9/11: A legacy of errors 

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The attacks of September 11 brought me back to the world. I had a year earlier retreated to a high desert outpost to run a startup weekly paper — ditching what felt like a natural progression from West Texas to Las Vegas with the goal of landing at some major metro on one of the coasts. With George W. Bush elected president and oil companies beginning to dictate energy policy in closed-door meetings with Veep Dick Cheney, I was despondent, and yet ultimately clueless as to what the full ramifications of that election would be.

As a former reporter at the Odessa American I’d seen what Bush meant for the environment after the city’s largest employer, Huntsman Chemicals, entered an “upset period” during an expansion process. Two weeks of foul, toxic air hovered close over the town and I came to know what the African-American community there knew as the Odessa Syndrome: body aches, chills, coughing, bloody noses. The Odessa story would eventually be picked up by Gail Sheehy for Vanity Fair, but the failure of state regulators to protect people in this roustabout town didn’t slow Bush’s ascent. After he was elected I was pretty sure I didn’t want to see what would happen next.

When the airliners started coming down on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was living in Alpine, a sort of cowboy Shangri La, firmly in retreat mode. I was in the newspaper office, getting ready for another week when the advertising director called me to the back as her radio relayed the drama of airplanes become missiles and New York under attack. It took what felt like several minutes to understand that what I was hearing wasn’t a radio drama like Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. Weeks later, as our town’s few part-time Texas residents began returning from the Big Apple, those stories of near-misses became personal for us.

In the weeks and months that followed it seemed like all the world was shocked awake. America’s anger, confusion, fear, and grief were shared the world over, displayed in repeated candle-lit vigils in international city centers. And for a moment, the world lived in revulsion: not over any fault or injustice would-be terrorists could use to rally for their cause but for the ugliness that terror itself represented. It was as if all the world’s car bombings, random shootings, and cafe explosions had occurred in a single moment of time, in one fixed location. For a moment we held the world’s sympathy. Then the drums started to beat. We allowed Bush and Cheney to implement the plans of their inhuman playbook, a blueprint for regime change across the Middle East prepared well in advance of 9/11. War went ahead as scheduled.

Despite the heroic service of so many of our veterans since, our higher-ups have made just about every mistake imaginable. But the biggest manipulated “goof” since Vietnam was our attack of the intensely secular state of Iraq in the name of dismantling the frothingly religious Al Qaeda. If ever there was a wasted trip in terms of lives and capital, this was it. A land that hadn’t known Al Qaeda’s influence suddenly became homebase to the organization’s “most visible and capable affiliate,” according to Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, former director of National Intelligence. If this was about making Americans safe, Iraq was a bust by any measure.

In “9/11 blind,” an op-ed column carried by many of the country’s alt-weeklies last week, Tom Hayden breaks down the so-called War on Terror by the numbers. Nearly 6,200 Americans dead to avenge the 2,996 Americans killed on 9/11, and an “active-duty military-suicide rate for the decade is at a record high of 2,276, not counting veterans or those who have tried unsuccessfully to take their own lives. In fact, the suicide rate for last year was greater than the American death toll in either Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Downing the Twin Towers was a stupefying strike at the West, but Osama bin Laden’s real success was in luring us into conventional warfare abroad. We’ve already spent $1.2 trillion, and the global war will come to cost — after we factor in long-term care for our veterans — between $4-$6 trillion, on the conservative side, according to respected economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, quoted by Hayden. (Our total national debt is roughly $14.7 trillion.)

All week long, leading up to this bloody anniversary, stories have spotlighted the massive amount of treasure diverted to Homeland Security. The cost of the border wall. How the diversion of capital for terror-related preparedness has drained our ability to respond to weather-related emergencies even as extreme weather events have doubled since the 1990s. True, we haven’t had another 9/11, but at what cost, I wonder. It will be a long time before the security state that’s grown up to replace much of our government — including those formidable private armies established to circumvent Republican commitments to limited government — is dismantled. And yet real security is far from attained.

A remarkable book released recently demonstrates the ocean of difference that continues to separate the New Yorkers who lived through 9/11 and the feds hellbent on preventing a similar attack elsewhere in the country. In I Heard the Sirens Scream, author Laurie Garrett, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, Newsday journalist, and public-health professor, describes how the New York Police Department adopted a “non-combative, intelligence-gathering approach” to the attacks at odds with the federal counter-strike mindset. By rapidly building up a team of 600 linguists from across the city’s immigrant populations, Gotham not only was gathering better intelligence in those days following 9/11, but creating a more harmonious city, she writes.

It’s fascinating reading, particularly when considered in tandem with the passel of feature stories in the most recent Mother Jones that demonstrate how many of the frustrated domestic terror attacks you may have read about in the last decade were essentially plots hatched by the CIA and FBI. Or when you consider the racial tempest being stirred up today by right wingers on the immigration front as an outgrowth of our 9/11 jitters compounded by economic recession. Which has injured our nation more, Osama or our response to him?

One of the more remarkable stories I heard during my time on the border (Alpine is still an hour north of the Rio Grande, but we considered ourselves part of la frontera) was told to me by a former lover of Ojinaga, Mexico, drug lord Pablo Acosta. Back in the ‘80s the U.S. intelligence community was hunting Libyans (much like those chasing potential 9/11 anniversary bombers last weekend, there was “credible information” in play), and the Mexican federales asked Acosta to keep his eyes open. On the U.S. side, a Customs agent asked Mimi Webb Miller, a border resident and niece of the late U.S. Senator John Tower, to speak to Acosta about it.

Even this crack-addicted drug runner pushing heroin into the States wanted to help. He told Webb Miller simply, “This is our home, too.”

Early next year, the traditional river crossing inside Big Bend National Park to the small Mexican town of Boquillas is expected to reopen. Of course, the many similar crossings all across the territory that joined families for thousands of years before they were shut down after 9/11 under the shadow of military helicopters and a corresponding immigration sweep will remain closed. That despite the fact that the bulk of narcotics continues to enter the country through our official ports of entry.

It’s hard to say when we all agreed to put away our “We’re All New Yorkers” T-shirts and start scapegoating immigrants. Certainly the global recession put the screws on a bit, but just as Amnesty International predicted, our national war response stirred anti-immigrant activity nationwide. More than ignorant rednecks beating on Sufis, though, we’ve seen discrimination adopted as the law of the land as our Real ID Act made it harder for asylum seekers reaching the Land of the Free and deportations and detentions reached record levels.

And yet NYC went another direction entirely.

“Far from representing a dire threat for poor and minority populations of the city, Bloomberg created a social climate of civility and fairness in the overall crime rate fell to levels not seen since the 1950s and racial tensions greatly diminished. Until the Crash of September 18, 2008, Gotham boomed,” writes Garrett of post-9/11 New York City.

Yes, another world is possible. It just doesn’t carry the cathartic release of a 500-pound bomb. And while most of us have been willing to admit we were manipulated into a war that shouldn’t have been, a survey of our presidential candidates’ opinions on preemptive military action, for instance, suggests we’ve done very little to ensure such a thing never happens again.

Until we do that we will continue to dishonor our nation’s heroes, those who volunteered their lives for country. •

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