The day began in a dull civic deadness. It was an election day, the second Tuesday in September, in one of the world's most political cities. The weather was perfect: a cloudless Indian-summer day. The polls opened at six in the morning. But no one was showing up. Did it even matter who governed? Seven and a half months earlier, a Republican had become president and the sky had not fallen. The federal budget was in surplus. New York was about to enjoy a fiscal windfall from a new 99-year lease on the World Trade Center. The hot issue in the mayoral primary, supposedly, was how the city would spend all the money. But nobody cared. When September 11, 2001, dawned, collective rituals of civic engagement felt like anachronism.
Until the hot issue was mooted when the center was transformed into twin, acrid clouds of debris and incinerated human flesh, and everything, as we used to say, changed.
How did September 11 change America? We became, of course, so much more frightened that our oceans would no longer protect us from the rest of the world's awful chaos. But at least at first, a more interesting answer presented itself, as the civic indifference—exemplified by the apathy of that mayoral election day in New York—gave way instantaneously to an almost radical burst of public-spiritedness.
In Brooklyn, we poured out into the streets, desperate to confirm that others were feeling what we were feeling. Cosmopolitans transformed themselves into villagers. TVs and radios blared from every storefront; the first tower collapsed into itself, and those same storefronts vacuumed people inside to watch. We needed to see it together.
Many of us were on our way to the hospital, where lines ran all the way around the block (until we were told to go home; there'd be too few survivors to require blood donations). In Manhattan, the campaign signs everyone had been ignoring were replaced by new signs we read obsessively: "Worked for Morgan Stanley. Any Information ... Please Contact: Collette" "Have You Seen Me/ My Name is Ira Zazlow."
We made collective pilgrimages to Union Square, the southernmost point people were allowed to travel—though some ventured farther south, ducking beneath security barriers, risking their health to help. Everyone, everywhere, was desperate to help. Heartland Evangelicals wept for Manhattan Jews. Nous sommes tous Americains. Newly patriotic youth talked about signing up for the military. Teach for America, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps fielded floods of recruits—a volunteer nation aborning. Even television ceased to be a commercial enterprise: 500 channels, and each one seemed to be showing a 9/11 feed.
I remember Friday, September 14, even more indelibly. My neighborhood, Park Slope, held a candlelight vigil. Our bodies spanned Seventh Avenue. Our candle wax slicked the sidewalk. When we passed a shrine of local heroes—Engine Company 220, garlanded with memorial wreaths—many, a bit ashamed, realized something (I know I did, and I discussed it with other people afterward): Why didn't we think to honor firefighters all the time, just for doing what they do every day? I began to wonder what might be happening here. Maybe from this tragedy our flawed nation might become less solipsistic, narcissistic, recriminatory, and cruel. That afternoon, in his speech to the prayer convocation at the National Cathedral, President George W. Bush confirmed the shift. "Today," he said, "we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called 'the warm courage of national unity.'"
Then it was gone.
And we feel, now, how America ended up, against all our hopes, more solipsistic, narcissistic, recriminatory, and cruel. This is an article about how that happened and why.
TO UNDERSTAND HOW PROFOUND the squandering of solidarity was, we must first establish the heights from which such unity fell. A September 13 bill extending new wiretapping and electronic-surveillance capabilities passed Congress by voice vote without debate. Five days later, the authorization of force passed the Senate unanimously. The USA Patriot Act also passed the Senate, 98 to 1. Why? In part, yes, from a sense of panicked emergency. But also in part because it seemed unimaginable that this extraordinary grant of executive power could possibly be abused. As Al Gore, whose own presidency had been stolen outright, announced at a Democratic dinner in Iowa: "Regardless of party ... there are no divisions in this country where our response to the war on terrorism is concerned. ... George W. Bush is my commander in chief."
The trust came from further left, too. For an article I was writing in The New York Observer, radicals like Ellen Willis and Doug Henwood told me they supported Bush's call for war. So did the presiding officer of the Queens branch of the Green Party. Barbara Streisand scrubbed all comments critical of George Bush from her website. America had changed. For the first time since Vietnam, the national-security state had regained a nearly universal ideological legitimacy. People who might otherwise have chosen skepticism chose trust out of the belief that we had become, or could become, a different sort of nation than the one we were before—not the juvenile, irony-drenched Seinfeld-watching collectivity we had been only the day before yesterday. More high-minded. More self-sacrificing. Less jingoistic. George W. Bush promised it himself. The refrain in his September 20, 2001, address to a joint session of Congress was "I ask you":
"I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat."
