After 20 years, &c.

President George W. Bush with firefighter Bob Beckwith (right) at Ground Zero, September 14, 2001 (Win McNamee / Reuters)
On the Afghan War; the War on Terror; commercialism in college football; encountering bananas; and more

The United States marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11 immediately after withdrawing from Afghanistan. I would put that in a different way, as well: immediately after losing, and choosing to lose, to the Taliban, with whom we went to war in October 2001. This gave the anniversary commemorations a certain bitterness, I would say.

Rumsfeld used to say that we did not go to war in Afghanistan out of retaliation, retribution, or revenge. There was nothing we could do to bring the 3,000 dead of 9/11 back. No, we went to war because our enemies had pledged to do it to us — attack us — again and again and again. We had to defend ourselves.

Our enemies have not changed an iota. Will we need to return to Afghanistan? We may. People speak of “forever wars” — but there are forever threats, forever dangers, forever interests.

You know the deal (and don’t shoot the messenger) . . .

• On Twitter, Whit Stillman, the filmmaker, said something very blunt — unvarnished. I thought he made an important point: “Twenty years seems like a long time if you have the mental age of a five-year-old.”


• In the days leading up to the 20th anniversary, I looked up some old writings. One was this: a speech I gave on the first anniversary, i.e., September 11, 2002. It was at a conference in Salonika, Greece — a conference headed “September 11: Media and Terrorism.”

I began by saying what it was like to be in New York on 9/11 — what it was like for me, at least. I went on to other issues. Maybe I could paste one paragraph:

Above all, I think that covering and commenting on this war has meant an end to pretending — an end to pretending that everyone’s a friend, or potential friend, that every grievance is just, that a certain kind of hatred can be appeased, that America is to be blamed for humanity’s woes, that radical Islam is just another viewpoint, that there is never right and wrong, only personal subjectivity. When the prime minister of Italy said that a free, open, pluralistic society is better than a closed, stifled, lied-to one, everyone professed shock and indignation. This is the kind of pretending that gets harder to do.

• I also looked up a conversation I had with Condoleezza Rice in July 2002. She was then national security adviser, in the White House.

One exchange:

Nordlinger: “Did you ever think you’d see a frontal attack on the soil of the United States?”

Rice: “In every simulation that I had taught, in everything that I had read, it was always a theoretical possibility, absolutely. Did I know it was possible? Yes. But I was shocked on the day that it happened. But I — when the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I knew what had happened.”

Nordlinger: “Did you know who, as well?”

Rice: “Yes. We’d been doing a lot of work on al-Qaeda. We knew its m.o. It looked like, smelled like, felt like al-Qaeda from the very beginning.”

Let me paste, too, a longish statement from Rice:

None of us thought we would be dealing with the war on terrorism as a kind of central organizing principle. But the one thing that has been affirmed for me in the strongest possible terms is the tremendous legitimacy of democracy vis-à-vis any other system of governance. It is very, very powerful to watch this great democracy respond to 9/11 and to see its inherent strengths. Because when you look at democracy from the outside, I’m sure it must look chaotic and cacophonous, and there are all these different voices, and we fuss and we fight. And I keep thinking to myself, “The terrorists must have looked at us and thought: easy prey.” But when our values were attacked, [the country] came together. And I contrast that with, I think, the difficulty of governments that do not have that link to their people.

Is America still sound, as a democracy? Can we come together for important national purposes? Or is the red–blue thing too much? Are the extremes too large, the tribalism too deep?

I’m not really sure.

• Here is a headline from Reuters: “The day the music died: Afghanistan’s all-female orchestra falls silent.” (Article here.) This story is tough to take, like thousands of others. Many people will tell you that the U.S. and its allies did no good in Afghanistan, over the years. Don’t believe them. They are either ignorant or mendacious.

• In recent columns, I have taken note of born-again hawks, as I call them. For years, they have been calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. And now that a Democratic president has done it, they sound like John Bolton or something.

One thing I admire about Ann Coulter is her consistency. Years ago, she defended Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell, when the Right reviled them. (They still revile Romney, and they are not too keen on McConnell.) That is because they were tough on immigration, as she saw it.

And recently she wrote, “Trump REPEATEDLY demanded that we bring our soldiers home, but only President Biden had the balls to do it.” I can respect that, in a way — because I think Ann is saying what she thinks, rather than what the crowd wants to hear.

• Do you know the name “Maria Kalesnikava”? She must be one of the bravest people in the world. I will quote from a report in the Guardian:

A Belarusian court has sentenced the senior opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava to 11 years in prison, punishing one of the most prominent opponents of the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

Kalesnikava, a leader of the opposition’s coordination council, was one of three women last year who united to lead an uprising in which tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in the largest protests in the country’s modern history.

Kalesnikava was arrested last September and taken to the border, where she was told to leave the country. Instead, she reportedly ripped up her passport, risking prison rather than going into exile.

There was a phrase I used many years ago (with regard to young Cubans who were trying to practice independent journalism): “unfathomable courage.”

• A headline and a subheading will tell you something about a very interesting, and tragic, man. Here’s the headline: “Alberto Vilar, Arts Patron Convicted of Fraud, Dies at 80.” Here’s the subheading: “An opera fan, he used the riches from his investment business to fuel a spending spree at opera companies and other cultural organizations. But many of his pledges went unfulfilled.”

The article — the obit — is here.

I did not know Vilar, though I met him. I know a great many who knew him. The most striking and poignant thing I ever heard about him was published in a profile, some years ago: “Asking Alberto for money was like offering an alcoholic a drink.” Vilar had a most unusual addiction: to philanthropy, and the hoopla that can go with it (if you demand hoopla, as Vilar did).

Maybe there should be a novel or movie about him.

• Many years ago, I wrote something like this: “Last night, the Metropolitan Opera staged a series of intermissions, punctuated by a performance of Aida.” I thought of it while watching the Michigan–Washington football game, or trying to. The game started at 8; the first half ended about five minutes to 10. The commercials were constant — constant interruptors. The momentum of the game was killed. I, who am unusually interested (for reasons I could get into), had to work to sustain interest.

The game was just too long, especially if it was going to start at 8. I’m all for commerce, but commercialism is something else, and it should not be allowed to strangle our culture, including college football.

• In Central Park, I saw a man with a T-shirt that said Vassar Baseball. I know that Vassar has been co-ed for a million years. Still, Vassar Baseball seemed . . . incongruous to me.

• I know a family who are Tajikistani Jews. Well, they are American, but they started out in Tajikistan — which had a civil war in the mid-1990s. My friends got out in ’94, I believe. Isabella was seven. The family went to Moscow first. And there she saw bananas, for the first time. She had seen them in books and cartoons — but never in real life. “I was so excited. Bananas were food for monkeys. And you could actually eat them.”

“Do you like bananas?” I asked her. “I love them,” she said.

There are so many things that so many of us take for granted? Anyway, nice to see you, my friends, and I’ll see you later.

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