On the evening of September 11, 2001, I exhaustedly sought to escape a swash of angry and unhappy emotions by sitting down, collecting my thoughts in writing, and sending them in a letter to the editor of the (Portland) Oregonian newspaper.
The next day — on 9/12/2001, ten years ago today — I was surprised when I opened my paper and found my letter at the top of the Oregonian’s Op-Ed page. Under the heading “Leaven Outrage With Reason,” it read as follows:
Now there will be an outcry to “do something” — as we should, by punishing those responsible and strengthening our nation’s defense and intelligence installations in effective ways.
However, I hope our anger does not make us react unwisely. I fear these tragedies soon will be cited to justify “hawkish” actions such as withdrawing from peacekeeping missions or overspending on missile defense, at the expense of our other commitments.
To do so would please these terrorists almost as much as killing our people. I hope our leaders are resolute enough to punish those responsible swiftly and terribly, and wise enough to leaven their outrage with reason and a larger view of the nation’s and the world’s best interest.
Remaining true to our principles, supporting those around the world who honor democracy, healing our economy, and in general “staying the course” is the best and bravest response to those who wish us harm.
Re-reading that letter today, I am struck not by my prescience, but by my naivete.
I chose the word “hawkish” rather than “conservative” that day because I did not want to alienate my conservative compatriots. Like most liberals, I instinctively sought to place partisan and ideological divides behind me. Conservatives, I believed then, were still my allies against the kinds of people who hated all Americans so much that they would fly airplanes into buildings. And so, seeking unity, I chose to narrow my concern to “hawks” rather than broaden it to “conservatives,” even though “conservatives” was the first word that came to my mind.
And my perception even of that subset of conservatives, “hawks,” was relatively mild back on September 12, 2001. On 9/12, the worst I could imagine of America’s “hawks” was that they might lobby for us to withdraw from peacekeeping missions or waste a few billion dollars on an unneeded weapons program. I (correctly) feared that they would seize the opportunity to advance military-industrial goals; but I did not conceive that they would so rapidly conflate Al Qaeda (evil people intending us harm) with the Taliban (ignorant rural yahoos generally content with destroying Buddhist bas-reliefs and oppressing their own wives and daughters). I could not imagine that they would launch us into the longest war in America’s history; that they would persuade our own citizens that Saddam Hussein somehow was involved in the attack and start a new war there; that they would ignore the First and Fouth Amendments and spy wholesale on their own citizens (nor that their conservative-stacked courts would allow them to do so); that they would imprison people without charge, without trial and without benefit of habeas corpus; that their greed for war profits would contribute substantially to their bankrupting the nation, doubling the national debt and launching the Great Recession.
I did not, on 9/12, realize how bad these people are.
Now I do.
Conservatives love to remind us how, on 9/12, we suspended our political and ideological differences and, briefly, considered ourselves to be one nation, indivisible and undivided. Glenn Beck and others have called for America to return to that 9/12 sense of unity, that 9/12 mentality.
But the consequences of American liberals’ 9/12 suspension of ideology have been terrible: because too many of us stood aside in the name of unity, we allowed conservatives to launch two wars, alienate a world that (just the day before) universally supported us, pass the Patriot Act, steal money from education and healthcare to give to “defense” (i.e., offense), create new espionage and warmaking institutions, and turn our national self-image inward just when it should have been turned outward by injecting the Orwellian, totalitarian, un-American word “homeland” into our lexicon.
Liberals, Progressives and even Libertarians did not serve our nation well by adopting a “9/12 mentality.” Quite the opposite: the 9/12 mentality — well-intentioned, unable to conceive how deeply malevolent the Dick Cheneys of the world are — allowed people more selfishly malevolent even than bin Laden to harm America far more mortally than Osama bin Laden ever could have.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/12, then, we on the Left should promise ourselves that the next time America confronts a catastrophe and we are tempted to set aside our ideals in the interest of unity, we will calmly but firmly refuse. We are not today as naive as we were ten years ago. Should we still, and always, try to find common ground with conservatives? Of course. But we should never again yield ground to them merely because we are in a crisis, as we did on 9/12. The 9/12 mentality has hurt America far more than the 9/11 attacks. America can’t afford for us to make the same mistake again.