The smoke and dust from the ruin of the World Trade Center towers has cleared and visitors to the site -- an estimated 3.6 million of them, according to The New York Times -- can now breathe easier as they gaze down into the hulking crater and up at the gap in the skyline created when the towers fell Sept. 11, 2001.
What are they looking for, these curious millions? Are they remembering the past or imagining the future? It is safe to say that the future in which we find ourselves is very unlike the one we imagined on that dark day a year ago, the day when everything changed. And things have changed -- just not in the way we expected.
What were you afraid of on Sept. 11? What frightens you today, one year later? Chances are, the two answers are quite different. On that horrifying day, we had a common enemy: the individuals who committed this unspeakable crime. Americans had never been more united. But today, our fears have largely dissipated, and it is no longer clear who the real enemy is. Despite the efforts of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Bush Administration to keep the public at a fever pitch of paranoia, most of us are afraid of more visceral threats than lurking terrorists, "dirty" bombs or anthrax.
We are afraid of corrupt corporate executives, afraid of what a crumbling economy and a crashing stock market will mean to our jobs and our retirement savings. We are afraid of predatory pedophile priests. Increasingly, we are afraid of our own government. One year after the attacks, we are finally learning to distinguish real menaces from manufactured hysteria.
On this one-year anniversary, it is no longer possible to view the act as isolated from the consequences. New events, in many ways more far-reaching, have overtaken it. In fundamental ways the tragedy has been taken away from us, devoured by our all-enveloping media and twisted by political forces intent upon imposing their wills on the public.
Everyone with an agenda to advance has taken up Sept. 11 as an explanation, a rationale, a reason for their point of view and way of thinking. This has provoked new battles each day, as the Bush administration, loser in the popular vote and elected by the Supreme Court, aggressively attempts to use the war on terrorism to justify its destructive policies, from drilling for oil in Alaska and expanding police powers to dramatically increasing the military budget and unilaterally abrogating treaties that were signed years ago.
One reason why our expectations were distorted is that the attacks were falsely framed. A singular and unbelievably "lucky" criminal act carried out by a small group of fanatics acting on behalf of no government was declared an act of war by Bush, Cheney and the mainstream media. Thus Sept. 11 created an opportunity to initiate the perpetual war against terrorism that we have been fighting ever since.
As John Tirman, program director of the Social Science Research Council, writes, "It is conceivable -- likely, even -- that the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, were a one-time catastrophe; if there is a determined network of terrorists ready to strike again, expect them to set forest fires, not to ram a truck into the Lincoln Memorial. The plain fact is that not a single, credible threat has been revealed by the U.S. government since that sad day. The thought that we need to spend $100 billion of tax money annually, and much more in private funds and opportunity costs, to Ã?protect' against such a threat is, at the least, questionable."
What we gave up
In his first address to the nation after Sept. 11, President Bush said America had been attacked for being a beacon of freedom and opportunity in the world. Yet over the past year, his administration has done its best to deprive us of some of those very freedoms. The USA/PATRIOT Act (passed hastily and with little dissent in October) was the first salvo in a series of new legislation aimed at arming the government with an expansive array of powers, putting our very basic rights, be it due process or privacy, in jeopardy.
Nowhere has the Bush administration's agenda found greater expression than in U.S. foreign policy, which shows signs of returning to its ugly Cold War roots. The modest gains of the past decade have been wiped away within a year. Controls on military spending, declassification of documents, limitations on the drug war, and renewed emphasis on human rights and environmental standards are all now distant memories.
The United States has consistently undermined new multilateral human-rights agreements, including the creation of an International Criminal Court to try war crimes, and the international torture convention. Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has offered law enforcement or military training to a growing list of new and old allies -- Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Colombia and Indonesia -- who have shameful records of ongoing human-rights violations, including torture and assassination. In June, the president received from Congress an additional $1 billion for training programs and permission to lift all aid restrictions based on human-rights concerns.
The most significant change, which will have both international and domestic consequences, is the skyrocketing increase in military budgets. In February, the president proposed a $2.1 trillion wartime budget over the next five years, which included $396 billion in military spending for fiscal year 2003 as well as a contingency for another $10 billion to pay for the war in Afghanistan. The Pentagon's total proposed budget will be the biggest since the Cold War. "In combination with the tax cuts," John Tirman writes, "this Pentagon spree is likely to sink the economy with deficit spending."
It is uncertain how much longer the Bush administration's preoccupation with the war on terrorism will hold the public's attention, as citizens grapple with real, day-to-day problems. Many signs point to a growing backlash that may soon reach its tipping point. There is powerful momentum in the activist community as groups organize protests against civil-liberties abuses and the ongoing bombing of Afghanistan. Groups like the ACLU have been working tirelessly to protect the rights of immigrants. And many Americans are waking up to the reality that there is a war to be fought, but it is not in Iraq. As Richard Grasso, chairman of the NYSE, said recently, "We've got to wage a war against terrorism in the boardroom, against misleading investors."
It is the public's loss of confidence in business and corporations -- the loss of faith that corporate America could be counted on for our sources of wealth and progress -- that will likely far outweigh the impact of Sept. 11 in the long run. "Big business is increasingly viewed as the biggest threat to America's future," writes pollster Ruy Teixeira in "The American Prospect."
"Is there any doubt that the chicanery of Enron executives and that of a growing who's who of corporate CEOs has done more long-term damage to the U.S. economy that the efforts of anti-American terrorists?" asks columnist Robert Sheer. "We ought to wake up to the reality that business greed is subverting the American way of life -- and hurting the image of American capitalism and democracy -- more effectively than the ploys of any foreign enemy."
