A year ago, on the afternoon of September 11, when I couldn't bear to watch the awful images from New York City and Washington, D.C., any longer, I went to my office and hurriedly wrote a few paragraphs for National Review Online. The brief article was posted on their website at 7:30 p.m. New York time, and so probably qualifies as one of the earliest editorial reactions to the day's savage attacks. I concluded the piece with a kind of prediction: "Our enemies underestimate American courage, forgetting that American democracy has ever been a fighting faith."
A year later, we pause to remember and to take stock. How goes the fight that we are in, and do we still have faith in it? More broadly, what does the past year reveal about our faith in American democracy itself? Let me try to answer these questions by meditating, briefly, on developments as they have affected America in three respects our character, our principles, and our duty under the present circumstances.
Initially, the country reeled in shock, disbelief, and fear. One year later, the shadow of death and despair has passed over us. It proved evanescent because the American spirit reasserted itself more quickly than
the terrorists had figured and than many of us had feared and to be sure, because they didn't manage to strike again so spectacularly. The destruction in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania stunned us momentarily but it also filled Americans with patriotic and righteous indignation. Peering through the smoke and ash, we saw the familiar outlines of the American character reasserting itself. Once again the American alchemy took place and the common man showed himself capable of uncommon virtues.
Firemen and policemen had a job to do and they did it not stintingly but courageously. Aboard United flight 93, the passengers had to assume responsibility for a task that was no one's clear responsibility, because it could hardly have been imagined before takeoff. Here was the spirit of self-government in action in that quintessentially American moment when after praying and voting together, the passengers resolved to resist their murderous captors. That moment came so naturally, though I'm sure reluctantly, to those brave men and women because it evoked the mystic chords of memory connecting them to generations of praying, voting, and fighting Americans stretching back to the Puritans. Here was the great secret of the American soul, shown at Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and Bastogne, revealed yet again: that freedom is our form of longing for excellence.
The only throwback to September 11's initial fearfulness and self-doubt, so far as I can tell, is the passion for internal security measures that is about to be institutionalized in the new Department of Homeland
Security. Not that certain defensive steps might not be valuable. But the spirit of homeland defense is not that of the militia of old, nor even that of the duck-and-cover civil defense drills of the Cold War-era (whose purpose
was at least clear), much less that of the valiant passengers of flight 93. On the contrary: the predominant theme of homeland defense is not civic virtue but civic anxiety. This anxiety is to be cured, or rather alleviated, by techniques partly therapeutic and partly bureaucratic. Call it bureaucratic therapy, to be administered by government experts. The epitome of these efforts is airport security.
Manifestly, airport security is not a system designed to catch terrorists. This is a system designed to whip the population into line, actually into several lines, each filled with resentful citizens, many shoeless, shuffling back and forth through screeching portals. It is as if, in a single stroke, America had been returned to the soup lines of the Great Depression, except that there is no soup. Only in the bowels of this new bureaucracy does the view live on that every American is at once a potential terrorist victim and a potential terrorist suspect. The point of airport security is not so much to make you secure but to make you feel secure, which they accomplish by wandings, patdowns, and other harrassing procedures. The reasoning seems to be that if you and your fellow passengers become sufficiently annoyed, you will forget about your fear. And once you've achieved freedom from fear, you are, so to speak, safe. Of course, one of the byproducts of this approach is to generate among the flying public a sullen cynicism towards homeland security, and by extension towards the whole government. By the tortured logic of this program, however, that just goes to show why you can't trust the flying public!
Americans put up with this arbitrariness because they think it somehow a contribution to the war effort. It is harder to see why President Bush puts up with it, but then he gets to fly Air Force One.
One of the most striking aspects of Americans' reaction to 9/11 was the public outpouring of religious sentiment and ceremony. Millions of prayers rose heavenward on that day, and for months afterward the churches and synagogues were packed. The formerly naked public square was suddenly and richly clothed. President Bush led a moving, ecumenical prayer service at the National Cathedral. Face-to-face with evil, even the A.C.L.U. blinked. No lawsuits were filed challenging the use of public property for religious purposes or seeking to enjoin firemen and policemen from praying on the job.
Yet this was more a ceasefire than a victory in the battle over the public significance of religion. Already the federal judiciary has roused itself. A Ninth Circuit panel ruled that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance creates an unconstitutional establishment of religion in the United States, and accordingly forbade public schoolteachers to lead their students in reciting the Pledge. On a happier note, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers are not unconstitutional just because some parents might spend them at schools encouraging pious acts between consenting adults and even between children.
