What September 11 really meant

You've been sold a vast amount of nonsense about what the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 really meant. That is to say, why they happened, what caused them, how we should have reacted, and what really changed.

Like most empires in decline, we increasingly love anniversaries. This was the fifth, and unless you've been in a mineshaft in the Malagasy Republic, you can't help but have noticed that our politicians and media have been indulging in an orgy of wallowing in the memories of Sept. 11, 2001.

Every last relative of every last victim spent the week in grave danger of being dragged before some camera. Dubya desperately seized the opportunity to try to restore his plummeting popularity, visiting crash sites, wrapping himself in the flag, hoping people overlook the fact that he never managed to deliver on his promise to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.

Hoping, especially, that they wouldn't figure out that he has made the world a much more dangerous place for us, especially in the long run, than it was. He may be a divider and a dyslexic, but he ain't a quitter: Gamely, Bush minor tried once again to convince the folks that the insane war he plunged us into in Iraq is necessary and justified by his great mystical war on terror.

Alas, the polls show they increasingly ain't buying it. And humiliatingly, his fellow Republicans are starting to mostly avoid their president like the plague.

This is, after all, an election year, and President Bush is slightly less popular these days than Kaposi's sarcoma. When the Shrub showed up in Michigan last week, the only prominent GOPster who wanted to be near him was the man he was raising funds for, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, the underdog challenger to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

Privately, Republicans think control of the House of Representatives is probably gone. One GOP congressman told me he expected a loss of 30 seats. For the first time, even losing the U.S. Senate is starting to seem a possibility.

Back, however, to Sept. 11 itself.

Five years after the terrorist attacks, the media, especially the broadcast media, and especially the cable news networks — went utterly bananas.

Documentary after documentary, interview after interview. The newspapers were more restrained, but still ground out vapid stories about the Day That Changed Everything. In one of the more bizarre of these, Mitch Albom even appeared to be channeling the corpse of Bob Talbert at his worst.

"We miss when toothpaste was not considered a weapon ... we miss simplicity," Mitch wept. Brush 'em anyway, big guy, and suit up.

There were major exceptions, such as Frank Rich's brilliant piece in Sunday's New York Times. And then there was the piece that did say it all.

That is the September/October Foreign Policy magazine cover story, "The Day Nothing Much Changed," written by its managing editor, William J. Dobson. In four illustrated pages there is more truth than you could find in four years of TV news. Dobson demonstrates "what is remarkable is how little the world has changed," since Sept. 10, 2001. "The forces of globalization continue unabated; indeed, if anything, they have accelerated. The issues of the day that we were debating on that morning in September are largely the same."

The global economy was little affected; the U.S. economy bounced back fast. Americans are now traveling abroad more often than they were in 2001. Our government is issuing the same numbers of student visas; letting in almost as many immigrants. As the newspaper headlines just before the towers fell indicate, our national preoccupations, stem cell research, Israel-Arab confrontations, worrying about Iran's nuclear capability — are much the same.

Yes, it was "theatrical terrorism of the worst kind." Nobody over the age of 6 or so on Sept. 11 will ever forget those images. Yet as Frank Rich noted, "the new normal lasted about 10 minutes, except in airport check-ins."

But there indeed was a day which changed everything — a day which we have now forgotten, didn't pay enough attention to at the time, and without which the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, could never have happened.

That day was Dec. 31, 1991.

For what happened on that day was far more significant. Quietly, without fanfare, the Soviet Union finished dissolving itself, going out of business and upsetting the world order that had existed since the end of World War II.

From that moment on, the United States was the sole superpower ... "and from that moment on, the world was out of balance — and it still is," Dobson, a lawyer and longtime journalist covering international relations, writes.

That is why the United States was a target — there was no other game in town. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, Osama bin Laden had been far more concerned with Moscow than with Washington. Then, in the 1990s, Osama and his al Qaeda tried to overthrow various Arab regimes in the Middle East.

Those efforts were all colossal failures. So, "unable to accomplish his objectives in the Arab world, Osama bin Laden plotted to strike at the faraway enemy, the United States ... the colossus that for decades had helped shore up the bedrock of Arab regimes," the editor added.

That is what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

Today, the international system is even more out of whack than ever. There was one major effect of the terrorist attacks — a soaring Pentagon budget, a budget that was already huge before the first plane hit on that horrible day.

Before the towers fell, the United States spent as much on military stuff as the nations with the 14 next biggest military establishments — combined.

Last year, we outspent those countries by $116 billion. In part, that is due to our colossal failure of a war and occupation in Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan.

Communism and dictatorship are ghastly things. But in terms of loss of life and sheer misery, Yugoslavia, for example, was far better off under Marshal Tito than in the wars and genocide that replaced Communism in the 1990s.

And it is perfectly clear that Iraq — and the United States — would have been better off had Saddam remained in power.

The biggest tragedy of Sept. 11 is that it gave a narrow, ignorant, accidental president an excuse to attack the wrong enemy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some other president, including the one the people wanted to win the 2000 election, would have wiped out the Taliban, caught or killed the maniac bin Laden, and brought at least partial closure to the mess he began.

The tragedy, in the end, was far greater than the dead of the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Flight 93 tragedies. The tragedy was that when the attacks came, our country needed a statesman. What we got instead was a Bush.


Helen Thomas rides again: Helen Thomas, the legendary White House reporter turned columnist, will be the keynote speaker at the Oakland County Democratic Party's annual Phil Hart Dinner this Sunday at the Troy Hilton (phone 248-584-0510 for info). I'm not saying you ought to give money to the Democrats, but I do think you ought to hear her speak if you haven't done so. Besides telling the truth about the war right from the start, she is inspiring on two grounds. She is a proud native Detroiter and has done some of her best work since turning 80. (There may yet be hope for this column.)

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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