Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this morning I was on my way to the World Trade Center as part of my regular commute. The conductor announced that it appeared a small plane had hit one of the towers. So I took a different train under the Hudson River and got off some blocks north of the Trade Center. Standing on Broadway, I watched the building burning and then got on a subway. By the time I’d gotten to work, the other tower had been hit. I could see them both burning from a window on that side of our building.

I reacted differently than most people, partly because it affected my job. We had to deal with the stock exchange being closed that week. But I didn’t watch any of the endless TV coverage and immediately feared that the president would take advantage of the situation, which he did in disastrous fashion. The air around the site was acrid and stayed that way for a surprisingly long time.

From David Roberts (@drvolts on Twitter):

3,200 on Thursday. 2,400 yesterday. On average, Covid is killing around as many Americans as died on 9/11 every single day. 

The very same people who were willing to send American children to war, spend trillions of dollars nation-building, commit war crimes, torture prisoners, & build a massive domestic-surveillance regime in response to 9/11 are unwilling to wear masks to stop a daily 9/11. 

What’s uncomfortable to talk about is that, especially for the loudest post-9/11 voices, it wasn’t really about the lives lost. It was about ego injury, about being hurt by a group of brown people we’d been socialized to think of as primitive & weak. 

The whole ensuing cascade of horrors was mostly about repairing the injury to the large & tender egos of America’s self-style Manly Men. The official elite discourse somewhat obscured this, but it was very, very clear when you read the war bloggers or watched Fox. 

Why does this 9/11 20th anniversary feel weird & muted? Because the real historical significance of 9/11 is that it marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the US, as a democracy & as the dominant global superpower. We’re too close to that, to *in it*, to reckon with it. 

And, just to bring it full circle, this explains the utterly hysterical reaction of US political elites & media to Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal. It wasn’t about lives, it was about *humiliation*, the “Big Dog” running home with its tail between its legs, in failure. 

Day By Day, It’s Getting Worse

David Rothkopf, a political scientist with years of experience in academia, government and the private sector, spoke out on Twitter yesterday. He is not a radical leftist by any means. Quote:

Something broke in America this week. We have been spiraling downward since Trump’s election, but this week, we crossed a line. The President and his men began asserting that they were above the law–and effectively no one in our system did anything to stop them.

The Attorney General sneered at the Congress and placed himself imperiously above its questions. He continued to arrogate onto himself what portions of the Mueller Report–paid for by the people, essentially in its totality to the Congress to do its duty–we would see.

He asserted again that he was the final arbiter of whether obstruction of justice by the president had taken place. He even went so far as to imply that law enforcement authorities carrying out their duty to protect America were somehow “spying”, perhaps illicitly on the Trump campaign. (Ignoring that the reasons for the investigation in question were not only sound…but the core reason…that Russia had sought to aid the Trump campaign in the election had been proven again by Mueller.)

At the same time, the Secretary of the Treasury and the head of the [Internal Revenue Service] determined to violate a law that required in no uncertain terms for them to provide the president’s tax returns to the chairman of the House Ways and Means committee.

At the same time a purge at the Department of Homeland Security took place and it became quickly clear it was because the president and his team were frustrated that officials would not act in violation of the law. We learned that the White House promised pardons to those who break the law, encouraging a crime and abetting it. We learned that they considered an egregious abuse of power that would involve releasing illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities controlled by Democrats.

We saw the president complain that our military would not rough up immigrants. We saw him continue the charade of an emergency at our southern border which was an excuse for him illegally divert government resources to an unnecessary, racist, vanity project.

The president repeatedly called law enforcement officers who investigated him traitors, guilty of treason–a crime that carries with it the death penalty. We discovered that the president considered appointing his grossly unqualified daughter to be head of the World Bank.

It is the stuff of the world’s most dysfunctional governments. But rather than generating a response from within our system commensurate with the threat, nothing occurred. The [Republican] leaders in the Senate circled round the president and supported his abuses.

In so doing, they sent a message that they would never challenge him much less convict him of the myriad crimes he has committed. The checks and balances our system was built upon are gone. Worse, the courts are being packed with Trump cronies–often unqualified.

Agencies are being left to appointed caretakers some outside the normal chain of succession, many unconfirmed for their current posts by the Senate. Political opponents tip-toed around these crimes daring not to appear “too extreme.”

This is how democracies die. The rule of law is slowly strangled. The unthinkable becomes commonplace. The illegal becomes accepted–from violations of the emoluments clause to self-dealing to Federal election law crimes to serial sexual abuse.

What once was black and white blurs into grey. Right and wrong, old principles, enduring values, fade from memory. Authoritarians arrive in our midst not in tanks but in bad suits and worse haircuts.

