chronic intellectual shallowness of the Democratic Party, coupled with the incessant dishonesty and astounding propaganda success of the Bush administration. Few American politicians are coherently focused on the three criteria that might help to answer the question and suggest a strategy: (1) how can we best fulfill our moral obligation to the Iraqis, whose country we have shredded? (2) how can we best re-stabilize this region which we have destabilized by bolstering political (and anarchic) elements inherently adversarial to the interests of both long-term peace and other American policy objectives? and (3) how can we mitigate the incalculable damage already done to American prestige, influence, and moral reputation? Instead, the political sparing is largely framed by vague, illusory, and ultimately irrelevant criterion of whether U.S. troops are achieving military success and the delusional, idiotic question of whether the Iraqi “government” is-or-will-ever-be, well, a government. In other words, the White House is once again in full control of the narrative.

It is perfectly clear why the democrats have adopted the president’s rules-of-engagement in this debate: they know the cold reality supports the mandate they were given in the 2006 mid-term elections to end the war. There is no reliable indication that the recent escalation of troop deployments, and the refocusing of operations in-and-around Baghdad, has had any real success in staunching the variegated violence – a confluence of civil war, non-political sectarian murder, and pure insurgency – that continues to bathe Iraq in blood. And it is simply laughable to suggest, as the Bush administration no-doubt will this week, that the al Maliki government (which has lost all Sunni participation, and has been heavily criticized in recent weeks by both U.S. lawmakers and the White House) and the Iraqi Parliament (which vacationed all of August, apparently finding no legislative work to be done) are capable of working-toward-someday-possibly-perhaps-achieving the minimal political “benchmarks” of stability, much less actually govern the country. And yet, the democrats will somehow manage to lose the argument, as they always do, unless the administration’s beknighted (and benighted) surrogate, General David Petraeus, suddenly develops the candor to match his undeniable brilliance when he delivers his long-awaited testimony to Congress.

Had America the moral courage and intellectual rigor to answer the questions of ethical imperative, regional stability, and international reputation, I would support remaining in Iraq while strategy was formulated to achieve those objectives. Sadly, our leaders have shown themselves incapable of addressing hard questions when politically expedient ones present themselves. Mr. Bush and his Republican supporters temporize, knowing that ongoing debate, though politically uncomfortable, buys time to “stay the course.” The democrats seem to understand they are being gamed, but have no clue as to what to do about it. Washington fiddles while Baghdad burns.

Those who argue that withdrawal will entail greater Iraqi bloodshed and fail to repair the damage done to American prestige are no-doubt correct; as are those who say that it will also gift regional dominance to Iran and embolden al Qaeda. The latter perils have already been comprehensively achieved, however, and the former end-points seem inevitable, whether American soldiers stay or leave. In the circumstances, there can be no justification for keeping U.S. troops on Iraqi soil for another day.

We have come a depressingly long way in six years. For the most part, Americans have been silent spectators to the American death-spiral. At what point do we-the-people-of-the-United-States decide to defend against the administration’s insidious defilement of our Constitution? When will we demand that our elected officials act in the public interest, rather than from political self-interest? When do we take to the streets to deliver the anti-war message that neither Mr. Bush, nor his nominal opposition in the Democratic Party seemed to get after the crystal-clear 2006 midterm congressional elections?

In early 2003, as the Bush administration sold the case for war in Iraq, hundreds of thousands marched in protest. Mr. Bush dismissed these committed displays of civic conscience, saying, “Size of protest is like deciding well I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group. Role of a leader is to decide policy based on the security, in this case the security of the people.” The administration’s refusal to acknowledge public opinion whenever it diverges from Mr. Bush’s is, indeed, discouraging; but it is not a legitimate excuse to cease opposition to wrongheaded, unjust government.

In a democracy – even a dysfunctional democracy like ours – we have no one to blame but ourselves for the appalling situation in which we find ourselves. The best time to have acted on our instincts of liberty and justice (and self-preservation) was six years ago. The second best time is now.

1 Response to “The Quiet American and the Cost of Civic Disengagement since 9/11”

  1. 1 millyonair 11 September 2007 at 7:24 am

    Oh, I agree entirely. But, international law and political responsibility aside, the real issues facing Americans today are these: A.) How fat did Britney Spears look at the MTV awards? and B.) Is she or is she not boozing and drugging again?

    A little discouragement might not be a valid reason not to oppose “wrongheaded, unjust government” but it’s certainly an adequate method to ensure that opposition is feeble at best. While it’s true that most Americans now disagree with the war in Iraq (at last), we also feel powerless to effect any kind of change. The message from the Bush administration has clearly been that it is prepared to ignore the wishes of the American people in favor of preserving their security. We’re not exactly a nation that cherishes personal responsibility – everything is someone else’s fault, hence all the absurd lawsuits that are a hallmark of the American legal system. Now, we’re happy to place the blame for hopeless mess in Iraq onto those incompetent powermongers (that we elected). In any case, we aren’t about to riot. As long as the “yucky” parts of the war remain far removed (i.e. overseas), and as long as we still have 700 billion channels on television and a stuffed-crust pizza on the way, we’re doomed to remain blissfully distracted and-

    Oh- the doorbell! I think it’s the pizza guy…

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