September 11, 2001 was a pristine day across North America. Cool, crisp, and above all, crystal clear. The kind of blue sky no color palette can replicate. Conditions pilots yearn for.
I awoke just before dawn in the “Holidome” Holiday Inn in Salina, Kansas, in one of those 1970s-style hotels where each room faces a cavernous atrium for easy access to everything from shuffleboard to an indoor pool that permeates every molecule of air in the hotel with the stench of chlorine. I had landed the night before at the Salina Municipal Airport in a Bell Helicopter 206L with my co-pilot, Dennis Lang, after attending a family funeral in South Dakota. We were en route back to Dallas, Texas when the world, or at least America’s view of the world and its role in it, changed in the span of a little more than an hour. What I didn’t know at the time was that this date would also come to mark the beginning of the end of the American empire. America’s “unipolar moment” of unmatched power (as international relations scholars have called it) would subsequently be squandered in fits of accelerating hubris, deceit, and within two decades, cruelty.
After a barely edible breakfast served by a surly waitress in the atrium of the inn, Dennis and I took a shuttle to the airport arriving just as American flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. The flight from Boston to Los Angeles cleaved the tower leaving a near-perfect image of the fuselage and its wingspan. Weeks later I learned that of the three people I knew who lost their lives that day, two were on that plane and the other was killed as a result of it turning the floors above its impact into an unsurvivable inferno. Years later I wept, standing before their names carved into the smooth black granite of the 9/11 memorial. Like every non-terrorist who perished that day, they were among the innocents; young men with families and full lives ahead of them. All I suffered was a scarred soul; twenty years later the pain lingers. We managed to receive a clearance for takeoff just as United Airlines flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. I pulled all the power that helicopter had and headed into those pristine skies with only one thought in mind: get home.
To stay informed in the cockpit, we listened to Peter Jennings on ABC radio as we calculated our course, airspeed, and fuel levels in a long shot attempt to make it to Dallas in one hop. Jennings, who had given up smoking some years before, relapsed under the stress of 9/11 and started smoking again. He died of lung cancer four years later. Shortly after we cleared Salina to the south, the feared but expected order came from Kansas City Center Control: “all aircraft land immediately nearest airport.” As clear as that instruction was, we considered it as any helicopter pilot might, with equal parts of indignation and arrogance. Surely, we thought, that order is only meant for airplanes. We decided to keep going; low, fast, and outside of controlled airspace to see how close we could get to Dallas. As we came abeam Wichita, Kansas, Dennis said, “Uh oh, take a look to the east at ten o’clock.” Two stealth bombers were departing McConnell Air Force Base accompanied by four fighter jets. As they swept into the sky, they looked like two giant stingrays stalked by small dark pilot fish. It was time to talk to the tower in Wichita.
Given its geographic position in the center of the United States, and distance from any other airport of significant size, Wichita was being slammed by requests to land by aircraft from all over the world that were flying across the continent to faraway destinations. The woman in the tower who responded to my call was impressively calm and efficient during what had to be the busiest day in her career and in the history of the airport. She ordered, “November one-alpha-hotel, turn left heading zero-niner-zero and make approach to taxiway following Super-80 on final and in front of the Airbus turning final.” Following a rather acrobatic landing, necessary to avoid the wake turbulence produced by larger aircraft, I scrambled to get a rental car and hotel room while Dennis secured the helicopter. The last planes that landed that morning in Wichita were parked at the ends of the runway. Every square foot of pavement—including tarmacs and taxiways—was covered with aircraft.
Dennis and I checked into the Red Roof Inn adjacent to the airport along with other stunned travelers and flight crews who all had the same two questions on their minds: what in the hell just happened and, most especially, when can we get back out of here? Despite all the uncertainty and fear that were descending like a cloud bank on an otherwise beautiful day, the hotel remained eerily quiet save the drone of CNN emanating from every TV day and night. But, that first night of our unintended sequestration, the paper-thin walls proved no match for the sounds that still haunt my memory: the mournful sobs of flight attendants who realized how brutally those who served their final flights that morning had died—throats slashed with boxcutters by terrorists looking forward to the seventy-two virgins they had been promised in their twisted jihadist version of heaven. It took a couple of days, but Dennis—a cunning gnome of the skies—finagled the first clearance to depart Wichita after the events of September 11th. I am not sure what he said to air traffic control, but I hope most of it was true. We made it as far as Ardmore, Oklahoma, when we were ordered to land again. There was no way air traffic control was going to allow us to penetrate the airspace of Dallas-Fort Worth. To get home, we rented the only vehicle we could find, a van with two seats in front and none in back. It smelled like its prior usage had been for human trafficking, but it got us home.