I have long thought our system was better than this–more resilient. But candidly, I’m no longer sure. I remain hopeful…hopeful that the next election cycle can redress these manifold wrongs. But it will not be easy. It will be too close. Trump may be with us for six more years.

Why? Because we allowed ourselves to become inured to the unthinkable. We are dying the death of a thousand cuts. Right now, this week, the president and his band of thugs are winning. They have become unabashed in their attacks on the law.

They are daring someone to enforce it. But what if…what if the courts rule against them but they ignore it? What if the Treasury Secretary has violated a law and no one arrests him. What if the president steals and canoodles with enemies and he goes unpunished?

Their crimes will only grow more egregious and their ways will only grow more ingrained in our system. Their violations will in fact become the system itself. Corruption will be the norm-greater corruption,to be sure, since it it was corruption that got us here in the first place.

Our only hope is recognizing the seriousness of our situation. This is not politics as usual. This is not an erosion of what was. This is a full blown crisis, the greatest American politics has faced in half a century…perhaps much longer.

It is not a time for equivocation. It is not a time for patience. It is time for those who seek to protect the rule of law to step up to protect it or the chance may not soon again return.


I’ll add that the president also tweeted a video yesterday that made it look like Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women now serving in Congress, had minimized the 9/11 attacks. It was an invitation to his most demented followers to teach her a lesson. This from a person whose first reaction to 9/11, delivered that day on television, wasn’t an expression of sorrow or anger. It was that one of his buildings was now the tallest in Lower Manhattan.

Twelve Years Ago, Plus Yesterday

Everybody of a certain age has some kind of 9/11 story to tell. Mine isn’t especially interesting, but unlike most people, I was on my way to the World Trade Center that morning.

It was my usual route to work: a commuter train to Hoboken, a PATH train under the Hudson River to the Trade Center, followed by a subway to Brooklyn.

On our way to Hoboken, the conductor announced that a plane had flown into one of the towers, resulting in the train station under the Trade Center being temporarily closed. I assumed it was some disgruntled, suicidal guy in a Cessna.

Since I needed to get to work, I took a PATH train to Greenwich Village, a couple miles north of my original destination. Up on the street, walking to the subway, I could see one of the towers burning.

By the time I got to work in Brooklyn, the second tower had been attacked. We could see the smoke from the upper floors of our building, but I wasn’t watching when the towers fell. 

The stock exchange closed that week, but we back office people still had work to do, mainly preparing for the exchange to open again.

I read the paper as the days went by, but didn’t watch much television. I avoided the TV news coverage. I didn’t watch the same videos over and over again, or see the Mayor or the President visit the site.

A week or so later, I had to visit Lower Manhattan for a meeting. What I remember most walking through those gray, relatively empty streets was the terrible, acrid smell. It seemed like the air had been poisoned.

Yesterday, 12 years later, I happened to be in the Wall Street area with some time on my hands, so I decided to visit the 9/11 memorial, not knowing how much of it has been completed. 

You can print out a free ticket from the memorial’s website, which allows you to get inside the memorial more quickly. But even on a cool, cloudy October weekday, there were hundreds of people with tickets waiting in line. And, of course, there was a security checkpoint, with the standard grey plastic tray for your wallet, keys, phone and belt.

When you finally get inside, you’re in a kind of park, in the large space between the new buildings. You hear the water falling down the sides of the enormous fountain that marks the outline of the South Tower. The visitors are crowded along the nearest sides of the fountain, looking over the edge, taking pictures and reading the names inscribed in the black marble.

To get away from the crowd, you can walk around the fountain, stopping to read some of the names, which I did. On my way to the exit I noticed the fountain that marks the outline of the North Tower. Hardly anyone was there.

I suppose if you’ve seen one enormous black fountain with thousands of gallons of water plunging down it sides into an apparently bottomless pit, you’ve seen them all. 

After walking around the second fountain, I headed for the exit again.

People say the site is sacred. I thought it was sad.

And human. There are lots of visitors, the regular people you see at other tourist attractions: a lot of miscellaneous, casually-dressed people taking pictures of the place and each other, some being a little loud, some being led around by tour guides, most of them crowded together where a fountain is closest to the entrance. Some of them have bought souvenirs at the stores in the neighborhood that sell trinkets and t-shirts. I suppose it’s all a reminder that those were regular people killed 12 years ago, in fact, the same kind of people you’ll see if you visit the memorial.

Of course, some of those regular people were heroes that morning. For the most part, however, they were average men and women, a mixture of colleagues and strangers with a variety of names, all kinds of names reflecting the many places their ancestors came from. At least as impressive as all that water rushing down, the scale of the place, and the tall buildings around it, are all those names.
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