Alongside the religious outpouring, the revival of patriotism was the clearest sign of the political change wrought by 9/11. Though the flag-waving has subsided, most citizens still feel a renewed loyalty and, as the Pledge case shows, public opinion does not look kindly on those who would try to divorce our country's cause from its service to liberty and justice, under God.
Nonetheless, distrust of this kind of patriotism runs deep among American intellectuals, and a cooling trend, blowing from the mountains of the extreme Left, has begun to set in among the foothills and will, in all probability, touch eventually the vast plains of the liberal Center. Let me put the question squarely: Can we pronounce the attacks of September 11 to be evil, or not? Not merely the extreme Left, but many mainstream liberals and even some deluded conservatives squirmed and objected when Ronald Reagan pronounced the Soviet Union an "evil empire." Now the same issue arises in a new context. The intellectual Left faces a dilemma. On the one hand, Osama bin Laden is not exactly a liberal posterchild, what with his penchant for oppressing women, persecuting homosexuals, and rejecting Supreme Court doctrine on the separation of church and state. On the other hand, he and his gang are an authentic culture or subculture unto themselves, are anti-bourgeois, and strive to resist American imperialism. Who are we to condemn them? muses the Left.
Behind this moral and intellectual abdication is the doctrine called postmodernism, which is simply relativism dressed up in robes and mortarboard. Postmodernists find everything ironic, including themselves (or so they say), and they delight in deconstructing structures of power even as they build powerful structures for themselves within our universities. They take nothing seriously because they think, seriously, that nothing exists outside the flux of forces and values. In particular, there is no moral or political truth "out there," as Richard Rorty, a prominent postmodernist, likes to say. Hence patriotism is their bete noire. American patriots take themselves and their country seriously because they know that "liberty and justice for all" reflects God's and nature's intention for man. From the perspective of liberal postmodernism, patriots "don't get it"; don't understand that there is no truth, only perspectives. Cleverly, however, most postmodernists claim to want to save patriotism by recreating it on relativist grounds: I pledge allegiance to the flag of my choice, and to the notions for which it stands, under Nietzsche, so long as no animals were harmed in making it and no one was offended by the mistaken notion that this flag is better than any other flag.
September 11 was a deathblow to postmodernism, we are often told. I wish this were true. President Bush has tried repeatedly to show that the attacks prove that there is a real difference between good and evil, and his and Mayor Guiliani's speeches contain powerful moral testimonies. Nevertheless, they make their moral case by pointing to the facts to the collapsed Towers, the shattered Pentagon, the anguished last calls from doomed husbands, wives, parents, and children. These facts speak for themselves, Bush and Guiliani say in effect. And they do; and the American people understand this. The facts speak, but they do not say enough. War is a coldhearted business, and democracies are better at fighting wars than many critics think because the people understand perfectly well that at some point it comes down to this: either we are going to kill you or you are going to kill us. The red ants and the black ants, in their own way, understand this, too. But this sentiment is no refutation of postmodernism. In fact, it is highly compatible with the postmodern fascination with the will to power and its urge to strip away all ethical significance from human life. This is not the faith that we are fighting for, and our statesmen have made this clear too, and the people affirm it.
Still, the reasons, the arguments that anchor America's democratic-republican faith are neither explored nor exploited as they should be. One searches, not quite in vain but certainly in exasperation, for statements that could be said to be genuinely Lincolnian or Jeffersonian; statements that would be useful not only in refuting relativism and its twin, fanaticism, but in elaborating the truths of free government. On this front the churches have failed us even more than our political class. There are no postmodernist grounds for condemning the terrorists' attacks on September 11. Nor are there any grounds for celebrating them, except perhaps self-hate: admiration for the daring actions of cruel men who would despise these academic gamesmen. Most American liberals are not postmodernist, at least not yet; but neither do they offer any good arguments against it. Few conservatives do, either, which is a sign of the larger problem. The patriotic American consensus may hold, but make no mistake, it is under pressure. The longer and more indecisively the war drags on, the greater the pressure will become.
No survey of America after 9/11 can neglect the economy. The New Yorker cartoon is eloquent on the subject: two stock brokers in a bar, one having a boilermaker and the other working on his second martini. Says the latter between sips and between puffs on his cigarette (this is not a California bar): "I want my bubble back."
