IT WAS THE WORST of times. But in our grief, our fury, we made halting efforts to say that maybe September 11 would lead to the best of times. In the aftermath of the Islamic attack, maybe America would come together. Maybe we would defeat terrorism. We were wrong.
Absorbing the event itself was a Herculean effort. To see the Twin Towers in New York City vanish, like some repulsively persuasive special effect in the latest action movie, and then to see them vanish again and again as we compulsively watched the news footage, became an act of near-religious observance. We felt an obligation to keep watching the destruction in New York, at the Pentagon, in that field in Pennsylvania. Our vigil morphed into a sacrament in all but name, a vicarious participation in the deaths of what we were first told might be more than 10,000 people. It was as if we who were alive couldn’t let go of those who had perished unless we latched onto their deaths as if we too had died.
In our grief, we grasped at straws. The first was the notion that our anguish would unite us the way the political murders of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had united us in the 1960s. The second was our belief that we would prevent this ever from happening again. That we would strike without hesitation at those who had engineered, financed, and effected this new day. That we would destroy the perpetrators of 9/11 with speed and decisiveness. That there would be a conclusion.
Of course, we were wrong. We didn’t come together and we didn’t destroy the enemy.
WE LEARNED something, though. We learned that we didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about what had happened. Our words were either too anemic or too overblown. We tried to find context for the day by talking of it incessantly, as if by doing so we could knit a protective shield against the agony. In truth, we had no words at all.
We noted the ... magnificence of the mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. We never said what later became obvious: that while he was superb, any intelligent mayor of New York would have been superb in those circumstances. We were looking not for brilliant speeches but for a fatherly embrace. The mayor (soon dubbed "the mayor of America" and later designated Time magazine’s Man of the Year) eschewed the brilliant speeches and extended the embrace. He was everywhere, he was one with the city.
We noted the ... leadership of the president. A week after the attacks, President Bush delivered a masterful speech, and an embrace too. Thus the man who had been regarded by many as the accidental president and by almost all as minor league became a giant. Again, we never said that while he did his job superbly, the occasion truly made the man.
The term crusade came and went with the speed of those four planes that took 3000 to their deaths. It was replaced with war on terrorism. Which terrorism? We neither set out to rid the world of any of the many known non-Islamic terrorists (the Irish Republican Army, Basque separatists, Peru’s communist Shining Path) nor to target those terrorist organizations (Hamas, Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad) overlapping Al Qaeda, the one we had determined was the Enemy.
We described the Enemy in politically correct baby talk drained of meaning and vague to the point of inanity. At its worst, this impulse led us to say that the culprits adhered to a renegade brand of Islam, as if a religion is merely what its most cordial advocates say it is rather than what its most zealous devotees show it to be. We talked as if Osama bin Laden’s gang were a tiny coterie, ignoring the reality of the worldwide Muslim expression of joy at what happened on September 11.
Hoisted on that petard, so beloved by the president, we manufactured an Islam that isn’t — hence the president’s hyperbolic babbling about Islam as a "religion of peace." We have yet to figure out how to be intellectually honest about the full reality of the Enemy as Islamist lunacy in its many forms: puritanical Wahhabist fanaticism (convert or die, and when converted, follow exactly our interpretations); dictatorial repressiveness; monarchical medievalism; the Palestinian equating of martyrdom with the murder of innocents; scientific development of weapons that, if used, would only unleash a second Holocaust.
The notion that we could prattle mindlessly about a kind of all-purpose war on terrorism, instead of putting in the necessary adjective — Islamist — is an idea fit only for fabulists. The inability even to utter the words war on Islamist terrorism made strategizing this "war" difficult to the point of impossibility. Especially after we had bombed Afghanistan and chased out a large portion of the Taliban who had ruined that country but who had, after all, only hosted Osama bin Laden. Because we cannot bear to talk like adults about the task and the Enemy, we cannot conceptualize what we should be doing.
