WHEN the 9/11 attacks happened 20 years ago on a bright, blue Tuesday morning up and down the eastern seaboard, I was editor in chief of a local alt-weekly called Creative Loafing. We were a version of the larger, older Creative Loafing in Atlanta.
(In another month we would complete our merger with Connect Savannah, and take on that name. October 2001 wasn’t exactly the most auspicious time for a new product launch, but that’s another story for another time.)
Tuesday mornings were for uploading the week’s content to the website after a busy Monday print edition deadline. However, the internet was a very different place 20 years ago.
Social media was nonexistent, barely a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. The first iPhone wouldn’t even come out until 2007, near the end of George W. Bush’s second term.
You read it here first: There was a time without smartphones. There are people alive today who remember! Isn’t life amazing.
George W. Bush? Yeah, he’s a major player in the story, kids. He wasn’t the kindly uncle he’s portrayed as today, an avuncular eccentric who dabbles in bad Boomer paintings, and is best known for being Michelle Obama’s funny friend.
Dubya was, well, different back then. If you’re under a certain age you might not understand.
You have to know the context. Bush had only just been inaugurated about half a year earlier.
He’d made it clear, well before 9/11, that a reboot of his father’s invasion of Iraq might be forthcoming. It was a thing clearly spoken of.
Referring to Saddam Hussein, the younger Bush said, and I paraphrase slightly, “He tried to kill my Daddy.”
In one of my many Creative Loafing/Connect columns decrying George W. Bush, I warned that a new invasion of the Middle East would happen if Bush were elected.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist or even a military historian to figure this out. If the editor of a small-town hippie paper knew it, surely everyone did. It was in the air.
A year after 9/11 we all found out that all the talk of Iraq was more than just idle bluster, and if anything it was pre-planned to a certain extent, Twin Towers or no Twin Towers.
Both Bush administrations featured cartoonishly evil Secretaries of Defense, of Dr. Strangelove proportions. Dick Cheney served in the role for the elder Bush, and would later become the son’s Vice President. The recently deceased Donald Rumsfeld served for Dubya, and was the architect of both the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions.
I’m not one of those people who disrespects the dead just to be cute. So when I say it’s too bad that Donald Rumsfeld didn’t quite live long enough to personally witness what an utter debacle his Afghanistan occupation turned out to be, I’m not being flippant. It would have been completely appropriate as an act of poetic justice.
Dick Cheney, of course, is still alive as of this writing, and apparently unrepentant for anything he’s done.
Rumsfeld always struck me as not quite occupying that ninth and final circle of Hell, the one Cheney will surely hold court in upon his passing. Rumsfeld had enough of the technocrat in him to be able to see the error of his ways, even if only in the spirit of scientific experimentation.
There are different stages of evil.
The similarly technocratic architect of the Vietnam debacle, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, famously took part in an Academy Award-winning documentary in which his work is relentlessly critiqued. McNamara himself seemed, while not necessarily repentant in a religious sense, certainly open to the critiques both of himself and of that war.
I can imagine Rumsfeld, had he lived a few months longer, participating in a similar documentary about Afghanistan, for what that would be worth.
Speaking of poetic justice, the fact that the Afghanistan war, America’s longest, comes to an ignominious if totally necessary end almost to the day of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is so plainly symbolic as to not even be believable in a movie script.
The script was flipped, I guess, in that the intention was probably not to mark the 20th year in Afghanistan as a devastating defeat of the American empire.
Back to 9/11. A coworker told me the news that Tuesday as I walked up to the Creative Loafing office on Victory Drive. In that pre-social media era, they’d been following the coverage on a small black and white TV in the office.
Unaware then of the scope of the human loss in the attacks, my very first thought, I admit, was that “I guess Bush finally got his war.” I’m pretty sure I said that out loud.
I feel really bad admitting this, for the obvious reason that the massive loss of life that day was clearly the more immediately notable thing to be alarmed about for anyone with a heart and soul.
Then again, I wasn’t wrong. Bush got his war.
Of course, not much got done around the office that morning. We were all glued to the coverage, which just got excruciatingly worse in real time.
I cannot describe to you the visceral, primal fear when the second tower went down, with so many cameras on it. It was the fall of that second tower that so terrified a nation, that burned the event into our collective retinas.
I did get on the internet to learn as much as I could, but the breadth of offerings then was limited. Remember, there was no Twitter, no Reddit, and thank God no Facebook.
The weirdest thing I personally experienced as a journalist after the 9/11 attack was the press release we got from Jack Kingston, then the Savannah-area Congressman.
Kingston, a Republican, would very soon become a key player in the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld push to war and empire. Jack also became a regular in the then-burgeoning world of cable TV punditry.
You remember all that foolishness about “Freedom Fries” and American flag lapel pins? Kingston was a loyal foot soldier in those ridiculous post-9/11 culture wars that set the tone for all the ridiculous culture wars we fight 24/7 today on social media.
