9/11: 13 Years and we’ve learned nothing good

If it seems like I’m talking more about Hunter S. Thompson all of a sudden, I won’t apologize for it – we are, after all, approaching the ten-year anniversary of his death. I’ve spent much of that decade away from the Good Doctor – had some other things to explore – but of late I’ve been reminded not only of the prescient, biting power of his words but of how badly we need them right now today, and the collective loss inherent to the gaping scale of that void.

(Note: Only Matt Taibbi comes close – very, very close – to doing filling that role. Here’s hoping his site, rumored to be called “Racket,” launches sooner rather than later.)

Don't forget Satan was there
Don’t forget Satan was there

The title of his ESPN column written September 12, 2001 is aptly (if a little lazily) titled “Fear and Loathing in America,”  and it’s a prime example of the kind of informed and unpolished truth blasts we desperately need today. Remember, all this written 24 hours after the attacks:

The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.

It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy. Osama bin Laden may be a primitive “figurehead” — or even dead, for all we know — but whoever put those All-American jet planes loaded with All-American fuel into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon did it with chilling precision and accuracy.

Good on him for nailing the bin Laden connection before it became the prevailing assumption, but I’d been able to figure that part out from my high school journalism classroom the moments the plane hit. The real value comes in the broader assessment – no peace in our time. Endless, lifelong imperial war against a mysterious and ill-defined enemy.

We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once. Who knows? Not even the Generals in what remains of the Pentagon or the New York papers calling for WAR seem to know who did it or where to look for them.

This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed — for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. He will declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on Everybody, no matter where they live or why. If the guilty won’t hold up their hands and confess, he and the Generals will ferret them out by force.

Nailed that one on the head – well, all of it, really. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, more or less at once, then Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and a couple of other countries I’m too tired to look up. Sometimes, it’s almost as if you can chalk up the fact that we haven’t attacked Iran solely to War Adventurism ADD.

The lid is on. Loose Lips Sink Ships. Don’t say anything that might give aid to The Enemy.

Indeed. For better or worse – whichever way you feel like looking at it – we don’t actually need a revived Thompson to return in order to provide us an updated assessment on this topic. He wrote those words the day after 9/11, and since then, absolutely nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing. Guys, I know beheadings are scary, but this is what this ISIS shit is all about.


The War Adventurism ADD has proven a consistent and uninterrupted foreign policy across nearly four presidential terms split evenly between democrats and republicans. Even the partisan democrats who still want to believe Obama’s doing the best he can have got to recognize this at this point. As for the republicans who now want to crow about the Constitution…I can’t. I just can’t.

The point is that, all speeches and promises aside, Obama ended the Iraq War reluctantly. His administration begged the al-Maliki government to let our troops stick around, but he finally gave up when the Prime Minister, forgetting his intended role as puppet, refused to promise to not prosecute Americans for crimes.

What a jerk.

Now he’s starting it back up again. It’s hard to say whether history will view this battle against the latest lunatics we accidentally created as a continuation of the 2003 invasion or a “third Iraq war.” What’s clear is that it won’t be simple, it won’t end well, and it won’t end with ISIS, either. Someone’s always standing in the on-deck circle – and if they’re not, we’ll give them guns on some pretext of fighting for freedom and liberty and sit back and wait until they turn those guns in our direction. Why not? That’s exactly what happened here.

The History Channel gets it.
The History Channel gets it.

One particularly sickening argument employed with regard to ISIS as well as a decade ago against Saddam is this notion that “we better git ’em over thurr before they git us over here – and they’re determined.” Come on, really? Are we still there?

Do I really have to prove with links right now that all our adventures have created more “terrorists” than they’ve destroyed? Do I have to go into the fact that we took out Saddam and unleashed a wave of extremism and violence across the Levant? That we took out the Taliban only to occupy remote mountain villages in the Graveyard of Empires for a while before negotiating their return to power upon our agreed exit? That we took out Gadaffi and wiped out the country’s standard of living while sending wild extremist warriors running across the Sahara seizing territory?

I could go on. As ordinary people, which of these adventures has been a win for us? Which of them have made us safer as Holy Protected Americans, never mind the rest of the world? Are we even safe at all at home today? Seems to me, the danger lies not in foreign terrorists but in our own baser and more primal instincts, themselves unleashed as an unintended (well, arguably) consequence of our own foreign wars.