"I ask you to continue to support the victims of this tragedy with your contributions."
"The thousands of FBI who are now at work in this investigation may need your cooperation, and I ask you to give it."
"I ask for your patience with the delays and inconveniences that may accompany tighter security and for your patience in what will be a long struggle."
These were gentle, reasonable requests.
Most memorably, Bush appealed for solidarity with Americans who came from Arab countries: "I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here. We're in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them."
But the squandering had already begun, and precisely on the terms the president said he refused. The Justice Department had already started secretly detaining nationals from Islamic countries on minor immigration charges or no charges at all. In press conferences, Attorney General John Ashcroft called them "suspected terrorists." More than 600 were tried in secret immigration proceedings closed even to members of Congress. When critics complained, Ashcroft responded (in his December 2001 testimony to Congress), "To those who pit Americans against immigrants and citizens against noncitizens, those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve."
Not a single one of the detainees would be convicted of a terror-related offense.
Orwellian language was suddenly everywhere—not least in the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. It was all about uniting America, don't you see? Its tools were merely the appropriate ones. Disagree? Well, you must not be a USA patriot.
The president invited us to plant victory gardens of credit-card receipts. The day after the National Cathedral convocation, the president was asked "how much of a sacrifice ordinary Americans could be expected to make," and he honored the warm courage of national unity by answering, "Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever." Dick Cheney advised Americans to "stick their thumbs in the eye of the terrorists" by not allowing the national crusade against terror "in any way to throw off their normal level of economic activity." Bush infamously told a gathering of aviation employees, "Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed." Finally, this sacrifice, which he suggested on October 4: "We need for there to be more tax cuts."
The war, too, would look far different from what those of us who had surrendered to trust believed we had signed on for. We had heard Bush when he declared, "we are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them." It turned out, however, that this was not the fight the Bushies were spoiling for. Ever since the Cold War, conservatives have been floundering without a garrison state. They had embraced the wisdom of Samuel Huntington's Clinton-era volume, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, whose message, as legal scholar Stephen Holmes described it in The London Review of Books, was, "The secular optimism of those who believe that mankind is being drawn into peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation by the growth of global markets is not only misplaced: it is suicidal. ... For self-definition and motivation, people need enemies." Bloody fortunate we had one now.
The things that happen every time God's chosen nation goes to war to save civilization happened again. We witnessed civil-liberties violations, knuckleheaded jingoism, attacks on internal enemies (and not just Arab Americans), and the almost systematic suspension of sound judgment by experts and mandarins, who sought monsters to slay. Michael Kelly, editor of The Atlantic, called the left "objectively pro-terrorist," and blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote that "the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts ... may well mount what amounts to a fifth column."
A little more than a year later, when the administration proposed to go to war in Iraq, it became clear that many still surrendered to trust. Representative Dick Gephardt explained that he had voted for the war because "an A-bomb in a Ryder truck in New York, in Washington, and St. Louis ... cannot happen." The New Republic excoriated the "abject pacifism" and "intellectual incoherence of the liberal war critics." New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, "History will not easily excuse us if ... we defer a reckoning with an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them." He concluded, "A return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all."
America had changed. Liberals, too many of us, had changed. We were not acting like guardians of solidarity. We were acting like suckers.
REPUBLICANS WERE WORSE. In 2002, Democrats tried to extend ordinary civil-service protections to employees of the new Department of Homeland Security. For advocating that, then-Senator Max Cleland found himself depicted in TV commercials as a handmaiden of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Two years later, amid all those fishily timed "terror alerts," Republicans issued forth with slanders that John Kerry was all about reading suicide hijackers their Miranda rights.
We almost need an encyclopedia to catalog the outrages and absurdities. Imagine its index: "Asymmetrical Warfare," suicide as.... "Gonzales, Alberto," hospital visit to John Ashcroft of.... "Mushroom Cloud," smoking gun could be.... "USA Patriot Act," seizing of library records under Section 215 of.... "Yoo, John," government can crush suspected terrorists' children's testicles to obtain information ....
