Four years ago our country was attacked.
At this juncture, I find it hard to separate out my feelings about that monstrous crime from my feelings about the hideous uses to which our so-called government has put it, rhetorically, since it occurred -- waving it around like a bloody shirt to justify unrelated wars, attack political opponents and all manner of other things. The horror of the murdered innocents is primary, of course, but I also feel a horror at what my country has become since -- a country which tortures as a matter of policy, a country ever-less free, a country which even today is hosting a revolting spectacle that Matt Yglesias properly described by invoking Milan Kundera's notion of "totalitarian kitsch".
One of the standard complaints about Bush is that he passed up a tremendous opportunity to unite the country: if instead of exploiting the murders for cheap partisan gain he had endeavored to unite the country -- had asked for shared sacrifices, put aside crude partisanship, and so forth -- what good he could have done! If he had finished the war against Al-Queada rather than draining resources from it to fight an unrelated, long-desired war against Iraq, how much safer we might be! If he had, in short, reacted with greatness -- truly acted as if 9/11 had changed everything instead of simply saying it did while acting as if it had changed nothing... But, of course, he did none of those things: merely one of a thousand sins each in itself sufficient to confine him to hell, should such a place exist.
But I must admit that I put forward that criticism (unlike all the others) only half-heartedly: for I never believed it. Most liberal bloggers will tell of how, in the days following 9/11, they put aside their disdain for George Bush, put their trust in him, hoped for his success. Well, I didn't. Oh, I hoped for America's success: in the war against Afghanistan, in tracking down those who sought to do us harm, in limited the proliferation of weapons that they might do it with, in securing the homeland, as we quickly learned to call it. But not Bush. I already felt that he was utterly untrustworthy: viciously and pettily partisan, utterly incompetent, mixing cronyism and ideology in noxious combination. Rather than wish him well, I mostly feared for us that we were stuck with such a man at such a time.
Well, I have since been borne out: alas that I was! If the disaster that was Bush was clear on 9/11, it was utterly evident by November 2004 to anyone who bothered to look -- and may have become outright inarguable given Bush's criminally negligent handling of Katrina, and what it has revealed about our readiness to safeguard our citizens in the event of another terrorist attack (a readiness that was, let us never forget, the key element in Bush's reelection pitch). I have not written much about Katrina since the early days because -- frankly -- I am too heartsickened by the dead, too infuriated by the appalling response at every level. A thousand fine pieces have been written, but I will not bother to link to them here; I can't bear it. Most of you will have seen most of them anyway, I suspect.
In the first day or two after Katrina hit, there were a few calls, even from some normally level-headed leftists, not to "politicize" the situation. These calls were quickly discarded by all except Bush mouthpieces, as it quickly became evident that the situation was entirely political: the lack of preparation, the lack of response -- these are political matters. (Only those who see the political as petty -- only those, ultimately, who do not see it for what it is -- could fail to see that this life or death situation, like most, was and is political. Politics is about the most serious stuff imaginable: life and death, hope and despair, right and wrong, freedom and fear. Nothing is ever too important for politics: politics is about human life, which is as important as things get on this earth.) The calls to be non-political, now, are simply the Bush administrations weaselly way of trying to avoid responsibility for the nightmare they abetted -- indeed, for the nightmare abetted by twenty-five years of a poisonous rhetoric and philosophy which spoke ill of all government. And the left saw this, this time -- very quickly. Because, I think, of how Bush had handled 9/11 in the previous just-shy-of four years.
But in truth I wish that the left had reacted with as much furry and skepticism after 9/11. Uplifting it would not have been: but the country would have been better for it. Politics, ultimately, is not about inspiration but about policy: about what governments do. (To which inspiration may be key, of course. But it's instrumental.) If we had reacted with skepticism and not blind-faith, perhaps the patriot act would have been read by the congress before it was voted on; perhaps the tortures in the American gulag would have been met with fiercer resistance; perhaps the struggle against nuclear proliferation would have counted for more than scoring half-assed political points; perhaps the battle against Al-Queada would not have been shelved in pursuit of another. (In this last regard, let me recommend today's NYT magazine cover article by Mark Danner, who points out -- not in these words -- that while some have said we needed to invade Iraq when we did so that we fought Saddam on our terms and not his, what we ended up doing was fighting Osama on his terms -- terms that have led us to be loosing in the fight that most matters.) Most of all, if we had not had not abandoned skepticism for blind-faith in a faithless fool, perhaps we would have monitored matters, to ensure that our homeland defenses -- against any terror, man-made or natural -- were adequate and not neglected. Perhaps the people of New Orleans and elsewhere would have been treated as they deserved to be. Perhaps more of them would now be alive.
It is hard to properly commemorate the dead of four years ago when the bodies are still being drawn from the rubble of a newly ruined city -- rushing to find them before they can be devoured by wild animals. But ultimately, if they are utterly disconnected in their root cause, they are alike in the utter disaster of the government's response -- albeit a disaster that in one case took four years to see, and in another was evident within hours. Perhaps if we remember this -- and act on it -- we can struggle to make sure that when the next disaster comes (for disasters are unavoidable; only our responses to them are within our control), we are readier to meet it.
The dead of 9/11; the dead of Katrina. Rest in peace.