Earlier this year, Juliette Kayyem was a democratic candidate for governor in Massachusetts. I denounced her pretty forcefully for once writing that torture was sometimes excusable in the execution of the War on Terror, and I haven’t changed my mind on that. (For the record, I thought Berwick was the best democrat by far.) But last week I read a piece she wrote back in 2012 for Foreign Policy called “Never Say ‘Never Again'” and realized we at least share some of the same views on the terrorism subject. In fact, she puts the problem quite brilliantly:

This last decade has been summed up by a series of mottos that captured its zeitgeist. The War on Terror. Mission Accomplished. With Us or Against Us. The Surge. Heck of a Job. One Percent Doctrine. Red (Orange, Yellow, Green, Purple, Hazy) Alert. The System Worked. Security Theater. Bin Laden Is Dead.

But surely none has so animated the way we think about, and organize around, America’s security than the two words uttered by President George W. Bush as early as Sept. 14, 2001, and repeated to defend policies as far ranging as the war in Iraq to the establishment of the NYPD’s massive counterterrorism unit: Never Again.

“Never again.” It is as simplistic as it is absurd. It is as vague as it is damaging. No two words have provided so little meaning or context; no catchphrase has so warped policy discussions that it has permanently confused the public’s understanding of homeland security. It convinced us that invulnerability was a possibility…Americans don’t do “Keep Calm and Carry On.” But if they really want security, the kind of security that is sustainable and realistic, then they are going to have to….

There is little acknowledgment of the almost impossible balance that homeland security seeks to maintain every day. A country like the United States — a federal structure with 50 governors all kings unto themselves, hundreds of cities with transit systems that only function when on time, commercial activity across borders that makes Amazon.com so successful and gas so plentiful, respect (sometimes nodding) for civil rights and civil liberties, the flow of people and goods taken as a God-given right, and, oh yes, public money in an economic downturn that must be distributed to not only security efforts but schools, health care, transportation, and every other issue that people care about — was never going to succeed at “never again.” But somehow that’s what Americans bought into. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the fear that animated so many decisions then made us forget this obvious fact: As a nation, we are built unsafe.

But “never again” would hear none of it, though it soon became clear that doing “everything possible” to prevent another attack was a lot, probably too much, and very, very expensive.

Her critique of our structural inabilities to provide invulnerability is spot-on, and she goes on in greater depth about our need as a society to move on and adopt a more mature approach – I encourage all to read it in its entirety. To her statements, I’d add a few basic points, firstly that invulnerability is an absurd notion regardless of a nation’s structure. Never in history has it been assumed that the role of government is somehow to prevent death. Nobody can do that. Nobody can guarantee immortality, or even eight solid decades and a peaceful “natural” death. When it comes to preventing this specific kind of death, the idea gets more absurd, not less. No amount of power or fortification can forever stop anyone prepared to die, without fear of death or incarceration.


This gets at the real truth of the matter – if there actually were pro-caliphate Sharia-law conquistador-Muslims engaged in a clash of civilizations hiding behind every rock, as many would have you believe, it’s not 9/11 style mega-attacks we’d have to worry about, it’s a lot more like the Boston Marathon bombing. Simple, cheap, impossible to stop. Shopping malls, city intersections, sporting events, trains, busses – the possibilities are endless. But these attacks, for the most part, aren’t happening, and never have. Why is that? Draw your own conclusions, but I’ve long been inclined to believe it’s because the tayrurrists aren’t nearly as “determined” or “pan-Islamist” as some would like us to believe.

Bottom line: we don’t lose a lot of people to terrorism. Never have, and we’re not really likely to. Most of the terrorism we’ve experienced comes at the hands of white dudes committing mass shootings, we just conveniently call that “spree killing” or some other term to differentiate it from what those damn foreigners do. Because these perpetrators are intent on killing and embrace their own death, they too are, for all intents and purposes, unstoppable. Yet the idea of posting armed guards in all schools still seems unpalatable to most. Knowing we cannot hope to shield our children from all possible danger, we accept a minimal risk in the interests of having our kids not be terrified each day by guards in black carrying M-16s or whatever. If that’s good enough for our children, it should be good enough for us as well. That’s the logic we need to apply to the broader society – yes, we’re accepting a small measure of risk, but it’s for the sake of a more recognizably desirable way of life.

The last 13 years compel me to paraphrase Matthew McConaughey’s character in the iconic Dazed and Confused: “I get older, foreign policy stays the same age.” Stop worrying about the terrorists! Worry about the fact that you’re more likely to be killed by a cop! Worry about the fact that we’re bringing about the end of human civilization! Worry about the innumerable real, tangible, and, just maybe, solvable problems right in front of our eyes. We’ve got enough of them to not actually need any bogeymen.

It’s on us to make sure that, another ten years down the road, Thompson’s post-attack diatribe actually feels dated. Until then, as the doctor would say, Mahalo.

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