It is no surprise that in the face of failed domestic policies, the stock-market plunge and tense Congressional contests, the White House has tried hard to put the invasion of Iraq front and center. Yet public support for attacking Iraq is dwindling, and the false consensus built on fear and apathy is finally showing signs of falling apart. An Aug. 23 USA Today poll shows just 53 percent of Americans in favor of sending ground troops to the Persian Gulf, down from 74 percent in November 2001. The same poll found Bush's approval rating at 65 percent -- still healthy, but at its lowest since before the attacks.
Fear of terrorism is now a distant fifth in the list of top issues in the upcoming Congressional races. The economy is the No. 1 issue for voters, followed by Social Security and Medicare, education and affordable health care. In a vivid example of how restless the populace is growing with the direction of its leadership, 56 percent of Americans now think the country is headed in the wrong direction, up from 39 percent just one month ago.
One of the most dramatic signs of the backlash are the woes that have lately plagued John Ashcroft, the main advocate for repressive legislation. In a front-page article in July, The New York Times revealed that several members of the Bush administration have expressed concern that Ashcroft "seems to be overstating the evidence of terrorist threats." Even religious conservatives, typically Ashcroft's most staunch supporters, "have become deeply troubled by his actions. ... They cite his anti-terrorist positions as enhancing the kind of government power that they instinctively oppose."
On the heels of this revelation came an order by a federal judge demanding that the Justice Department release the names of those detained after Sept. 11, some 1,200 immigrants of Arab and South Asian descent. Recently it was made public that the secretive U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, concerned about Ashcroft's aggressive tactics, has ordered him to scale back his spying efforts considerably. And then there is the downfall of the attorney general's pet project, TIPS (the Terrorist Information and Protection System). After harsh condemnation from across the political spectrum, and efforts (led by arch-Republican Dick Armey) to ban the measure, TIPS is dead in the water.
For months after the attacks, the media treated virtually every announcement of an arrest or bomb alert as a feeding frenzy with little critical analysis. News coverage was a constant flurry of dramatic events, stripped of their broader context, thereby exacerbating the climate of fear.
But the media is finally showing signs of maturity, asking tough questions on a wide range of issues, including civilian deaths in Afghanistan, the suspension of civil liberties and constitutional rights domestically, and the rampant corruption in many corporations.
CBS anchorman Dan Rather is a bellwether for the mainstream media's change of heart. Just after Sept. 11 many highly visible media commentators felt the need to prove their patriotic credentials at the expense of their commitment to their trade. Rather went on the David Letterman show to declare his fealty to George Bush: "Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where."
The same Dan Rather recently admitted that many members of the U.S. media were reluctant to ask tough questions about the war on terrorism out of fear of being labeled unpatriotic. "What we are talking about here -- whether one wants to recognize it or not, or call it by its proper name or not -- is a form of self-censorship. I worry that patriotism run amok will trample the very values that the country seeks to defend."
One astonishing post-attack phenomenon has been the popularity of radical authors like Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, who have each sold hundreds of thousands of books highly critical of Bush and the war on terrorism. The popularity of these writers "as dissenting authors has extended beyond the liberal fringe and represents the fruits of a grassroots movement that corporate America, and potentially the government, can no longer ignore," writes Eric Demby in The Village Voice.
After battling with publisher Harper Collins to get his book distributed, Moore promptly sold more than 500,000 copies of "Stupid White Men." The book has perched on The New York Times best-seller list for 25 consecutive weeks, sitting at No. 1 for 13 of those weeks, making it one of the top sellers of 2002.
Moore has become convinced, as he travels around the country, that he is no longer preaching to the converted. "I look out at the auditorium and I don't see tree huggers and the granola heads. I see Mr. and Mrs. Middle America who voted for George Bush and who just lost $60,000 because their 401(k) is gone. And they believed in the American Dream as it was designed by the Bushes and Wall Street, and then they woke up to realize it was just that -- a dream," he told the Voice.
Noam Chomsky's book "9/11," in which he calls the U.S. one of the world's leading terrorist states, has passed the 200,000 mark, and has also sat on a number of best-seller lists, surprising even Chomsky. "For many people," he says, "the atrocities of 9/11 were a kind of wake-up call, which has lead to considerable openness, concern, skepticism and dissidence."
As the nation reflects on the one-year anniversary of the attacks, Americans struggle to make sense of it all. We are blanketed by media coverage from every conceivable angle, confused by powerful emotions. In many cases, the lessons and the personal sorrow of Sept. 11 have been exploited by the media: the attacks turned into spectacle and the disaster site reduced to maudlin entertainment.
As Michelle Goldberg writes on Salon, "Some people, perhaps many, visit Ground Zero to pay their respects -- to get a sense of the enormity of what happened. Yet, the atmosphere at Ground Zero is nearly devoid of somber reverence. It feels like just another sentimental landmark, a place for people to get their picture taken so they can tell the folks back home that they were there."
It has been a difficult year, but we are learning to put the event and its aftermath into perspective. Many Americans now appreciate the profound consequences the tragedy has had on individual lives, but they no longer allow Sept. 11 to exclusively shape their way of looking at the world. We are gradually becoming more aware of what is truly important. On this anniversary of the darkest day in American history, we must remind ourselves of what we still have: the power and the means to make a difference.