The bubble has burst, thanks partly, though only partly, to September 11. It had to pop sooner or later. At Milton Friedman's 90th birthday party, the after-dinner entertainment consisted of...Milton Friedman answering questions. I liked especially his answer to the one about the bubble. This is a profit-and-loss system, he explained, in which the losses are just as important as the profits, maybe more so. There is nothing wrong with the system, which is working exactly as it should. He pointed out that the illegal shenanigans at Enron and other corporations had been brought to light by the market itself, and that the market, in advance of any changes in the law, had begun to reward those companies that had adopted more transparent accounting practices. Finally, he offered two words of advice good, he said, in almost any situation: "Don't panic."
Whether or not the economy is completely self-correcting, it certainly achieved an odd prominence in America's reaction to 9/11. With patriotic impulses surging through it, the nation was poised for mobilization and sacrifice, but neither conscription nor a war economy seemed appropriate for the war we were in. (Not even the "national greatness" conservatives called for a revival of the draft.) The nation was puzzled: how could it contribute to victory? In a strange anticlimax, President Bush advised us to go shopping, to support the war by strengthening the peacetime economy. A bit of patriotism's lightning was drained away by that call, however necessary it might have been in order to jolt Americans out of their homes, where they hunkered in front of the television news. Politically, his emphasis on the economy makes its rather dismaying performance since 9/11 more of a liability for the President than it might have been. The revelations of corporate corruption did not help, either. They looked especially tawdry when compared to the firemen's and policemen's heroics.
Mayor Giuliani's and President Bush's words and deeds were vital to the larger recovery of American self-confidence after 9/11. Their words were deeds, and their deeds had an eloquence of their own. Still, their remarks, even the President's fine speech on September 20 and his State of the Union Address, fell short of the Churchillian, and it was the words of Todd Beamer that Bush chose to characterize the country's response to September 11: "Let's roll."
"Let's roll" is the kind of thing that George Bush could have said; it is the kind of rhetoric he likes, pithy and preparatory to action. But "let's roll" became a kind of national slogan not because Bush repeated it but because it struck a nerve: it signaled courageous resolve in a moment of disheartening national paralysis. The spirit of flight 93 was reaffirmed in the American military's smashing success in Afghanistan. But a year after 9/11, is the country still rolling? If so, towards what?
Whatever else it was, September 11 represented a flagrant breakdown of American strategy. Historically, our grand strategy was whenever possible to fight our wars abroad over there, not over here. On 9/11, our enemies brought the battle to us. What's more, we may infer from their past conduct (e.g., regarding the World Trade Center) that these enemies like to finish the job, which is why the unconsummated attack on Washington, D.C., is worrisome. And like pornographers, the terrorists have to top themselves in order to continue to shock their audience. To be effective, their terrorism must be ever more lurid, more spectacular. To put an end to it, our war must also be short, violent, memorable: we must wage war energetically, for the sake of a victory impressive enough to deter future atrocities against the United States. At a minimum, this demands the destruction of the Iraqi tyrant and his regime.
A few weeks ago, I listened to former Gov. Tom Ridge, soon to be the new secretary in charge of Homeland Security, confess to his audience that he did not think there would ever be a V-T Day, a Victory over Terrorism Day, on the order of V-E or V-J Day, ending the Second World War. He doubted, in other words, that we would ever attain a clear-cut victory in the present war. This is a formula for the long-term demoralization of our fighting faith; a strategy for defeat, or at any rate not for victory. The great question for our country is which policy the Bush Administration will pursue: war for the sake of victory and peace, or war without end.
In formulating its strategy, the Administration will be guided or at least constrained to some extent by public opinion. It's curious that the public has so far not united around a watchword regarding 9/11, a slogan meant to engage our memory and our conscience. Is this a backhanded tribute to liberal postmodernism's growing influence? In its view, the past has nothing to teach us because it is all interpretation; the postmodern slogan, so characteristic of the Clinton administration, is "let's move on." Past generations of Americans refused to do this, refused to betray those who had sacrificed on their behalf. Think of our ancestors' great battlecries: Remember Pearl Harbor. Remember the Lusitania. Remember the Maine. Remember the Alamo.
Yet no one vows, "Remember 9/11." We may quietly say or wish it, but it is not a sacred oath constantly on our lips, our billboards, or our televisions. Without such a promise, however, we are prone to forget why and where we are rolling. Victory loses its luster, and its urgency, when prescinded from the reasons we are at war. How then should be commemorate September 11? Not as victims though we must never forget the brave and the innocent who were slaughtered but as proud citizens, intent on vindicating our fallen comrades. The phrase 9/11 caught on in part because it coincided with 9-1-1, the well-known emergency telephone number, employed on that horrible day a year ago. But 9-1-1 is a call for help. 9/11 must be a call to arms. Let it become our battlecry: Remember 9/11.