What might have been 

A glimpse into an alternate past, and the way forward

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You may be reluctant to be dragged back into thinking about Sept. 11, now that we've just completed a weekend of wallowing in remembrance of the tragedy that killed nearly 3,000 people.

No, nobody breathed a word, so far as I can tell, about the more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians who died as a consequence of our actions following the terrorist attacks.

Nor did anyone say much about the nearly 7,000 U.S. soldiers and "contractors" who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since, in wars still going on for no apparent rational reason.

That doesn't mean Sept. 11's victims of irrational Islamic terror shouldn't be remembered. Just that we should not forget that their families aren't alone in suffering, or that countless other nameless families weep in nameless villages as a result.

And we should remember too, that it could have been very different. What follows is what I wish I could have written this week:

 

When we look back on Sept. 11 today, it is hard to imagine that it could have been worse.

Much worse. Just consider — what if Al Gore had not been elected president 10 months before? What if we'd had as president a man who was cheerfully ignorant of foreign policy? A man who had said he was hot to invade Iraq and avenge his father, or complete his father's mission, and who said from his Texas ranch the day after the terrorist attacks that he "thought Saddam had done it." 

We almost did. I mean, of course, George W. Bush, the former governor of Texas, the guy who now does TV commercials for Halliburton. You may have forgotten this, but he almost became president. He would have, too despite losing the popular vote, if Al Gore hadn't won Florida by a mere 9,547 votes on Nov. 7, 2000.

In fact, there's a political scientist at Harvard who claims that if Florida hadn't been forced to clean up its election procedures in 1999, Gore might well have lost. One of the counties used something called a "butterfly ballot" in which it was very easy to cast a vote for the wrong candidate, and much of the state used out-of-date punch cards, like the ones that sabotaged Detroit's returns in the 1970 election.

Today, Middle East experts are pretty unanimous in saying that the best thing Gore did was to insist that al-Qaeda was, essentially a well-endowed, nihilist band of half-cult, half-killer thugs, and needed to be treated like an outlaw gang, not a nation-state.

When President Gore said that in 2001, he drew howls of protest from the Republicans, and some of their wackier members in Congress even threatened impeachment.

They said our limited invasion of Afghanistan was too weak a response. Probably the low point came when Vice President Joe Lieberman resigned.

But the strategy worked. Republicans weren't happy that it took nine months to isolate and kill Osama bin Laden in his cave. But they can't deny that the starch seemed to have gone out of al-Qaeda after that. Nobody ever wins praises or prizes for a negative. Yet it has to be observed that there was no real infringement on civil liberties in the months and years that followed.

No curtailment of freedom — no prison camps here, just holding pens in Afghanistan. The Afghan war and the mild recession that followed did produce three years of budget deficits that were mild by Reagan standards. But the stock market barely retreated, and by 2006 the budget once again struggled into balance.

Al Gore did make mistakes — or at least found out he couldn't please everybody. The economic rebound was strong enough by 2004 that he became the first Democrat since LBJ to win more than 400 electoral votes, burying challenger Newt Gingrich.

But in 2008, Mitt Romney managed to win the presidency in a close election by charging that the Democrats under Gore had neglected domestic concerns. He couldn't touch him on foreign policy. 

Gore's Nobel Peace Prize that year was the least surprising award in the history of the award once the United States' new respect among the Arab nations helped him broker the deal with Israeli Prime Minister Tzipi Livni that resulted, finally in a Palestinian state. Yet Americans still wanted a change after two Democratic presidents, and Romney cleverly figured out how to appeal to them.

He managed to narrowly defeat Vice President Evan Bayh by arguing that the top priority should be a national health care system like the one he had inaugurated as governor of Massachusetts.

Bayh agreed, but wanted a largely single-payer health care plan. Republicans, of course, said that was socialism.

Romney is a minority president, of course; the "True America" ticket of Ron Paul and Richard Shelby got 8 million votes, largely from libertarians and those who don't think Mormons are Christians.

But the Republicans captured Congress, and so now we have Romneycare. Interestingly, the only Democratic vote in favor of it in the U.S. Senate was cast by a charismatic second-term senator from Illinois with the unlikely name of Barack Obama. 

There are those who say we should keep our eye on him.

 

Well, that's not the world we have today. But we can dream. 

I think most of this could have come true, although it might have been harder to neutralize the far-right lunatics than I want to pretend. However, we clearly could have done better. 

Better than a world where we are involved still in two pointless wars that we have been — admit it — mostly losing. Better than a world where our own government has abused its power and trampled the civil liberties of American citizens.

Some good things have come out of Sept. 11. At least in this part of the world, most Americans know more about Islam and Arab and Muslim Americans than they did on that day.

In Dearborn, there seems to be much more tolerance and acceptance on the part of both European and Middle Eastern Americans. Open bigotry is no longer socially acceptable.

Leaders of those communities, in a refreshing sign of growing confidence, are increasingly willing to criticize their own groups as well as others. At a panel I moderated over the weekend, Dawud Walid, the executive director of Michigan's Council of American-Islamic Relations, reminded people that most Arab Americans are not Muslims — and most Muslim Americans are, like himself, not Arabs.

He challenged the community to produce imams who were American and could speak to American concerns.

Salam Al-Maryati, national president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said Muslims needed to do a much better job interacting with Christians and Jews. He urged them to tell their own stories. "When Richard Nixon said, 'I am not a crook,' what did everyone think? So we need to stop saying, 'I am not a terrorist,' and instead tell people who we are, not who we are not," he said.

Nobody knows how Sept. 11 will be remembered in the future, except that eventually, the anniversary will be gradually forgotten as it fades in time and new disasters occur.

Yet it would be nice if, a century from now, we remembered it as a sad milestone that started the process of greater understanding.

And as a day for borrowing the words, never again.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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