Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reflections on the 9-12-01 mindset

The gauzy myth of 9/11 says that all of America was united after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The myth is often invoked to decry the rancorous, divided state we find ourselves in today.

To tell the truth, that is not how I remember it. The issues that divide us today appeared within days of the attack. The country was united only in horror and sadness. Once we moved beyond that initial shock, old worldviews returned quickly.

I remember walking into a discussion at work a few days after the attack. A fellow manager was lecturing a couple of secretaries on the grim road ahead in Afghanistan. He was absolutely certain that the Taliban and al Qaeda were going to win. They were better prepared for war, were better fighters, and were more committed to their cause. He expressed only contempt for the U. S. military. In his view (which he was eager to spell out in detail) the armed services were made up of those too poor, too dumb, and too lazy to make something of themselves in civilian life.

It was Bobo patriotism and was out of synch with the United We Stand spirit we remember. Yet, he was proud of his insight into the military situation and he was willing to share it with anyone who would listen.

When he did so, his certainty was apparent to all. Yet, it was hard to determine where the confidence came from. He had never served nor had any members of his family. His education was in business, not history or foreign affairs. Before 9/11 I had never heard his express any interest in military affairs or demonstrate any serious reading in geopolitics.

It was my first post-9/11 exposure to Michael Kelly’s “knowingness”.

In the jittery days after the attacks, I was struck by numerous stories in the MSM warning of a violent, irrational backlash against American Muslims. Even after it was clear that 9/11 had triggered few hate crimes, newspapers still fretted about the coming backlash.

This obsession with a nonexistent problem said something about the elite media’s view of their fellow citizens. The MSM could not disguise the fact that they looked at much of America with a mixtures of fear and contempt.

Within days of the attacks, it became clear that our sense of solidarity was deep but narrow. We were united in grief and feelings of compassion for the victims. Old divisions reappeared as soon as we moved toward action against those who launched the attacks.

Unity could only be purchased with passivity.

As we prepared to overthrow the Taliban and rout al-Qaeda, the ‘war is not the answer’ crowd made their predictable appearance. Not far behind was the Vietnam-besotted MSM looking for a new quagmire in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Fisking, after all, became a blog sport within weeks of the 9/11 attacks and it was triggered by clueless anti-war reporting.

Suddenly, we were remembering Pearl Harbor again.
Even here, the analogy was frequently used as a reminder of how bad America could be: the Japanese internment was invoked repeatedly to warn against “ethnic profiling” in any shape or form. Even Bush’s Secretary of Transportation got into the act.

As time passed it was clear that the Bush White House was not going to follow FDR’s playbook. The united people would not be rallied for any significant purpose. The Pentagon would go to war, the nation was told to go shopping.

It felt wrong then, and supremely wrong now. It blurred the boundaries between war and peace. It squandered the nation’s resolve and ensured that the military action would soon be consigned to the media’s back burner.

FDR drew a bright line in public between pre-war and wartime. Dr. Win-the-War replaced Dr. New Deal. The nation benefited from the clarity.

Bush and Rove left us disoriented. The shift from “let’s roll” to “shop till you drop” was baffling.

A few days after pearl Harbor FDR replaced the Army and Navy commanders at Pearl Harbor. The action might have been “unfair” to Gen. Short and Adm. Kimmel since they were not the only parties to blame for the disaster. Fairness is not the paramount value in choosing a high commander in wartime. New men meant the Pacific theater started with a clean slate. Its commanders did not have to justify past actions while they made plans for the future. (It also put Adm. Nimitz in command of the Pacific fleet which was a supremely correct decision by FDR.)

There was no shake-up after 9/11. We created the Department of Homeland Security, which seemed only to crowd more players into an already crowded space.

It is easy to forget now, just what an inspiring performance Sec. Rumsfeld delivered that fall. He showed us what leadership, confident leadership, could do for the nation’s moral. Whatever his later mistakes in Iraq, he turned in a tour de force in the fall of 2001.

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