My most powerful memory of September 11 five years ago is something that in less fraught circumstances would have been a comic scene. I was hurrying down Vermont Avenue towards my office at United Press International when Lafayette Park between the White House and me suddenly seemed to come alive.
Crowds of people, all walking very fast and not talking very much, had emerged from the White House and were streaming through the park, up Vermont Avenue, and towards the buses and subway stops. I was the solitary soul struggling to go in the opposite direction.
It looked like a Charles Addams cartoon or a poster for the film The Man Who Knew Too Little.
What I didn’t then know was that one plane still in the air was heading for a major Washington landmark, probably the White House. Because the bravery of its passengers brought the plane down in a Pennsylvania meadow, we still don’t know its target for certain. It may have been headed for the Capitol building.
In UPI everyone was too busy to worry about a potential plane crash one block away. When a story as big as 9/11 strikes, there is less discussion around the water-cooler in a newsroom than anywhere else. Everyone has too much work to do. In addition that day we had had a horrible stroke of luck.
One of our colleagues had seen the second plane crash into the twin towers. Writing an article in an apartment that looked directly onto the World Trade Center, John Bloom was gazing down at the screen and had only half-seen the first plane hit one tower.
What could have caused such a huge gash in the tower’s side? Too big for a small plane. Maybe a terrorist bomb? As he watched, he saw a series of black objects falling down the side of the building: “It flashed through my mind that the black objects were people. I instantly dismissed it.”
Then, as he watched horrified, Bloom saw the second plane approach:
For a moment it was pointed directly at me, then about five seconds before impact the pilot made an adjustment and banked about 20 degrees. He was making a correction! To go in at an angle? To make sure he hit the center?
He sailed in so smoothly. There was that little moment when you see a plane level out before it touches down. It almost eased into the building. I waited for the blast, and it was strangely delayed. He entered on the opposite side of the tower but I saw the fire shoot out of my side before I heard the explosion. He had hit much lower, around the 50th floor, and this time the gash was infinitely worse.
Bloom, a dedicated reporter, went out to find out more on the scene. An hour and a half later, he broke down sobbing. His reports for the next week are a superb evocation of a traumatized but resolute New York. They are among the best pieces written by Bloom (whether writing under his own name or under the raffish pseudonym of Joe-Bob Briggs.) or on 9/11 by anyone. They can still be found on the Internet.
I sent myself up to New York as soon as the UPI office had settled down from frenetic to merely overworked. The city — or at least southern Manhattan — was like a vast war cemetery. The dead, I wrote at the time, were everywhere — “except that their families, still hopeful, label them merely as “missing.” On shop windows, lampposts, subway entrances, telephone boxes, any empty space of wall, there are posted white sheets of paper showing a grainy photograph of the missing person, his name, address, telephone number, sometimes the name of the company for which he was working a week ago, and usually a simple message: “We love him and miss him very much.”
And what was the mood of the New York living?
No single word — revenge, sorrow, anger — does it justice.
Certainly it includes sadness; some passersby weep as they read the death notices. It is also defiant; no one talks of making concessions to avert the further wrath of the murderers; many wear patriotic red, white, and blue ribbons on dress or lapel. At the same time it is more calm and judicious than a mere desire for revenge. What New Yorkers seem to want is a measured and accurate punishment and the prevention of any such barbarism in future – in short, a victory over terrorism that will give meaning to the sacrifice of the dead.
Was that the mood of the nation? At the time it seemed to be so. Very few Americans dissented openly from it. And those who did quickly thought better of it — for instance, Michael Moore wrote: “If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, DC and the planes’ destination of California – these where places that voted AGAINST Bush!”
When this sally produced not laughter but protests, Moore removed it from his website.
In retrospect Moore was speaking for more Americans than I and others thought. Most of their voices were prudently lowered or drowned out by the silence of the dead at the time. It was anti-American foreigners who openly argued that Americans “deserved” the attack (The News Statesman) or that we would now realize why we were “hated.” (The London Guardian.)
Within a very short time, however, this moment of moral clarity passed. We heard more and more from the “counter-tribalists.” These are Americans who consider themselves more sophisticated and intellectually detached than simpleminded patriots but who take the side against America as reflexively as a hardhat worker or suburban soccer mom salutes the flag. They are an anthropological curiosity — moved by the same instinctive tribal loyalties as a primitive people with the exception that they are loyal to other tribes — generally the tribe that happens to be opposed to the U.S. at the time.
Counter-tribalism explains many oddities such as those feminists who can’t bring themselves to welcome the ousting of the women-hating Taliban in Afghanistan because it was accomplished by George W. Bush. It is the ideology of a large lumpenintelligentsia in schools, the courts, universities, the “netroots Democratic party, the establishment media, Hollywood, etc., etc. that has absorbed a vulgarized multiculturalism, a pose of rebellion, and a crude cosmopolitanism. Its slogan is: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” And Barbara Kingsolver expressed it perfectly five years ago when she wrote: “In other words, the American flag stands for intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia and shoving the Constitution through a paper-shredder.”
In a free country like the U.S. Kingsolver and other counter-tribalists are entitled to say such things. It is also true that cosmopolitanism — i.e., admiration for the accomplishments of other countries and other cultures — is an admirable quality and one easily compatible with simple love of one’s own country. And it is undeniable that there are often good (and patriotic) reasons for opposing particular aspects of U.S. foreign policy.
Senator Biden and Peter Galbraith, for instance, have advanced criticisms of our Iraq policy that one recognizes as prompted by a desire to improve U.S. policy and Iraq’s future even if one disagrees with them. John Bloom similarly wrote very strong columns criticizing the arrest and detention of Middle Eastern immigrants as terror suspects on the basis of inadequate evidence and in violation of due process. He thought such things as the unmarked detention center on New York’s lower East Side were a fall from what should be America’s high standards in civil rights. He sought to arouse the American conscience.
And if dissent can be patriotic, it is not invariably so. After all, treason is the highest form of dissent. When “critics of the war” describe the terrorists as the equivalent of Minutemen in the Revolutionary War, or argue that the abuses at Abu Graib make Bush and Rumsfeld the equivalent of Saddam Hussein, they are crossing the boundary that separates even very strong dissent from a diseased partisanship that would prefer America to be defeated by terrorists rather than prevail under the wrong party. That partisanship is hardly distinguishable from hatred of country and gradually mutates into it.
Blanket denunciations of America as corrupt through and through — and in effect as not possessing a conscience worth arousing — do not deserve the respect that even honorable wrong-headed criticism can demand. Though Kingsolver should be free to denounce America in toto, others are equally entitled to use their freedom to criticize her remarks as unpatriotic drivel. They are not guilty of suppressing free speech when they employ it against America-bashing. Similarly, the highest form of patriotism is neither dissent nor flag-waving but a willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s country. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” may have become an unfashionable saying since Wilfred Owen, but it remains vastly superior to “No blood for oil” or “Nothing is worth dying for” as an outlook on life.
In responding to 9/11 by evicting the Taliban from Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein from Iraq, the U.S. was responding to the political forces that fostered and protected anti-American terrorism even when the individuals and factions we attacked had not planned the assault of planes onto the World Trade Center. To suggest that Iran would have been a more appropriate target than Iraq is an arguable proposition; to claim that our response was a confirmation of our own and our government’s inherent wickedness and stupidity is closer to treason than to dissent.
We owe the dead the honesty to say such things. And we owe truth to the living.
– John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review. He is currently writing a book on Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.