For those of you who remember the days that followed, the most pervasive emotion was fear. The fear of where will they strike next? As I came to understand after interviewing several Bush administration officials years later, that fear nearly paralyzed the administration; they were determined to circumvent any further attacks on America and Americans throughout the world. To their credit, they largely succeeded. I remember thinking twice about attending a high school football game at Aubrey High School in North Texas for fear a bomb would be detonated by al-Qaeda below the grandstands. (That’s what a few days locked down in Wichita will do to your mind.) That was the first time self-isolation seemed like the best strategy; something we all have learned to practice during the pandemic.
Fear became a powerful unifier, which seems somewhat quaint today as we have subsequently seen fear used as a powerful divider. But, united we stood. Never before or since have so many American flags been purchased and flown from virtually anywhere one could find to hoist the stars and stripes. Not the modified American flags people display today that represent their political tribe, just the red-white-and blue Old Glory. Recruiting centers for our military were swamped with new applicants who wanted to exact their own measure of revenge on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. With the exception of a few ignorant bigots who attacked mosques in America, most simply rallied around the flag; but, eventually, fear-driven patriotism waned and anger kicked in. Then, hubris. We were, after all, the world’s lone superpower and the Bush-Cheney administration wanted to display that power in the most devastating manner possible. Consideration of the national interest and the attendant discipline to pursue well-defined objectives—the hallmark of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy—were thrown out the window in favor of reckless revenge promoted mostly by men who had never seen a battlefield in uniform.
Lest we forget, Operation Desert Storm conducted by Bush 41 that removed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was executed after Hussein had ignored sanctions of the United Nations, and after an international coalition had been formed and the operation had been authorized by Congress. Combat lasted just six weeks and American casualties numbered 148. Saddam Hussein retreated to his palace in Baghdad and Kuwait was freed. Compare that to the thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent over the last twenty years in Iraq and Afghanistan only to finally leave—just days ago—with little to nothing to claim as our winnings. Biden is getting the blame and the Bush-Cheney folks are mostly mute. But these days, the truth is buried under a mountain of deceits. We have become extraordinarily skilled at collective self-deception. Perhaps because the truth is just too embarrassing and painful to bear.
As the Bush 43 administration drew to a close in 2008, and the economy was being crushed by many ill-considered deregulations in our financial markets, a tall, skinny, lanky young man from Illinois—who cast himself as the next Lincoln from the same state—raised his hand to become the 44th president of the United States. Barack Hussein Obama, born of a white mother and black father, had the cojones to believe that Americans would put a black man with a funny name in the White House while a white woman named Hillary—of the Clinton Democratic Party dynasty—claimed it was her turn. What on earth could he have been thinking, or smoking? However, one of the things a person of Obama’s rather challenging profile learn is that to succeed in life, you must lead with fists clenched knowing you are going to get knocked down—over and over—but that if you keep getting back up, eventually those with more advantaged backgrounds will move out of the way as they succumb to a weakness of resolve born from their many entitlements.
To be clear, Obama didn’t exactly come from nowhere. He had killed it with his address four years prior at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Delegates and political kingmakers were awestruck at the state senator from Illinois. In his speech, he began by connecting with audiences in the arena and at home by presenting himself as evidence that in America anything is possible—that he would not be speaking as the convention’s keynote speaker if America was not a place where dreams could come true. In so doing, he gave us access to our own dreams and possibilities and, moreover, he personified hope. He called this “the true genius of America—a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles.” After years of fear and anger following 9/11, hope was ascendent once again, purveyed by a curious and unlikely messenger.
In March 2008, in one of his best speeches among many great speeches, Obama addressed the proverbial elephant in American politics and culture: the color of his skin. It was prompted by criticism of his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago who had given many fiery sermons on race relations in America that later caused John McCain’s running mate from Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin, to accuse Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” Obama confronted “black anger” and “white resentment” so effectively that it reminded me of when John F. Kennedy confronted criticism of his Catholicism in an address in Houston to protestant ministers in 1960. Once again, Obama’s hope-based rhetoric and intentional linkage of himself to Abraham Lincoln turned a political sinkhole for his campaign into a springboard.
In his remarks titled, “A More Perfect Union,” he reminded us that our Constitution—while failing to directly correct the stain of “this nation’s original sin of slavery” at the time of its adoption—allowed room for “Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part … to narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.” This was classic Obama, weaving both realism and idealism together to bring a calm clarity to his message while never slipping into the blame and shame game so prevalent—then and today— among those who intend to advance a progressive agenda. He never allowed his anger to subvert his higher aim: hope. His hope endured, but the change he promised to accompany it—the prospect of being a transformative president—would run into a juggernaut of thinly veiled racism that could not stomach a black man in the White House led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who made clear he would do everything in his power to assure Obama was “a one-term president.”
