Welcome to the Year One

October 5, 2001

You have to be careful what you say now, Ari Fleischer said, and though he has been caught in many lies and manipulations, he is right about that. If I want to say anything positive about September 11, it would better to think of the catastrophe for a moment as if it were a natural disaster. Anything positive that comes from it must not be confused with the motives of whoever did it.

In our individual lives we find that every bad experience, no matter how wretched, inevitably brings something positive, and it inevitably brings opportunities that would not have come about without the misfortune. This is not to say that it makes up for the loss. Many losses can never be compensated for as such. But it is also inevitable, that some good will come from every disaster. It is one thing we may tell ourselves when we are stricken with grief over loss. Someday, something good will come from this.

The worse the disaster -- the harder the hit -- the more potential it has to bring about positive change. No American has ever seen anything like what happened when the World Trade Center was destroyed, when it was transformed into a massive sledge hammer that brutally destroyed thousands of lives. The calamity is incalculable. The amount of suffering and destruction is more than one person has the capacity to comprehend. Three weeks later the shock and grief is only beginning to lift. It will take a long period of contemplation to even begin to assimilate what happened and all its repercussions.

Because the Trade Center was such a spectacular symbol, its destruction impresses itself powerfully even on those of us who did not lose anyone in the collapse. To those of us for whom the towers were a part of our daily lives, the space in the skyline is an ever present reminder of the horror of what happened that day, of the immensity of power that was turned to such monstrously murderous ends.

George W quickly turned to the subject of warfare and declared giddily that we were in "the first war of the 21st century," and that it would last for a long, long time. One could almost see his supporters in the oil and defense industries rubbing their hands together. CNN immediately took the cue and within a couple of days of the attack was constantly running a banner that said "America's New War," relentlessly hammering on the theme, almost as if in celebration. But full blown as the propaganda campaign was, the people did not go for it. Polls showed a huge majority did not want to see more killing of innocents. Though the population was hungry for vengeance and justice for the perpetrators, they were newly sensitized to the suffering of those they formerly heard mentioned only as "collateral damage."

Frivolity and self centeredness were shaken from the culture and Americans were thrust onto a new, more profound level of awareness. The administration intelligently eased back from its initial war posturing and found itself negotiating in a playing field no longer entirely of its own making. Suddenly the group who had defied all domestic and international forces were paying attention to opinions both at home and abroad. They had to. No one has unilateral control in this brave new world. They thought the world's sole superpower could do whatever it wanted. They were wrong.

The contradictions were too blatant to play well on the world stage. When George W said, "They hate what they see in this room, a government elected by the people. Their leaders are self-selected." No matter how amnesiac the culture, with the CNN and Fox ministries of information wiping history away daily, the Supreme Court appointment of Bush in blatant defiance of democratic and legal principles cannot be wiped entirely from memory even by as colossal a catastrophe as September 11.

When Bush said, "They hate us because we are free," it didn't sit well with anti-terrorism proposals that struck down the Constitutional prohibition against illegal search and seizure and against imprisoning people without due process. When he called our struggle "a battle between good and evil," because innocent people were killed, many people's consciences were aroused by memories of innocents killed by American military actions in many countries around the world.

There has been confusion -- perhaps encouraged purposely by some -- between understanding the reasons America is so hated, and justifying the destruction and carnage of September 11. But learning to accommodate those contradictions will be part of America's coming of age, its rising to a level of a true world leader, one that inspires support of others through example, not one that tries to force compliance with raw military power. America must care what others think. Diplomacy must be part of its national security strategy. No country is invulnerable, omnipotent.

The gash in the Trade Center left a gaping wound in the soul of America. America has been chastened. And from these ashes, the new world will rise. Americans have found new depths of compassion and understanding within themselves. They have rediscovered the value of their free society and the principles of democratic government, justice and civil rights that have been struggled for by previous generations. When the power mongers tried to use the tragedy as an opportunity to further their agenda of rolling back constitutional rights and expanding federal police power, they met resistance from both "the right" and "the left." The monolithic control of the Bush faction has given way to a new balance of national and world power. The new world is making itself before our eyes. No one can predict the course of events. But it appears a new sense of patriotism has been aroused and it goes deeper than jingoistic war fever. Americans have a new appreciation for what really makes the country great: the spirit of freedom for all, equally. Poorly as the ideals may have been realized, they are still worth striving for, and Americans have been aroused from apathy and are taking up the struggle again.

Much political ground was also lost. Bush's tax giveaway to the rich destroyed the boundary preventing the plundering of the Social Security fund and that issue and many other considerations were lost in the crisis. The attack was timed perfectly to divert attention from his accountability for rapidly destroying the fiscal stability so laboriously built in the Clinton years. But an attempt to attach an arctic oil drilling bill to an emergency measure was thwarted. Ashcroft had to temper his demands to carve into the Bill of Rights. Things have not been as bad as it looked like they might become when it seemed the cry for unity had become yet another excuse for the right wing to run its brutal minority agenda on an unwilling majority.

The 21st century began on September 11. Its history is playing out beyond the control of anyone, but somehow guided by the collective soul of humanity. Where it goes, nobody knows. But somehow there is a sense that now Americans are awake and at least heading into it with some cognizance of the dangers, the destructive powers that are out of control. And that awareness vastly improves the chances of humanity for survival.

--by David Cogswell