Many of the outrages went largely unnoticed—or were noticed at first and then forgotten. Let me focus on one of them.
In May 2002, a 31-year-old Muslim convert named Jose Padilla was arrested without fanfare at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on his way back from Pakistan. A month later, with the sort of fanfare worthy of P.T. Barnum, Attorney General Ashcroft introduced Padilla to the public. "We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or 'dirty bomb,'" Ashcroft announced. This "unfolding terrorist plot" might have caused "mass death and injury."
Now comes the most extraordinary part of the story—the one you likely do not know about at all. It fell to an obscure Chicago investigative journalist (and, full disclosure, a friend) named Lewis Z. Koch to address some reasonable questions the rest of the media failed to: What did it take to build a "radiological dispersion device"? Could a small-time street punk like Padilla do it? How dangerous would it have been if he could?
Koch's findings were published in the January/February 2004 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where its 10,000 or so subscribers learned that in order for Jose Padilla to do what the government claimed he and his conspirators were prepared to do, they would have had to locate and move perhaps a metric ton of spent fuel rods, encasing them in a 40-ton lead-lined shipping cask. They would have needed sophisticated remote-handling equipment to build the device. What might their labors have amounted to? If unleashed "at evening rush hour on a business day" in a crowded urban center, according to Koch's article, the weapon would cause "no immediate fatalities and fewer than three fatalities from latent cancer."
When FBI chief Robert Mueller was asked in December 2002 whether his agency had really thwarted any actual attacks on U.S. soil, he mentioned Padilla and his "dirty bomb." Soon after, however, the government dropped the dirty-bomb charge—in favor of an even more ridiculous claim: that Padilla planned to blow up high-rise buildings by turning on the gas in all the stoves and then setting off explosives.
None of these facts had any effect on the reporting of the Padilla case. It suggests another way we have changed. In the face of such official, and so many, enormities, have we grown inured? Do we even care? Would I have cared, if the prophet without honor who uncovered these absurdities hadn't been a close friend? Did we once more become entrapped in a dull civic deadness, perhaps worse than before? Are we still?
Consider further the Padilla court case in 2007 and its aftermath. Padilla went on trial on a charge of criminal conspiracy (charges of material support for terrorism were dropped) in Florida based in part on the evidence of wiretapped conversations from 1997 to 2000 among his two co-defendants and himself. This portion of the story is better known, thanks to the 2007 reporting of The New York Times, which learned that the wiretaps were innocuous. The government explained that away by claiming such phrases as "getting some fresh air" and "participating in tourism" and even references to purchasing zucchini were code for terrorist activities. Of the 230 calls, Padilla himself was only on seven, during which none of the alleged code words were uttered.
The government also had another resource upon which to build the case. For three and a half years, at a Navy brig—not in Guantanamo, not under rendition in Syria, not at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan but in Charleston, South Carolina—Padilla had been alternately interrogated and kept in a windowless nine-by-seven-foot cell, without visitors or, for almost two years, a lawyer. A forensic scientist who testified at a pretrial hearing called what happened during those interrogations "essentially the destruction of a human being's mind."
The jury, however, was not allowed to hear any of that or hear from any of the defense's psychological expert witnesses, including one who examined Padilla for 22 hours. Nor were they allowed to see the 88 videotapes of the interrogation that the defense sought to introduce. They were allowed, however, to take their seats in the jury box on the day before Independence Day with those in the first row all dressed in red, those in the second row in white, and those in the third row in blue.
Slate columnist Dahlia Lithwick wrote that the trial demonstrated why the abuse of suspects in terrorism cases "tainted" those trials. Tainted or not, in January 2008, Padilla was sentenced to 17 years in prison, where he now reposes.
I haven't heard any protests. Have you? We've changed.
Think back again to the palpably intense quality of everyday life just after September 11, when the nation felt like it was healing together. Think of the extraordinary, plenipotentiary grant of trust and authority afforded the president and the way it seemed to flow naturally from that new national mood of solidarity. Think how, transitively, the framing of that new power by the president himself seemed to spring—I ask you—from that same mood of national intimacy. It was all of a piece: reciprocal. The new and improved America—more high-minded, generous, deliberative, and self-sacrificing—was a more trusting America.
