I think I've written enough pieces of personal recollection for the moment. I live in New York City now but I didn't five years ago. I lived in DC, close enough to the events of the day to feel part of it, but certainly not as much as many in the city on that day. Here's some reporting I did from downtown streets for Salon (see third item down) that day.
As a still relatively new New Yorker, I have a great deal of pride in this city, for reasons tied to 9/11 and many others. But my feelings on this fifth anniversary of that terrible day are more ones of regret for wrong paths taken, and not just bad decisions by the Bush administration -- about which everyone knows my views well enough -- but of the country more generally.
There's a good article in this month's Atlantic by James Fallows on where we stand in the War on Terror. It's a good semi-contrarian take on the question, the upshot of which is that over the last five years we've actually damaged al Qaida much more deeply than is commonly realized. With all the caveats about what can happen tomorrow, the consensus of the terrorism experts interviewed by Fallows was that al Qaida's ability launch 9/11 style attacks on the US has been very badly damaged. That's not widely understood or appreciated because it's not in either political party's interest to have this be known.
In any case, what stuck with me from the article was a comment from one of the people Fallows interviewed. It's not an unfamiliar argument. But from the perspective of 2006, it has a special salience. The point is that al Qaida itself does not pose an existential threat to our civilization. It can kill hundreds or even thousands of us. There's the outside chance of a catastrophic attack perhaps with hundreds of thousands of death, though most of the people Fallows spoke to think that it's far, far harder for al Qaida to get, say, a nuclear device than people imagine, particularly with the reduced means of al Qaida today. But if al Qaida itself doesn't threaten our civilization itself, our possible reactions to al Qaida's threat do. This is a elementary point about assymetrical warfare and the ways that a relatively weak group like al Qaida can leverage our own tremendous power against us.
This seems persuasive to me as an argument and it also seems borne out by the evidence of the last five years.
Our geopolitical and diplomatic posture certainly seems diminished. And I don't think there's any question that our military capacity has been reduced, both in the concrete sense of the grinding down of preparedness that has taken place in Iraq and also in the way that the limits of our military power has been displayed in that disastrous endeavor. Perhaps most of all though, I wonder about what we have allowed to happen to our national character.
Over the weekend I read one of the many 'why haven't we been hit again' articles. One I read, after disposing of many of the standard possible answers, proposed the following answer to the question: the reason we have not been hit again on our own soil after five long years is simply a sign of al Qaida's patience. They'll hit us at a time and place of their choosing.
That was just one article. And, like you, I'm dependent on the terrorism 'experts' for the specifics I fit into my estimations. But that sounds to me like the thinking of a country that has become addicted to fear and feelings of powerlessness. Or, perhaps better to say, one that sometimes seems caught in a vicious cycle of unrealistic feelings of powerlessness and self-defeating exertions of power.
Perhaps you're thinking this is too downcast a post for this unique day. And I don't want it to be. I see this city and its vitality. I see a country finally emerging from some of the greatest injuries of that day. And I see this country's resilience, the resilience of what it stands for and its enduring values.
But what seems to me to be one of the greatest injuries of that day is the way we now sometimes seem to mistake optimism for pessimism and vice versa. Persistent fear and retreat from our own ideals and power isn't optimism. It is the deepest and most pernicious form of self-doubt. Yes, something terrible and unthinkable could happen tomorrow. But none of us has more than a probable claim to life from one day to the next. And as a country we are neither weak nor threatened. With apologies for a perhaps over-used line, I can't help thinking of Franklin Roosevelt's "firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itselfânameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Doesn't it have an uncanny claim on this moment?
So my regret for today is that the way that al Qaida has gamed us into doing great damage to ourselves. And my feeling of optimism is the sense that tide may at last be turning.