Publisher's Note — September 10, 2011, 4:04 pm

The Sad Legacy of Sept. 11

John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author, most recently, of You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on September 10, 2011.

For weeks I’ve been dreading the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and not because I fear another attack. As a New Yorker who works below 14th Street, I’m reluctant to revisit the unhappy images I witnessed on that paradoxically lovely, cloudless day: the vast plume of smoke blowing eastward over my office building when I emerged from the Bleecker Street subway station around 9 a.m.; the thousands of dazed and ashen office workers tromping uptown in the middle of Broadway like refugees from a 1950s horror film; the soldiers armed with automatic weapons patrolling intersections; the constantly repeated television images of the two towers collapsing into rubble, people burned and crushed to bits – these are things I would prefer not to dwell on.

But I’ve also been dreading this anniversary because of its predictable narrative as related by a placid media and opportunistic politicians: America the victim, an innocent nation violated by evil aliens who “hate our freedom” and our fundamental goodness. In this version of the 9/11 story, Osama bin Laden was a single-minded monster leading a foreign “ideology” called “terrorism,” the purest distillation of an anti-American fervour that contained no political motive beyond an ambition to destroy the “American Way of Life.” Bin Laden, according to this scenario, spent all his waking hours rereading and resenting the celebrated declaration in 1630 by the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, our first founding father, that “we shall be a City upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us. . . .” It seems that Winthrop’s reference to Matthew 5:14—”Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid”—was so offensive to the radical Islamist bin Laden that he organized four suicide squads just to knock the whole shining city off its self-righteous, exceptionalist perch.

We don’t have to sympathize with bin Laden or even to understand his messianic thinking to know how wrong-headed and misleading our public recounting of 9/11 has become. Lost in the purity of America’s martyrdom are basic political realities: that bin Laden was a wealthy and well-connected Saudi Arabian, a former CIA asset, and America’s stalwart, only somewhat covert ally in the anti-communist jihad that drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s; that bin Laden felt betrayed when the Saudi monarchy allowed American troops – in his view, infidel agents of the devil—to use its sacred soil as a staging ground, in 1990-91, to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait; that bin Laden, already a very violent terrorist suspect, was somehow never apprehended in the 1990s—not even for questioning—because of the Saudi regime’s double game of protecting extremists while pretending to co-operate with Americans in the guise of “moderate Arab ally.”

Why don’t we lament with equal passion each anniversary of 2/26? Because the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center, in 1993, should have led, eventually, to the arrest of bin Laden in Sudan in late 1995 or early 1996, after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia. George W. Bush ought to have listened more attentively to the warnings of his counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, in 2001, but the Clinton administration’s decision to prevent the CIA from grabbing Osama in Khartoum—before he decamped for Afghanistan and greater feats of mayhem—remains the emblematic failure of American “intelligence” and foreign policy in the decade leading up to 9/11. Of course, either Clinton or Bush could have severed, or at least loosened, the Gordian knot that ties the White House to the House of Saud and its oil wells—thus removing bin Laden’s casus belli—but such daring logic rarely figures in the high councils of American leadership. The nearly 3,000 dead at ground zero, the Pentagon, and Somerset County, Pennsylvania, were not martyrs to American freedom; they were victims of American foreign policy, just so much collateral damage resulting from the thirst of U.S. businessmen and politicians for Middle Eastern petroleum and influence.

John O’Neill, the FBI’s one-time director of anti-terrorism in New York, was quoted after 9/11 by two French authors saying that “all the answers, all the keys to dismantling Osama bin Laden’s organization can be found in Saudi Arabia.” This is likely still the truth. Unfortunately, O’Neill quit the FBI in frustration over what he said was Saudi pressure on Washington to squelch his investigation of al-Qaeda inside the kingdom of the Fahds—then went to work as security director of the World Trade Center, where he died on 9/11. The photograph of Saudi King Abdullah handing Barack Obama a valuable gold medallion on the president’s state visit to Riyadh in 2009—a symbolic “gift” to be sure—suggests that America’s meddling Middle Eastern policy will continue to discourage future John O’Neills from doing their jobs or the governing elite from learning any lessons.

But delineating the failures of the Clinton and Bush administrations to anticipate or prevent 9/11 doesn’t explain the apparently bottomless well of self-pity, vengeance, and rage on display these past 10 years. To combat “the terrorist threat” and respond to public outrage over bin Laden’s attack, presidents Bush and Obama have prosecuted two major and disastrous wars, authorized “targeted assassinations,” severely damaged the historic right of habeas corpus, and curtailed civil liberties by engaging in illegal surveillance and entrapment of “potential terrorists” on a scale not seen since the height of anticommunist paranoia during the Cold War. The torture conducted at Abu Ghraib and the prisons at Guantanamo and Bagram Air Force Base are stains on the American soul, while the FBI’s grossly unconstitutional practice of enticing Muslim-Americans into fictional “terror plots” is a scandal that deserves much greater exposure. How can we understand all of this anti-libertarian, “un-American” activity? Such angry, costly, and ultimately self-defeating overreactions can only be traced back to the wounded innocence that makes up so much of the American psyche.

In fact, Americans should long ago have got over their sense of “exceptionalism,” their deep belief in their well-meaning sanctity. Slavery and the genocide against the Indians might be a good place to start a re-examination of American “innocence.” I lost any notion that such a thing existed when I watched the nightly television reports about American bombing and napalming of Vietnamese civilians; I lost it again when I finally read up on the poorly taught history of America’s brutal colonial war in the Philippines, the original counter-insurgency that introduced the American use of “waterboarding” to extract information. Graham Greene said it best in his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American: “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

The ongoing legacy of 9/11 appears to be more of the same: more killing in the name of saving lives, more repression in the name of defending liberty, more camouflaged Christian piety in the name of freedom of religion, more hypocrisy in the name of “American” values of truth and justice, more massacres of the English language (terrorism is a tactic not an ideology) in the name of straight talk. I don’t think it’s the legacy Americans deserve, and it is certainly the wrong memorial for the dead of 9/11.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note February 14, 2020, 9:28 pm

The “Affair”

“I was immediately struck by the fundamental difference between the ‘seventh art’ and literature.”

Publisher's Note February 12, 2020, 10:47 am

On Book Events

Publisher's Note December 13, 2019, 5:40 pm

The Art of Persuasion

“Making fun of the negative interest rates offered by some European banks, Trump sniggered, ‘Give me some of that…I want some of that money.’ In my corner of the hall, around table 121, several merry-faced brokers and accountants applauded.”

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The commissioner of CPB admitted that “leadership just got a little overzealous” when detaining hundreds of U.S. citizens of Iranian descent in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today