…are from Time to leave 9/11 behind by E.J. Dionne in today’s Washington Post. Before I get to them, let me note the final sentence of his 1st paragraph. After telling us that many of the lessons we learned from that tragic day 10 years ago were wrong, he writes “The last decade was a detour that left our nation weaker, more divided and less certain of itself.”
I was very much struck by his final three paragraphs, which I will quote without interruption before I offer my thoughts below the fold.
In the flood of anniversary commentary, notice how often the term “the lost decade” has been invoked. We know now, as we should have known all along, that American strength always depends first on our strength at home – on a vibrant, innovative and sensibly regulated economy, on levelheaded fiscal policies, on the ability of our citizens to find useful work, on the justice of our social arrangements.
This is not “isolationism.” It is a common sense that was pushed aside by the talk of “glory” and “honor,” by utopian schemes to transform the world by abruptly reordering the Middle East – and by our fears. While we worried that we would be destroyed by terrorists, we ignored the larger danger of weakening ourselves by forgetting what made us great.
We have no alternative from now on but to look forward and not back. This does not dishonor the fallen heroes, and Lincoln explained why at Gettysburg. “We can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow this ground,” he said. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” The best we could do, Lincoln declared, was to commit ourselves to “a new birth of freedom.” This is still our calling.
our strength at home – which is not determined by how much we spend on our military, an amount that now exceeds the totals spent by all of our enemies, current and potential, and which does not necessarily make us safer. After all, 9/11 was accomplished with minimal training and box cutters.
And the characteristics of that strength, according to Dionne?
on a vibrant, innovative and sensibly regulated economy – yet our economy still sputters, we defer too much to sectors that are not innovative and hear too many voices who use the sputtering to argue for lessening regulations.
on levelheaded fiscal policies – why is our government not out borrowing now, at historically low interest rates, as much as it can? It can use that money for stimulating the economy, for addressing the decades of unmet infrastructure maintenance (well over $100 billion just to bring school buildings up to code) and to retire older debt carrying much higher interest, thereby decreasing the amount we are paying in interest for failure to properly pay for things in the past, including the wars of choice of the previous administration, unfortunately some of which are continued by the current administration
on the ability of our citizens to find useful work – surely this should be a higher priority than refusing to raise taxes on those who are already wealthy and who have seen massive amounts of wealth shifted in their favor by the tax policy currently in place; surely this should be a higher priority than reducing a deficit that can be financed at rates close to zero, thereby generating more income that will stimulate the economy, and thereby also increase tax revenues in the future
on the justice of our social arrangements – justice and fairness seem to be disappearing. Is it just to “balance” the economy on the backs of the poor, to require people to work ever longer for the benefits of the social safety net when too many get worn out physically and emotionally by the work that they do, when businesses which make record profits still seek to break the unions of their workers, to demand ever more work for lesser pay, to increase profits without either paying taxes on or sharing those profits with those whose work make the profits possible?
While we worried that we would be destroyed by terrorists, we ignored the larger danger of weakening ourselves by forgetting what made us great. – our economy boomed in a time when unions were at their peak. We built a vibrant middle class after World War II with entitlements like the GI Bill, with benefits for workers that were possible only because of the strength of the union movement. Later we made a commitment, under presidents both Republican (Eisenhower) and Democratic (Johnson) with a commitment to public education that saw the Federal government understand that it had to provide resources to enable those without to be able to participate, and thus we got educational programs like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Educating All Handicapped Children Act (now called Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), the National Defense Education Act, federal programs to fund education for the blind and disabled. We saw a commitment to infrastructure under Republican President Eisenhower that we should well consider using as a model – Ike was responsible for the Interstate Highway System, which made mobility more accessible to millions, and which began to enable transportation of goods as well as people in places where there were no rails.
I disagree somewhat when Dionne says We have no alternative from now on but to look forward and not back. Our unwillingness to look back means we have not held accountable those who have seriously damaged this nation in the decade since 9/11. We failed to properly finish the job of retaliation against those who attacked us because key military and intelligence resources were shifted to Iraq, so we had to outsource parts of our efforts to Afghan warlords who could be bought by Al Qaeda, and thus Bin Laden escaped Tora Bora to continue to operate until finally tracked down and killed more than 9 yearss later. We failed to properly supply those troops sent to Iraq with the materiel that would have protected them better – remember families buying body armor? We entered a war of choice on false premises, and still those responsible for that war and for the abuses in the so-called War on Terror that damaged this country’s reputation and led to ever more recruits to Al Qaeda continue to lie with impunity about what they did and accomplished because we did not look back, because we did not hold them accountable for their violations of US Law, International law, and basic morality.
