Iraq is far away — on this the Bush administration counts. If your child or spouse or friend has not died there or your friends or relatives aren’t billeted there, the war in Iraq is an abstraction and American deaths in Baghdad or Baquba or Najaf at best tiny, abstract tragedies like those “walls” of faces of the dead in periodic newspaper memorials, each no bigger than your littlest fingernail.
To make that war just a little less abstract, for a moment, let’s imagine our troops not in Iraq but at the top of some vast tower of a skyscraper from which, every day, two, or three, or four of them are forced in full view to leap to their deaths, as in fact many workers in the Twin Towers did on that fateful day exactly three years ago. Imagine further that the pile of those who have leaped and died, young soldiers, male and female, sent to fight our President’s “war on terror” on the battlefields of Iraq, has slowly risen until by the third cycle through the first 11 days of September, this September 33rd you might say, it has already passed the thousand-body height, only several hundred short of the halfway mark to the total of those who died in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon that terrible morning.
With our generals and pundits talking about a 5 to 10 year stay in Iraq, with our President unwilling even to put a date on our departure because he considers us in a near eternal war with evil, with his opponent only hoping to pull our troops out by the end of a first term in office (leaving, of course, the young men and women of other lands to fight in their place), imagine further that by September 44th, given the present rising casualty rate, that pile of young bodies may be at, or close to, or just beyond the height of the one created on that very first September morning. Imagine then, on the fourth cycle from now, September 77th, or for that matter on the tenth cycle, September 110th, how high that pile might rise.
If you find this a disturbing image, then welcome to the world of September 33rd.
On that initial September 11th, thousands of people from many countries, all in three buildings, went to their deaths. By this September 33rd, three years later, in addition to those 1000-plus young Americans dead in Iraq; and another 132 in Afghanistan, and many thousands of Afghan civilians dead in our initial bombings and in the chaos as well as civil and guerrilla warfare that followed, the latest guesstimates on Iraqi civilian deaths go as high as 30,000 or more, not counting the thousands of Iraqi soldiers, often conscripts, who died in our several-week long invasion of the country. In the meantime, deaths worldwide from acts of terror, slaughters on trains in Spain, or in banks, hotels, and temples in Turkey, or in buses in Israel, or in the streets and clubs of Indonesia, or on the streets and in mosques in Pakistan, or in a classroom in Beslan — often thanks to disparate movements, causes, reasons — are significantly on the rise. And can there be any question that they feed upon one another, each new act of terror since September 11th, making others imaginable, possible, plausible. For all of the victims of these acts (and for the victims, whether in Chechnya, in the Palestinian occupied territories, or elsewhere of acts that made these acts conceivable), and especially for those who suffer directly because of the decisions of the Bush administration, we would have to commandeer many towers from which streams of horrified and often utterly innocent people, young and old, whose main attribute, it often seems, is simply that they are not Americans, would have to leap.
And, if George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others in this administration are right, we should be thinking of this as nothing but Death’s hors d’oeuvres, with the main feast, a gorging guaranteed to last years and years, still to come. From the moment that whacked-out former CIA director and neocon James Woolsey publicly stated during the invasion of Iraq what the rest of the neocons of the Bush administration already wanted to believe — that we were in World War IV — the President and the Vice President have been plugging the theme of eternal war on a World War II template of “theaters” (“the Iraqi theater”) and “fronts” (“Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism”).
In this approach, they undoubtedly feel there is practical, short-term help for their reelection bid. After all, the President’s father won his Gulf War but ended it too soon — not only before Saddam fell but so many months before his reelection campaign that his wartime popularity ratings plunged. In the opposites game his son has long been playing, he and his advisors surely see a powerful advantage in eternal war against that vague boogeyman Terror, a “war” that should never leave an opening for the voting public to consider realities at home (as they did in the 1992 election).
But, of course, there’s far more to it than that. They have a deep desire to be in a new age of “world war.” It suits their vision of power and dominance, and so they’ve done much to create a world at war; but they also want to be able to cycle endlessly back to their version of September 11th, 2001 as if time itself had stood still. It hasn’t. We are no longer in the world that existed on that terrible day, a world from which there were undoubtedly a number of paths to take, a number of responses open to us all. They took one path. They willingly stepped through the door to carnage that Osama Bin Laden had so thoughtfully left open for them, and so stepped into the world as imagined by a minor Saudi figure, a wealthy young man seized by fundamentalist belief. He had played a modest role in the CIA’s and the Pakistani intelligence services’ successful attempt to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. He was a man without a home, who had wandered the world making what once seemed grandiose, even ludicrous, pronouncements, but now seem anything but.
