I've been looking at the crisp blue sky and remembering when the world went silent. The unspeakable images—which we have not yet shown to our son—are seared into all of us who were adults, then. How strange is it that a generation of young people has come of age who were sitting on school buses or in schoolrooms that day, who didn't watch as hundreds of people burned cruelly to death, as New York City was coated with human ash?
I don't know which is more horrible to me: the memory of that day as we sat in our living rooms or offices or kitchens watching the towers (and the people in them, and in the planes) burn and fall, the memory of the awful silence of the skies and the roads, filling up with the sickening knowledge that the United States would soon bankrupt itself going to war—or the next eleven years of war, torture, and the abrogation of our civil liberties. Eleven years of Guantanamo, and Bagram, and Abu Ghraib, and a Democratic president with an unauthorized "kill list," and our planes killing civilians in countries where we haven't declared war. All of which continues, even as I write. As Glenn Greenwald notes today:
A detainee at Guantánamo was found dead in his cell on Saturday, according to camp officials. He is the ninth person to die at the camp since it was opened more than ten years ago. As former Gitmo guard Brandon Neely pointed out Monday, more detainees have died at the camp (nine) than have been convicted of wrongdoing by its military commissions (six). This is the fourth detainee who has died at the camp since Obama's inauguration.
Although the detainee's identity has not been disclosed, a camp spokesman acknowledged that he "had not been charged and had not been designated for prosecution". In other words, he has been kept by the US government in a cage for many years without any opportunity to contest the accusations against him, and had no hope of leaving the camp except by death.
This is who we are, now.
After Seal Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden, I wrote a piece called "Osama Won" in The Daily Beast:
The attack on the World Trade Center's towers (and on the Pentagon, that breathtaking parenthesis) was a brilliant act of jujitsu. Osama turned all our own strengths against us, and then let us destroy ourselves to bring him down.
At the simplest level, I feared this response within an hour of seeing the second plane hit the World Trade Center. In the eerie silence of that bright blue day—no planes, no traffic, nothing but the television's roll of inconceivable images and our own numb grief—I knew that no president could resist the demand to bomb some country to rubble. The U.S. would over-respond, with our full military might. War would bleed us dry. We would spend our way into poverty. We would begin our decline as a world power.
The aftershocks on my country were much worse than I expected: I expected and was grieved by the war in Afghanistan, but was shocked by the ginned-up attacks on Iraq, the torture, the shredding of habeas corpus. How helpless were those of us who could see that the war against Iraq was cynically hyped by the Bush administration? Andrew Sullivan is the latest to concede this in his riff on the anniversary in the current Newsweek. Last year it was Bill Keller, former executive editor at The New York Times, whose newspaper was arguably partly responsible for taking us to war in Iraq—and who managed to excuse his own error in judgment as entirely natural, even as he acknowledged he was wrong. I am outraged anew every time I read yet another man—Tony Judt accurately called them "Bush's Useful Idiots"—acknowledge that they were blinded by their own rage. How can these people still have any credibility as they weigh in on public events? How can they still be running the nation's punditry?
John Yoo, who wrote the infamous torture authorization memos (and more), is now a tenured professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt School of Law. Jay Bybee, who—as head of the Bush administration Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel—put his stamp on Yoo's authorization, is a federal judge on the Ninth Circuit. As Time reported in 2009:
Now a federal judge, Bybee, 55, led the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel from November 2001 to March 2003 and signed off on a 2002 memo, recently released by the Obama Administration, authorizing the rough stuff in clinical detail. Along with his deputy John Yoo, Bybee infamously claimed that interrogation practices aren't legally torture unless they inflict pain resembling that of "serious physical injury" such as organ failure or death.
And as Scott Lemieux recently explained here, the Obama administration's Justice Department has said it won't hold either of them—or anyone else, for that matter—accountable. The only thing that makes me feel even vaguely better about any of this is the possibility that we're still too close to those crimes to see how it will end. Economist Brad DeLong, in his blog, quoted "someone smarter than I am" who said:
I would urge people to think of accountability as a generational project -- this is how it has worked out in Chile, Argentina, South Africa... the thing that can be done now is create opportunities for more participants to tell their stories, put on record what was done and who did it and how, so that the record gets fuller rather than thinner over time.
But if it takes a generation to get any accounting of crimes like the Japanese internment camps, the Chilean disappeared, Guatemala's kidnapped children, Jim Crow and lynching, and for our own turn toward torture and indefinite detention, how can we hope to remain free of such evils in the future? Is this how the generation protesting Vietnam felt?
Perhaps freedom from evil is too much to ask. Perhaps the hackneyed quote is correct, and our job is eternal vigilance. Perhaps we fight where and how we can, and when we cannot win, we bear witness for the next generation.
All of which is to say: today is the 11th anniversary of 9/11, and I am still deeply sad.