The abrogation of that trust had equally reciprocal effects. Top-down, the Bush administration licensed a panicked dragnet at home and unnecessary wars abroad, undergirding both in a right-wing ideological opportunism. Bottom-up, we learned to be crueler to one another, more fearful, and more brittle at exactly the same time. Americans built garrison states in their hearts.
September 11 became an opportunity for official hustles, a hobbyhorse whenever anyone wished to use fear and uncertainty to get away with just about anything. In 2006, the police chief of Dillingham, Alaska—a tiny fishing village without a single streetlight and no highway access to the rest of the world—won a Homeland Security grant to blanket his town with one surveillance camera for every 30 residents. One local joked about the chief's obsession with "bomb-bearing belugas." Chief Richard Thompson shot back that the port town was an ideal staging ground for terrorists. The story is told differently, however, on the website of the German company that manufactures the cameras. The site explains that the "large transient population in Dillingham during the summer creates ... security concerns for the city authorities," who didn't want to pay for extra police to address the problem. Voila: Dillingham as staging ground for terrorists. Problem solved.
That German company's site also features a train of headlines about its staggering growth: in 2004-2005, a 44 percent rise in business over the previous year; in 2006-2007, 52 percent; this past year, 37 percent. Much of the expansion in its security business appears to be American. Here certainly is one of the ways America has changed. We have learned to fear our neighbors more than ever, even though our neighbors are becoming less a threat to us all the time. In 1980, Americans suffered 597 violent crimes and 10.2 murders per 100,000 citizens. In 2001, those numbers were 505 and 5.6, respectively. The latest numbers show violent crimes at 429 per 100,000 and murders down to 5 per 100,000. Yet we build the garrison walls higher.
Why? How? On January 20, 2009, one excuse died: George W. Bush ceased to be president. Was not a sort of redemption supposed to follow? "November will almost surely bring a return to the rule of law," Elaine Scarry, the Harvard University English professor who published the classic 1985 study of the culture of torture, The Body in Pain, wrote in 2008. She thought it might follow even if the Republican John McCain won the presidency: "On countless occasions, he has spoken clearly about torture at a time when many other people have spoken confusedly."
Since then, the notion of John McCain as some more civil species of Republican has come to seem exceptionally dubious—especially after he contended in June that the wildfires sweeping the Arizona desert must have been the doing of illegal aliens. But what about that other candidate—the one whose words and music on the 2008 campaign trail almost sounded like an outtake from the language of the better angels we heard in the weeks after September 11? Barack Obama had a theory of civic repair: To undo the culture of post-9/11 recrimination over which George Bush presided, we must "look forward as opposed to looking backward."
That was probably never possible on its own terms. It feels all the less so when "on a going-forward basis," as the bureaucrats say, the beast that 9/11 unleashed has so frequently revealed itself as bipartisan.
Indeed, the Obama administration seems to have pushed the abuse of executive power into new frontiers of fear and recrimination. Thomas Drake, a whistle-blower at the National Security Administration was charged under the Espionage Act for telling the truth to congressional oversight committees and helping a journalist with a prize-winning series about waste, bureaucratic ineptitude, and legal skullduggery at the intelligence agency. In fact, it turns out that the Obama administration has used the Espionage Act—which deems any suspect charged under it as an enemy of the United States—more than all previous presidents combined. (Note the nearly Bushian bad-faith rationale offered by Drake's prosecutors: The NSA collected "intelligence for the soldier in the field." Q.E.D.: "When individuals go out and they harm that ability, our intelligence goes dark and our soldier in the field gets harmed.")
This June, the FBI announced it was granting sweeping new powers to its 14,000 agents, including more leeway to search databases and household trash, permission to search commercial or law-enforcement databases without making a record of their decisions, and expanded ability to surreptitiously attend meetings of private citizens without disclosing their law-enforcement identity.
We're stupider now. We seem to care less. We embrace "austerity"—budget cuts for anything that suggests we owe a collective obligation to one another. In Park Slope, Brooklyn, that fire station we marched past so solemnly on Friday, September 14, is scheduled to close down due to budget cuts. The Bush-era tax cuts still survive. Military actions overseas, many of them secret, are like a squeezed balloon, expanding every time they contract somewhere else. September 11, it seems, delivered us unto permanent war. But solidarity is on strike for the duration.