WHICH BRINGS us to the one-year anniversary of the Islamist attack. We are terrorizing ourselves with the creation of absurd "security" devices and Rube Goldberg–like apparatus at our airports, sports stadiums, and many other places. We have accepted with little complaint our Justice Department’s substitution of tattling for serious espionage and intelligence gathering. We are bemoaning the lousy stock-market numbers, the apparently stalled economic "recovery," and nestling comfortably, as was inevitable, in partisan quibbling. We’re back in the kingdom of Gotcha: Gotcha, Dick Cheney, you were a CEO! Gotcha, Joe Lieberman, you don’t want stock options counted as a liability! Gotcha, George W., you owned a profitable baseball team! None of this is more unseemly now than before 9/11, but we had become so wrapped up in our sense of wonderfulness, of the "united" part of our national name, that we actually vowed we would never again descend to business as usual.
We had snatches of an artificial unity for a few weeks, but it was gossamer. It was a unity premised on a fantasy, that fury at the monstrous act would give us a common cause. In reality, America is neither the mythic melting pot nor, in the words of the previous mayor of New York, a gorgeous mosaic. We are a nation of disparate parts, instructed by our leading propagandists and educators to think of ourselves not as Americans but as hyphenated tribes. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore famously mistranslated e pluribus unum as "out of one, many." Maybe his subconscious slip was telling an unhappy truth.
Today, our leaders talk as if finding bin Laden will successfully conclude the war on terrorism. Or that "taking out" the dictator of Iraq is the same as infusing a maddened and self-destructive region with democratic ideology and democratic institutions. We don’t have leaders who talk straight. We bounce around in uncertainty. We confuse the bluster of media stars with profundity. There is no one person or thing to make a whole out of the separate ingredients of our populace. There is no one person or thing to propel us to do what is necessary to defeat Islamist terrorism, which isn’t surprising, since most of us are too squeamish to call it by name. No, today we include the grabby ones who think that their loss of a loved one on September 11 entitles them to millions of dollars, although the loss of a soldier brings his or her family paltry thousands. We are the preachy, who tell doubters that if only they believed more in our definition of the divinity, they would be saved and welded into an impregnable nation, and our divinity will defeat the Enemy’s false god, because our divinity roots for our team. We have become to some extent laughably juvenile.
We are living in a continuous state of apprehension, counting the days until the next attack and repeating the now-standard mantra that we will only unite more when — not if, but when — we’re hit again. That we’ll strike even harder, more righteously, and more effectively. We have spent a year failing to synchronize the necessary ideas with the necessary actions. Our borders remain scandalously porous: tuck a suitcase bomb into the truck of your car and drive right in from Canada. We delude ourselves by thinking that a photo ID is proof against evil intent. We allow our e-mails to be invaded by our dubiously named Department of Justice while nests of terrorists undoubtedly continue to thrive in our territory as they do in Europe. We countenance an absurd policy of "random" scrutiny of airplane passengers rather than engage in thoughtful profiling, lest we be accused of racism. Our president spends ample time cozying up to the smarmy representatives of the House of Saud — oil is king — while we require nothing of that monarchy by way of assisting us in locating terrorists. If anything is of use, we eschew it; if something is pointless but looks good on the evening news, we go with it. We have resolved nothing. We have managed to offend those we shouldn’t, like the Israelis, by excluding them entirely from our plans to confront Iraq, but not those we should, like the Pakistani government, which countenances terrorist encampments in its territory, and, again, the Saudis, who mount telethons to fund the families of homicide-bombers in Israel, blatantly giving their imprimatur to terrorism. To fear offending an enemy who took down the two towers of the World Trade Center, drilled a hole through the Pentagon, and left a death pit in Pennsylvania is a strange way to bind the nation’s wounds.
We did not come together after September 11. It wasn’t, even in the most metaphoric and hope-filled sense, "the best of times." It was the worst of times. Not solely because of the death and destruction of that day, but also because of what we’ve become in its aftermath: preposterously maudlin. Ineffectively incendiary. Painfully earnest. Muddled.
We are foolishly polite when we need to be fiercely determined. To give this vaunted "war on terrorism" legitimacy and determination and purpose, we might recall the words of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," written in 1861, during a time of national crisis like none we’ve seen till now. The Civil War was waged to save the republic; today’s war against Islamist terrorism must be waged to save Western civilization. It requires precisely, in Julia Ward Howe’s unparalled image, that "terrible swift sword."
David Brudnoy teaches in the College of Communication at Boston University, hosts a WBZ Radio talk program, and reviews films for the Community Newspaper Company.