In its audacity, the plan he put his stamp of approval on for September 11, 2001 still takes one’s breath away. It was hidden in plain sight. After all, its perpetrators, the men preparing to commit mass murder, entered our country largely under their own names, took flight lessons in full view, bought the paper-cutters and mace, bags and airline tickets here, and then boarded those planes without much ado or challenge. They were successful because no one who mattered was looking, least of all the leading figures in the Bush administration, a group of political as well as religious fundamentalists and Cold Warriors who weren’t giving a second’s serious thought to acts of terror in the United States.
Our leaders go to war
Like them, for a moment, let’s cycle back to that original September 11th. I remember exactly where I was in New York City that day and just how strange and disorienting it felt. On the anniversary of that moment, we all spend time remembering where we were, and where those people in the towers were, and what they, as well as those who tried so desperately to rescue them, were going through. Far less attention is paid to the September 11th of the two men, along with Osama bin Laden, who would plunge us into what can only be imagined as a new era — George Bush and Dick Cheney. On this September 33rd, while the expectable articles of memorial are appearing, few indeed will be remembering George and Dick’s September 11th, 2001, and yet their acts on that day told us all too much about where we were headed.
As The 9/11 Commission Report reminds us, at the moment the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46:40 AM, the President was about to enter a classroom at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. He was informed by Karl Rove just before going in that “a small, twin-engined plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.” At 9:05 that morning, with the President and some schoolchildren sharing a book called My Pet Goat, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card entered the classroom and whispered in the President’s ear, “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” The President, as all who have spent time on-line or seen Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 know, sat immobilized in that classroom for another 5-7 minutes. “His instinct,” George Bush told the 9/11 Commission in his co-appearance with Dick Cheney, “was to project calm” and to avoid, he evidently claimed, scaring the reporters in the back of the classroom (even as “he saw their phones and pagers start to ring”). For all those who have seen the video of the President sitting in that classroom anxiously biting his lip, this is of course an absurd explanation. I think it’s safe to say that, marooned in that room without staff or advisors in the vicinity, he panicked and froze.
What happened next is, however, more interesting. He left the classroom just before 9:15 for a holding room and, while the Commission Report is painfully polite and circumspect about the minutes that follow, we do learn that “no one with the President was in contact with the Pentagon.” (This was before the Pentagon was hit by American Airlines Flight 77 at 9:37:46 AM.). This, remember, is our future “war president” girding for action. As it turns out, the only significant thing discussed, according to the Report, seems to have been a statement he was going to make to the American people. In other words, at a time when we were “under attack,” the only issue for the President and his aides was what he should say. (“The focus,” as the Report puts it dryly, “was on the President’s statement to the nation.”) Words, explanation, spin, this was how our war president and his advisors initially reacted to the assaults.
“The only decision made during this time,” the Report also claims, “was to return to Washington.” In fact, as we know, the President did not “return to Washington.” He and his aides boarded Air Force One and soon made a panic-stricken dash westward to nowhere in particular, landing first at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where the President made a stumbling statement to the nation (“which for security reasons was taped and not broadcast live,” says the Commission Report without further comment), and then on to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. This, then, was our future war president’s idea of leadership, something that looked remarkably like flight.
Put another way, the President froze initially; he and his advisors then thought only about what to say; they then panicked and headed or were directed away from the nation’s capital, not even making a “live” statement to a traumatized nation. His safety, in other words, was made paramount over anything else at the very moment when hundreds of people in New York City were making the safety of others paramount over theirs. By any other name, this would be called, if nothing else, institutional cowardice.
In the meantime, Vice President Cheney in Washington, as James Mann reported in the Atlantic Magazine, had panicked in quite a different but interconnected way, flipping into behavior from a long-practiced “Armageddon Plan” meant for nuclear war that functionally imagined the nation’s leadership beheaded. He promptly took over the government and was evidently himself most responsible for diverting the President away from Washington. (Who needed young George when everything was in Dick Cheney’s hands?)