Yes, we need to look forward. But there are still lessons we can learn from the past decade, especially of how too much of what did was contrary to what had made this nation great.
Dionne’s final two sentences are why he wants to look forward (although I do not think they are undercut by also looking backward): The best we could do, Lincoln declared, was to commit ourselves to “a new birth of freedom.” This is still our calling.
If our calling is Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” we cannot ignore the needs of justice for past wrongdoing. If we want that “new birth of freedom” we cannot roll back the social safety net in the name of balancing the budget while a few get ever more wealth and power and we leave ever more behind economically and politically.
And we sure as hell cannot role back the civil liberties and freedoms for individuals because “9/11 changed everything.” If it did, then the damage we suffered ten years ago is largely of our own making, and Al Qaeda succeeded beyond its wildest dreams in destroying America. There is no “new birth of freedom” when we see politicians demonizing those of a great faith because those who attacked us were nominally of that faith. There is not even a sustaining of current freedom when the events of a decade ago are used to justify taking away civil liberties, when the government under a Democratic President argues “state secrets” to prevent disclosure of information that is necessary for some people to obtain justice, when the CIA is allowed to destroy tapes and documents that would be necessary for either civil or criminal justice cases to go forward.
Perhaps some would say I should not offer such words today. I would respond that today more than any other is the time to take stock of what we have done wrong as a nation so that we can move forward with dignity and honor.
The previous president, under whose watch the attack occurred and in whose administration the greater self-inflicted damage upon this country was done, was fond of saying “they hate us for our freedoms.” Are not those words hypocritical, or at least ironic, when his administration did more to roll back freedoms for Americans than any President since perhaps Wilson and the Red Raids under Attorney General Palmer after World War I?
a new birth of freedom – that would be nice. I’d be happy to start with restoring the freedom and liberty we had on September 10, 2001, even as that was not the freedom and liberty I remember from several decades earlier.
I read Dionne this morning. His final three paragraphs grabbed my attention. I chose to share both his words, and my reactions.
I have finished what i set out to do.
This morning I will be at Friends Meeting for Worship. I will miss the first half as I am serving as Greeter, controlling when people enter so there is sufficient silence, so that anyone moved to give a message is not disturbed by groups of people walking in. Note that I said “serving.” A part of me wants to be in the Meeting room enveloped by the silence and by the messages. I give up that so that other can benefit. That is what service is, a giving of oneself on behalf of others, of community.
Service is a major part of what has made this nation great. Think of barnraisings in rural America. Consider those who are social workers. Consider how few now serve in our military, and how poorly we have done in caring for them, to the point that the President has to offer special tax benefits for the hiring of veterans. Think of those who with quiet dignity make our hotel beds, clean our hospital rooms, collect our garbage.
Work should have dignity. It should also have decent pay. Those who perform it should be ENTITLED to the benefits of their work of a lifetime in the benefits that we provided to make a difference in their later years, not to see those benefits moved ever further away by raising the age for eligibility.
Who and what we are as a nation, what we have become, is most certainly an appropriate topic for this anniversary.
Yes we will remember those who died. We will honor those who served and whose service was the cause of their death – here I think first of Father Mychal Judge of the FDNY, then of the many others from Fire and Police and from company security departments who were in the Towers when they fell because they were trying to save others. We will honor those on Flight 93 who prevent that hijacked plane from attacking Washington. All of that is appropriate.
It is also appropriate to think more broadly of who and what we are as a people, and what we should be doing now. We can only do that by being honest about what we as a nation and as a people have done in the decade since the bright and sunny Tuesday morning ten years ago.
Then I taught school. Now I teach school. Now my students, who are 14 and 15 and 16 and 17, have ever fewer memories of that day. Still, they have lived through the nation we have become. I believe I owe it to them to offer things like this, to reflect on who and what we are as a nation.
And yes, like Lincoln, like Dionne’s reference to my favorite among our past Presidents, I want us also to commit to that new birth of freedom, for the sake of the children I teach now, and all the children to follow.