More dangerously, he was not only a proponent of Endless War but of the expansion of the national surveillance state and destruction of the U.S. Constitution via the Patriot Act, a heinous piece of legislation passed just a month after the 9/11 attacks in a jingoistic orgy of fascist fervor.
That all of this completely self-subverted Kingston’s own alleged libertarian leanings was just part of the overall political theatre of the time.
(Kingston has of course been replaced in the seat by Buddy Carter. As much of a garden variety lunkhead as Kingston can be, he is truly Einstein, Galileo, and Descartes combined compared to Carter. But I digress.)
The press release we got from Kingston’s office was mostly about the attack on the Pentagon, with attached photos of various airplane parts strewn about in front of the damaged walls of the building.
Two things jumped out at me about the release. First, some vague, unformed conspiratorial thoughts about how odd it was that the airplane parts arranged on the lawn in front of the Pentagon seemed to be in really decent shape for just having bashed into a massively reinforced wall at hundreds of miles per hour.
Secondly, and most importantly, the tone of the press release was like, “Hey, don’t forget about us politicians here in DC. What are we, chopped liver?”
The same day 3000 people lost their lives in New York, here we had a sitting Congressman, in almost a kind of narcissistic fashion, redirecting attention to Washington, where (thankfully) far fewer people were killed.
This was prophetic, but I wasn’t quite smart enough to realize it at the time. In the months and years following 9/11, the Washington DC military/industrial metroplex would be the beneficiary of trillions of dollars in investment and new federal spending.
If you look at a graph of the extraordinary job growth in the years between 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008, the lion’s share of it is purely in the DC/Northern Virginia area.
The nation literally retooled its core business — weapons, war, and surveillance — in response to 9/11. And business was booming.
Washington DC became by some metrics the new economic driver of the country, nearly displacing the New York City that was the main target of the attacks.
But my journalistic focus then as now was not on economics, but on the preservation of civil liberties. I guess if I had to cop to a particular political ideology or orientation, it would be to call myself a “civil libertarian.” However, I almost never actually use that phrase, because I really don’t want people to think I’m a literal libertarian, a philosophy I don’t subscribe to.
The catalogue of offenses to civil liberties after 9/11 and the Patriot Act came in hot and heavy, and still keep coming to this day. Honestly, the country is barely recognizable from 20 years ago.
The most egregious and instantly observable result was a wave of targeted harassment and surveillance of Muslims all over the country.
The FBI and the weirdly named new Homeland Security Department — didn’t the Nazis like to use the word “homeland” a lot? — worked overtime infiltrating mosques and cultivating informants, purely on the basis of religion and ethnicity.
Soon after Sept. 11, a Republican congressman from Louisiana named John Cooksey said, “If I see someone come in and he’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked.”
(He was referring to Sikhs, who aren’t even Muslim, thus only further reinforcing the racism inherent in our national policy at the time.)
Nobody lost their job or position for saying things like this. It was, as I said, in the air.
You only lost your job going the other direction. Middling comedian Bill Maher had his entire show canceled for insinuating that it took a fair amount of courage to give up your life in a suicide terror attack. A statement which, while certainly not displaying ideal timing, wasn't wrong.
We started torturing people.
We started torturing people. And if you spoke out against it you were labeled as some kind of traitor.
We tortured people at a base in Cuba, a country Americans love to lecture about violating human rights.
We tortured people at a base in Bagram, Afghanistan, called a “black site” because no figurative light enters or leaves. No prying eyes.
Bagram became such a place of national shame and sinister evil that I’m convinced that’s one reason we literally abandoned it in the middle of the night this summer, without even telling our Afghan “allies.”
Can you imagine? Those guys will literally be the first people to get their heads chopped off for collaborating with the Americans, and we didn’t even tell them we were leaving.
Let that be a lesson to you, kids. Don’t be friends with America. We’ll always leave you hanging — sometimes literally.
We entered the era of Security Theatre, when all kinds of institutions adopted all kinds of heavy-handed security measures to show they cared, to show they were Doing Something.
We all have to take our shoes off to get on an airplane forever, for the rest of our lives, because of that one guy with that one crazy shoe-bomb idea.
Aren’t the long lines at TSA waiting to take their shoes off and put them back on just as juicy a target as an airplane? Never mind, it’s Security Theatre. We’re Doing Something.
The big patriotic show extended to sports and entertainment. Airplanes had to perform flyovers before football games. That almost never happened before.
You know the big deal about singing the national anthem before sporting events – literally any sporting event from pee wee football to the Super Bowl? Kids, that was barely a thing before 9/11.
We started spying on everything and everybody, all the time. Just as people like me tried to warn about, only to be called a traitor or terrorist, etc.
Edward Snowden blew the whistle on America’s illegal and unconstitutional surveillance of its own citizens, in defiance of our own law. For his efforts he was himself declared a traitor. He will likely be forced to live out the rest of life abroad to avoid prison in his own country.
