Oh, it’s a long, long while from September to September. This year, the anniversary falls, for the first time, on a Tuesday morning, and perhaps some or other cable network will re-present the events in real time — the first vague breaking news in an otherwise routine morning show, the follow-up item on the second plane, and the realization that something bigger was underway. If you make it vivid enough, the JFK/Princess Di factor will kick in: You’ll remember “where you were” when you “heard the news.” But it’s harder to recreate the peculiar mood at the end of the day, when the citizens of the superpower went to bed not knowing what they’d wake up to the following morning.
Six years on, most Americans are now pretty certain what they’ll wake up to in the morning: There’ll be a thwarted terrorist plot somewhere or other — last week, it was Germany. Occasionally, one will succeed somewhere or other, on the far horizon — in Bali, Istanbul, Madrid, London. But not many folks expect to switch on the TV this Tuesday morning, as they did that Tuesday morning, and see smoke billowing from Atlanta or Phoenix or Seattle. During the IRA’s 30-year campaign, the British grew accustomed (perhaps too easily accustomed) to waking up to the news either of some prominent person’s assassination or that a couple of gran’mas and some schoolkids had been blown apart in a shopping centre. It was a terrorist war in which terrorism was almost routine. But, in the six years since President Bush declared that America was in a “war on terror,” there has been in America no terrorism.
In theory, the administration ought to derive a political benefit from this: The president has “kept America safe.” But, in practice, the placidity of the domestic front diminishes the chosen rationale of the conflict: If a “war on terror” has no terror, who says there’s a war at all? That’s the argument of the Left — that it’s all a racket cooked up by the Bushitlerburton fascists to impose on America a permanent national-security state in which, for dark sinister reasons of his own, Dick Cheney is free to monitor your out-of-state phone calls all day long. Judging from the blithe expressions of commuters doing the shoeless shuffle through the security line at LAX and O’Hare, most Americans seem relatively content with a permanent national-security state. It’s a curious paradox: airports on permanent Orange Alert, and a citizenry on permanent …well, I’m not sure there’s a homeland-security color code for “Gaily Insouciant,” but, if there is, it’s probably a bland limpid pastel of some kind. Of course, if tomorrow there’s a big smoking hole where the Empire State Building used to be, we’ll be back to: “The president should have known! This proves the failure of his policies over the last six years! We need another all-star Commission filled with retired grandees!”
And that would be the relatively sane reaction. Have you seen that bumper sticker “9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB”? If you haven’t, go to a college town and cruise Main Street for a couple of minutes. It seems odd that a fascist regime which thinks nothing of killing thousands of people in a big landmark building in the center of the city hasn’t quietly offed some of these dissident professors — or at least the guy with the sticker-printing contract. Fearlessly, Robert Fisk of Britain’s Independent, the alleged dean of Middle East correspondents, has now crossed over to the truther side and written a piece headlined, “Even I Question The ‘Truth’ About 9/11.” According to a poll in May, 35-percent of Democrats believe that Bush knew about 9/11 in advance. Did Rumsfeld also know? Almost certainly. That’s why he went to his office as normal that today, because he knew in advance that the plane would slice through the Pentagon but come to a halt on the far side of the photocopier. That’s how well-planned it was, unlike Iraq.
Apparently, 39-percent of Democrats still believe Bush didn’t know in advance — or, at any rate, so they said in May. But I’m confident half of them will have joined Rosie O’Donnell on the melted steely knoll before the Iowa caucuses. If Iraq is another Vietnam, 9/11 is another Kennedy assassination. Were Bali, Madrid, and London also inside jobs by the Bush Gang? If so, it’s no wonder federal spending’s out of control.
And what of those for whom the events of six years ago were more than just conspiracy fodder? Last week the New York Times carried a story about the current state of the 9/11 lawsuits. Relatives of 42 of the dead are suing various parties for compensation, on the grounds that what happened that Tuesday morning should have been anticipated. The law firm Motley Rice, diversifying from its traditional lucrative class-action hunting grounds of tobacco, asbestos, and lead paint, is promising to put on the witness stand everybody who “allowed the events of 9/11 to happen.” And they mean everybody — American Airlines, United, Boeing, the airport authorities, the security firms — everybody, that is, except the guys who did it.
According to the Times, many of the bereaved are angry and determined that their loved one’s death should have meaning. Yet the meaning they’re after surely strikes our enemies not just as extremely odd but as one more reason why they’ll win. You launch an act of war, and the victims respond with a lawsuit against their own countrymen. But that’s the American way: Almost every news story boils down to somebody standing in front of a microphone and announcing that he’s retained counsel. Last week, it was Larry Craig. Next week, it’ll be the survivors of Ahmadinejad’s nuclear test in Westchester County. As Andrew McCarthy pointed out, a legalistic culture invariably misses the forest for the trees. Senator Craig should know that what matters is not whether an artful lawyer can get him off on a technicality but whether the public thinks he trawls for anonymous sex in public bathrooms. Likewise, those 9/11 families should know that, if you want your child’s death that morning to have meaning, what matters is not whether you hound Boeing into admitting liability but whether you insist that the movement that murdered your daughter is hunted down and the sustaining ideological virus that led thousands of others to dance up and down in the streets cheering her death is expunged from the earth.
In his pugnacious new book, Norman Podhoretz calls for redesignating this conflict as World War IV. Certainly, it would have been easier politically to frame the Iraq campaign as being a front in a fourth world war than as a necessary measure in an anti-terrorist campaign. Yet who knows? Perhaps we would still have mired ourselves in legalisms and conspiracies and the dismal curdled relativism of the Flight 93 memorial’s “crescent of embrace.” In the end, as Podhoretz says, if the war is to be fought at all, it will “have to be fought by the kind of people Americans now are.” On this sixth anniversary, as 9/11 retreats into history, many Americans see no war at all.
– Mark Steyn is the author of America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.