The piety attached to a collective memory can be used to assist forgetting; and this is especially so when the facts are stark and engraved on every mind. Nineteen terrorists, acting on the design of a political-religious fanatic, murdered 3,000 Americans. All of the killers are now dead. The danger in the commemorations around September 11 is lest the date should blot out previous history and numb our awareness of ourselves as agents of our fortunes.
It suits some people to have things that way. "History begins on 9/11" was the message conveyed by the Bush-Cheney administration in the later days of September and early October 2001. "9/11"-- thus marked, rarely lengthened to a phrase -- was seen as a uniquely uncaused cause. The first and almost the last word about the event was "evil." The agents of evil hated for hate's sake. They were people capable of destroying America for precisely what is best about America. To rid the world of that evil, as President Bush said, would be to "rid the world of evil" itself. This was the task the United States should undertake in the 21st century.
One thing the shorthand 9/11 inclines us to forget is that the 1990s incubated a powerful sect of strategists who regarded the fall of communism as a letdown for the United States. Great powers need great enemies. The moment an empire contracts the scope of its ambitions is the moment it ceases to think itself an empire. It may then revert to a more modest condition: that of a free republic, or one power among others. The essence of empire, by contrast, is the spirit of militarism embodied in a policy of endless expansion. That understanding lay behind the neoconservative pamphlet Rebuilding America's Defenses: a full-scale policy memorandum, produced for the Project for the New American Century, published in September 2000 and running 76 pages in two columns.
Its author, Thomas Donnelly, took counsel from an advisory committee that included Stephen Cambone, Donald Kagan, I. Lewis Libby, Gary Schmitt, and Paul Wolfowitz. The "report" (as it called itself) contained a sentence that has acquired a separate fame. "The process," said the strategists at PNAC, of America's complete transformation into an unchallenged global superpower "is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor." One year later, the catalyzing event arrived. Among the reasons Dick Cheney was so quick off the starting blocks after a surprise attack was that he had long been preparing for such an incitement. Unlike most Americans, he knew exactly how to use it. The policy that was put into force without hesitation was best captured in a jotting by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."
What history began on 9/11? American "force projection" in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. This meant the bombing and (where plausible) occupation of Iraq, Syria, and Iran; and, with the successes there, control over the dome of oil in the region and "the oil-rich Horn of Africa." Also, improved security for Israel; political advantage for the administration in charge of the quest; a geopolitical base from which to push (with assistance from the former Soviet republics after the "color revolutions" subsidized by the U.S.) against any possible resurgence of Russian power. These gains in political dominance and economic hegemony might prove useful, too, as a wedge against China in South Asia.
Such were the long-term goals. The necessary short-term method for dragging America in consisted of lies supported by other lies, half-truths, forgeries, a docile press and a clutch of reliable journalists and opinion-makers. Few analysts were so prescient as to get the whole story or almost all of it right. Two who did were Chalmers Johnson in The Sorrows of Empire and George Kateb in "A Life of Fear."
In the procession from 9/11 to an unprovoked war on Iraq, neoconservatives propagandized and led. Neoliberals endorsed, apologized, explained, and followed. Some neoconservatives whose opinions and votes supported the new history: Richard Perle, Robert Kagan, John McCain, William Kristol, Victor Davis Hanson, Kenneth Adelman, David Brooks, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz. Some neoliberals who differed from the above in tone but not in substance: Bill Keller, Leslie Gelb, Joe Biden, Kenneth Pollack, George Packer, Peter Beinart, Fareed Zakaria, Hillary Clinton, Thomas Friedman.
In brutality of sentiment, no neoconservative ever topped the explanation Thomas Friedman gave to Charlie Rose of why the U.S. had to smash the electrical grid, strangulate the water supply, demolish the major administrative centers of Baghdad and much of the rest of Iraq and kill tens of thousands of civilians. The details and justification hardly mattered, said Friedman. "What we had to do was go over to that part of the world... and take out a very big stick... [and say]: Suck. On. This."
What was most disgusting in the fever-time that lasted from October 2001 through 2003 was the seamless consensus that prevailed among mainstream journalists, high-profile scholars, and men of power. It was a Middle-East scholar, Bernard Lewis, and an independent strategist, Henry Kissinger, who advised Dick Cheney -- apparently to considerable effect -- that the U.S. ought to follow up the invasion of Afghanistan with the Shock-and-Awe bombing and invasion of Iraq. They said: the Arabs understand something better when you do it twice.
Those years proved beyond a reasonable doubt the bankruptcy of the American foreign-policy elite in thought and action. The twisted understanding crossed party lines. After the 2006 election, when the Democrats won a majority in both houses of Congress, Patrick Leahy inherited the Senate judiciary committee, Jay Rockefeller the intelligence committee, Joe Biden the committee on foreign relations, and none of them held inquiries or hearings of any substance. And this, though Leahy and Rockefeller had come very close to calling the Iraq war a swindle and Guantanamo a crime. Compare the searching hearings on the Vietnam War, chaired by Senator Fulbright in 1966, and the decline in the evidence of civic conscience is staggering.
Barack Obama, in his 2008 campaign, gave some promise of clarification and partial reversal, but he lacked the knowledge, the intelligence, the energy, and the political courage to effect a shadow of the change the campaign had suggested, and in his passivity he was abetted by a choice of advisers utterly confined to adherents of the pro-war consensus. So we are still in a history that began on 9/11. What Cheney innovated and Bush signed off on, Obama has ratified and made normal. By doing so he has anaesthetized the spirit of opposition as no Republican could have done. His declared determination to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards" was a calculated insult to the very idea of accountability.
The consequences of that evasion will long outlast his presidency. Today, a decade later, 9/11 has become the name of a path as much as the name of an occurrence. Until we search out the tributary paths that fed the catastrophe, we will not begin to master the alternative course to which it might lead. There are ways that we could commemorate the unknowing and blameless dead of that day without casting our country in the role it has committed itself to play ever since: the largest of victims, seeking revenge; the world's sole superpower, intoxicated at its discovery of a new enemy who will last "more than a generation."