Julian Assange blew the whistle on American war crimes in Iraq. For his efforts he was himself declared a traitor — despite not even being an American citizen, but an Australian one. After extradition he could waste away in a U.S. supermax prison reserved for ultraviolent criminals. And ironically, for actual terrorists like the aforementioned shoe-bomber.
As repressive and stupid as the media environment is in this country today, it was exponentially worse for journalists and truth-tellers in the years immediately following 9/11.
The only time I have ever been in fear of my job for having an unpopular political opinion was in the years from late 2001 to about 2004. In other words, from 9/11 to about the time everyone began realizing the Iraq War was a massive fucking mistake.
During those years, it’s no exaggeration to say that Americans really did — as Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer infamously warned — have to “watch what they say, watch what they do.”
We talk a lot today about Cancel Culture, and whether or not it exists.
(By the way and to be clear, it obviously does exist. As proof simply go on social media right now, right this second, and state that Cancel Culture exists — and see how quickly there’s an attempt to cancel you for saying so. But I digress.)
Folks, there was no Cancel Culture like post-9/11 Cancel Culture. Because Cancel Culture then not only involved family, friends, and coworkers, but the full might and force of the U.S. government.
A year after 9/11 — when all kinds of very important people were very obviously lying and perjuring themselves to make the case for invading Iraq — to come out and say the invasion was a terrible idea and had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks was in a very real sense to put your career into someone else’s hands.
For me as a journalist, to see so much of the mainstream media glaringly adopt the same jingoistic, retrograde, fact-free positions as the Bush administration only reinforced to me the need to stay in alternative, independent media, and stay as far away from the CNNs and Fox Newses of the world as possible.
The night in March 2003 when American bombs and cruise missiles started leveling whole city blocks in Baghdad — wiping out hundreds of civilians in terror bombing euphemistically called “Shock and Awe” — was a disgusting exercise in media malfeasance that marked me for life.
The almost sexual, serial killer delight that mainstream news anchors showed — and not just on Fox News, to be clear — in orgasmically describing the carnage and indiscriminate killing of Iraqi civilians was a low point in American history in general, and American journalism in particular.
Maybe the weirdest thing about all the anti-Muslim racism and prejudice of the time is how, shall we say, selective it was.
Hey kids, did you know that Osama Bin Laden and almost all the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia?
You know, the same Saudi Arabia that we continued to sell billions of dollars in weapons to after 9/11?
You know, the same Saudi Arabia whose royal family was recently involved in the literal death and dismemberment of a Washington Post journalist?
Look, I’m not in favor of any kind of prejudice. What I’m saying is given all the suspicion and paranoia being thrown around after 9/11, wouldn't it be at least a teeny bit understandable to throw a little bit of it in the direction of Saudi Fuckin’ Arabia?
But in the mind of the gullible and easily propagandized American public, the Saudis — the actual, literal perpetrators of the 9/11 hijackings — get a pass. It seems they will always get a pass.
No, for most Americans, the face of Islamic “terror” is the Palestinian shopkeeper eking by an existence in the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip, whose whole block is destroyed by a bomb from an Israeli F-16.
For most Americans, the face of Islamic “terror” is an entire family in Afghanistan vaporized by a U.S. drone strike – 90 percent of the victims of which are innocent.
For most Americans, the face of Islamic “terror” is a fighter in the Taliban, reprehensible for his backward misogyny and terrible record on women’s rights.
A terrible record on women's rights almost exactly matched by the governments of many countries that the U.S. not only recognizes diplomatically, but sells shit tons of weapons to and considers major allies.
(The Taliban, at least, came by their American weapons honestly. We just left them behind for them to take.)
20 years later, with the sting of defeat in Afghanistan still in our mouths, the wages of American imperialism become clear.
We’re just not that good at it. We need to stop.
Virtually all of our living memory is a decades-long record of sending American troops into wars they have no business in.
Arguably, the last industrialized, nearly equal opponent we defeated in an essentially one-on-one fight was Imperial Japan.
(Hey Jim, what about the Nazis, you say? A full 75-80 percent of the Nazi war effort went to fighting Russians, not Americans or British. The Red Army had already been steamrolling the Germans for a full year before the D-Day landings, which unfortunately are about the only thing Americans are taught about World War II.)
Nearly every fight we’ve sent American fighting men and women into in the 75 years since World War II has mostly been either a losing one or one against vastly outmatched opponents, mostly in the service of weapons contractors and U.S corporate interests for whom military victory is tangential.
The image of helicopters assisting fleeing Americans, doubly iconic from both Vietnam and now from Afghanistan, isn't an anomaly. It's baked in the cake.
The key is not victory, but in milking the wars and milking the system. To get the American public’s buy-in for that requires an almost never-ending amount of propaganda and mendacity, on the part of our media and our ruling establishment in both parties.
Hey kids — I think you might be the generation that’s finally able to break the vicious cycle.
I’m sorry we fucked things up so bad that it got to this point.