According to reporter Scott Paltrow in the Wall Street Journal, Cheney told the President or his advisors that there was “a specific threat that Air Force One itself had been targeted by terrorists. Mr. Cheney emphasized that the threat included a reference to what he called the secret code word for the presidential jet, ‘Angel.'” This threat, Cheney later claimed, came to him from a Secret Service Agent or still later, from some unnamed “uniformed military person” who has never turned up again or been identified. The 9/11 Commission Report states (on p. 39) that “[t]he Vice President recalled urging the President not to return to Washington” and then (on p. 325) that this was due to “a misunderstood communication in the hectic White House Situation Room that morning.” Similarly, the Vice President claims he had a telephone conversation with the President in which he received George Bush’s personal directive to order the shooting down of hijacked planes (an order, his aide Scooter Libby says, he acted on decisively, “in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing”). Of this conversation, too, there is no record. The 9/11 Commission Report says only, “Among the sources that reflect other important events of that morning [including other similar phone calls], there is no documentary evidence for this call, but the relevant sources are incomplete.” (Even the Vice President’s wife “did not note [such] a call between the President and Vice President” and she seems to have been noting just about everything.)
Finally, we have on p. 43 of the Commission Report, a remarkable exchange between the Vice President, already in his Armageddon bunker – “the shelter,” the Commission Report calls it — and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld in which the Vice President claims to have ordered the shooting down of hijacked aircraft and “it’s my understanding they’ve already taken a couple of aircraft out.” It’s hard not to read pride into these statements. As we know, the Vice President would from then on remain largely embunkered in one fashion or another for months to come, hunkered down for and geared up for acts of war.
This then is the record of the Bush administration on their first September 11th. It reflects much that was to come. First of all, as we saw with the staggering levels of security employed for the recent Republican Convention, whether Americans are safer or not, our leaders have certainly made themselves the safest men on Earth. Nothing can happen to them. Of course, this, too, is a form of cowardice. From second one, their embunkering and their safety was their primary impulse. Their fear was a second theme. It was visible in the President in that classroom. It was visible in the Armageddon-style and Armageddon-style actions of the Vice President. It was reflected in the very locations where they chose to spend their time.
For the President in particular, the first post-9/11 hours were, I’m convinced, a humiliation. Almost everybody has experienced some terrible moment when you freeze and do not act as you might have wished. But not everybody is the President of the United States. Much of the bluster to follow — that “swagger” the President talked about in his Convention speech – was on his part, I believe, a reaction to and a deep desire to cover up the look (and perhaps the feel) of this missed moment. A third theme was certainly panic and, in the Vice-President’s case, rash and aggressive acts of war meant to take out… well, whomever.
Normally, the Vietnam-era records of these two men would not matter to me a bit. But in both cases they reflected a similar urge to duck at an earlier moment of crisis. What’s more striking than Dick Cheney’s various well-timed acts leading to deferments, or the string-pulling for George, or even his seeming avoidance of service for months at a time in those years is the fact that no record exists of their positions then. There are no statements at all from those years on the primary subject of that moment, wherever you stood, other than Cheney’s classic comment, “I had better things to do.” They didn’t oppose or support, they just evaded. It wasn’t draft-dodging; it was event dodging.
For them, those years are in a sense a blank. The only wars they had attended took place in the movie theaters of their childhoods where they watched mythologized versions of the World War II deeds of the previous generation. These were the thrilling visions of American victory which they carried, untarnished by the reality of war, untouched by the Vietnam years, right up to September 11, 2001 and into the years thereafter when George Bush would metamorphose into a swaggering “war president” with that crossed-out list of al-Qaeda “high value targets” in his desk drawer and his trophy from the unending war he did manage to start — Saddam’s pistol captured in that famed “spiderhole” — now hanging in the Monica Lewinsky memorial room in the White House.
Now, they have chosen the view from “the shelter” for all of us Americans. Their embunkered, panicky, fearful world is ours as well, and so many things Americans once thought valuable, freedoms especially, have been sacrificed thoughtlessly at its altar. For them, any carnage is permissible Out There as long as, first, they are safe, and second, Americans are safe. And now that we are even half-looking, it’s tough indeed to get operatives from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, North Africa or wherever into this country to commit mayhem. This was hardly a difficult trick. But from a global perspective, the decision to make American safety the only significant safety, to fight, as they love to say, “on their soil, not ours,” is perhaps the greatest cowardice of all. It represents an embunkering and a mad triumph of fundamentalist thought on all sides, political as well as religious, a formula guaranteed to terrorize our poor planet and sooner or later us as well. This is certainly the victory of Osama bin Laden.
So look at those many towers growing up right now in the soil of our damaged planet. Watch those distant figures dropping from their heights. Check out the piles of bodies rising ever higher. There’s no need to return to September 11th 2001, not when you can welcome yourself into the world of September 33rd.