It is often said that the worst times bring out the best in us. As I reflect on 9/11 and the decade that followed, I oscillate between anger, sadness, and disgust. At times my jaw is clenched, while at others the tears well up. Then, too often of late, I just hang my head in disbelief. As an historian it is impossible for me to avoid comparing 9/11 to other moments of crisis in America, to other ‘worst’ times. The run-up and aftermath of the American Revolution, Civil War, and Great Depression and World War II are obvious candidates for comparison. What I find is that the significant markers that define the beginnings of these crises are characterized by both grave challenges and collective determination. Americans come together and address the crisis with a high sense of resolve, responsibility, and sacrifice. Our character is lean and strong. During this period of comparison there are many more similarities than differences. It is in the out years, roughly three years and beyond the initiation of crisis, when more differences are found, and where prospects for the future are defined.
Our initial response to 9/11 was similar to other crises. Flags were everywhere and while a few people behaved in a manner unbecoming an American, most of us kept our cool and rallied around our leaders with compassion for those who lost loved ones, and a determination to seek justice. In the out years, however, we lost our composure by compromising two things: our honesty and our humility. Ideological bullies like Vice President Dick Cheney began by lying about weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda in Iraq. Inside the Beltway of Washington DC they call it politicizing intelligence. I will call it what it is: lying. The lies enabled a call to action that has cost us at least two trillion dollars and, across the world, the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Once our honesty was lost, what little humility remained since we had become the world’s sole remaining superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union was vanquished by our hubristic response to 9/11. Once our humility was gone, our national character—our identity—was lost as well. We were all sucked into a charade that has proven catastrophic. The promises of the Cheney bunch—of cheers, bouquets, and new democracies—were never realized and now we are stuck in a quagmire without a clear exit. The tally of blood and treasure lost is far from over.
Dishonesty, and moreover, arrogance, appear to be the primary products of the out-years after 9/11. Now we behave at home the way we have abroad. Our leaders in Congress swagger about with Cheney-esque anger and certitude. Ideological bullying has become the norm. Meanwhile, our president hides in the White House like a prom king who has just realized the student body doesn’t love him so much after all. What courage he had has been overcome by his naiveté. No, President Obama, the old white pudgy boys in Congress are not enamored with a young fit black man in the White House. They want you out and they will do anything possible to bring that about. It is time for you to fight for our future and forget about a second term. Use the rest of your term to be the best one-term president ever. If you do, who knows, you might even have a second term.
As I watched the tears shed by the children remembering their loved ones at Ground Zero on September 11, 2011, I couldn’t help but also wonder about all the tears shed by the children of those who have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan. As I watch Wall Street prosper, I wonder why we can’t do the same thing for main streets all over America. As I watch the middle class rise across Asia, I watch and wonder why we tolerate its decline in the West. As I watch students across Scandinavia and Asia excel at levels significantly higher than our own kids, I wonder how we expect to remain a superpower. As I watch our security, health, and environment decline from our dependence on fossil fuels, I wonder why we don’t launch a massive public initiative to produce new fuels and new distribution systems.
Many wonder these days if Karl Marx was right; if capitalism will produce its own demise. It is an interesting question given our current circumstances. I conclude, however, that capitalism and democracy are not the problem, character is. We must regain our sense of honesty and humility to face the many challenges we face. Once our character is lean and strong again we will have the courage to do what we know is right. We will not allow those we elected to serve us to continue serving themselves first. We will, once again, summon the best in us.