At the time of Obama’s election, I was living in Texas where, with the exception a couple of years spent in Washington D.C., I had resided since 1982. In my years there prior to his election, I had rarely witnessed overt racism. I expected it having been warned of southern dispositions prior to moving there from Seattle, but besides the institutional racism that was endemic throughout the United States, I rarely saw anything approaching racial conflict between whites and blacks. That changed once Obama became president. The “N” word, which was never used by anyone in my presence prior to his election, started to creep into otherwise normal conversations, used by folks I had known for years.
As Obama neared the end of his first term, racist bumper stickers started to appear on several cars in the Dallas area and stars and bars flags (aka Confederate flags) were hung in the rear windows of many pickup trucks and semi tractors. In the carpool line at my daughter’s private Episcopal school, a mother in a Cadillac Escalade had a bumper sticker with a black stick figure sodomizing a white stick figure with the phrase “Are we really going to take it this way for four more years?” printed below the illustration. Another popular bumper sticker signaled the melding of evangelicalism with racism in its citation of Psalms 109:8, “May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership” as a signal to Christians to rid the country of the scourge of Obama. By the newly antagonized white Christian nationalists this became known as “the Obama prayer.” Change did come, but it wasn’t the kind of change Obama had in mind. It was a shift from hope to cruelty, ushered in most aggressively by a self-proclaimed tycoon from New York City: Donald J. Trump.
Trump had learned his racism at the knee of his father and at the counsel of his father’s attorney, Roy Cohn (former aid to the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin). As real estate developers in New York, their racism was economically based. They equated people of color—any color—to be bad for business. But “the Donald,” as he liked to be called, saw a new path for his racism: to promote himself as a political great white hope. His angle: call to question the authenticity of Obama’s citizenship—so called birtherism. Trump’s incessant attempts to disqualify Obama’s presidency in this manner also gave rise to his favorite technique to discredit others and project deceits throughout his own presidency. The “Well, you know, many people are saying … ” this or that in an attempt to affect uncertainty and cast aspersions. It is a cheap middle-school grade rhetorical trick, but also proved to be very effective as he conveyed 30,573 false or misleading claims during his presidency—roughly 80% of everything that left his (public) mouth from 2017-2021.
The Cruelty is the Point, a recent book by Adam Serwer, chronicles the legacy of the Donald J. Trump presidency as it illustrates through this lens of cruelty the innumerable inhumane acts by Trump and his acolytes like Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ron DeSantis, Matt Gaetz, Greg Abbott, Josh Hawley, Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan, and so forth. Immigration, healthcare, climate change, education, abortion, human and civil rights—regardless of the issue, the Trump modality always includes some form of cruelty. As Serwer argues, cruelty not only satisfies the male adolescent desire to dominate others, it is a powerful binding agent between like-minded people. As a community, Trump supporters rejoice “in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.” A man whose claims—from his education to his wealth—that are routinely recognized as fraud once the facts are known, finds comfort and validation in his capacity to hurt others. This is the Trump legacy, but it does not have to be ours.
As Americans, our day of reckoning is upon us. It is not coming; it is here.
Osama bin Laden presented us with a crisis on 9/11. Every crisis is a test. How we respond to the crisis is the real test. In the face of the 9/11 attacks we—at first—united due to our collective fear. But then, fear gave way to anger and ultimately hubris. An unchecked power, as the United States was in the early 2000s, is a danger to everyone, but most especially to itself. Empires are seldom defeated by a greater power; they almost always defeat themselves. We were offered a reprieve by the presidency of Barack Obama—a chance to return to the high road of virtue and integrity. To revisit the ideals of our founders who saw America as a beacon of hope formed in spite of our sins and transgressions; the greatest of which was slavery. But we allowed the racism that made that sin possible to be reborn and worse: we allowed its basis in cruelty to metastasize throughout our culture.
Today, the world looks upon America as a pathetic shell of its former greatness. They do so with a mix of scorn and fear as they look at the option of a world dominated by China. No, not Russia, China. An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal recently characterized the state of our union as the “Golden Age of Stupidity.” I observe what I have written about elsewhere—what I have called “a pride of ignorance”—spreading from its origins in the South like the delta variant from coast to coast and from border to border. Frankly, it frightens me beyond words. I keep thinking—hoping—that a bright political star will rise again, or a technological innovation will vanquish the threat of climate change, or some other providential stroke of luck will save us. However, such good fortune rarely visits unworthy people.
If you read these posts regularly, you know that I try to nudge, cajole, and even beg people to summon their better selves. Unfortunately, nearly everywhere I look today, I see cruelty, stupidity, greed, sloth, and systemic failures. These are not the behaviors of a superpower. They are evidence of an empire slipping into a slow-burn descent into irrelevance. Most Americans are in denial, or turning an apathetic blind eye or, like the proverbial frog in the pot of soon-to-be boiling water, think how lovely it is that the water is warming. Too few of us are behaving like we deserve to call ourselves Americans in the manner of those who founded, developed, and were responsible stewards of American power. Our fate may simply be to stand by and watch the pot boil; to let the providence of Nature decide who survives.