The events of September 11, 2001, are being promoted as part of the defining narrative of the U.S. state, in an attempt to override its foundational justification of freedom and democracy. This is expressed eloquently by Obama in both words and deeds. In his weekly radio address he said: “They wanted to terrorize us, but, as Americans, we refuse to live in fear. Yes we face a determined foe, and make no mistake—they will keep trying to hit us again. But as we are showing again this weekend, we remain vigilant.”
Obama is being disingenuous in his counterposing of how Americans live with the “we” who remain vigilant. “Vigilance” is in fact a code word for heightened surveillance by security forces, legitimized by the fear stoked up by what is in actuality an exaggerated account of the strength and determination of the “terrorist foe.” The surveillance activities, justified by unconfirmed threats, in turn increase the level of fear among the public and generate support for other anti-democratic measures.
According to Reuters, “Police in New York and Washington were on high alert against a ‘credible but unconfirmed’ threat of an al Qaeda plot to attack the United States again on the 10th anniversary. Security was especially tight in Manhattan, where police set up vehicle checks on city streets as well as bridges and tunnels coming into the city. There was an unprecedented show of force in Manhattan from roadblocks on Times Square in midtown to the area around Ground Zero farther to the south.”
The Guardian commented: “Though he struck a militaristic and highly patriotic tone, the president revealed a more nuanced side of American thinking. … ‘[E]ven as we put relentless pressure on al-Qaida we are ending the war in Iraq and beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. After a hard decade of war it is time for nation building here at home,’ he said.”
British reporter Gary Younge adds: “True, Obama killed Bin Laden, and his administration plans to draw down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and has retired the phrase ‘war on terror’. But they have maintained many of the most problematic elements of that war, including Guantánamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and military commissions, while intensifying the war in Afghanistan.”
Although it did not create them, the attack intensified processes already at work within the United States – economic, social, political, and ideological. Above all, it provided a rationale for suppressing disagreement with the Bush government in the name of patriotism and strengthened the hand of rightwing nationalists like Cheney within the state and the security apparatus.
As Juan Cole points out: “September 11 was not primarily an event in US foreign policy, but rather a launching pad for domestic forces of the worst sort, who could neutralize public opinion by constantly frightening them with alleged Muslim terrorists. The US took a turn to the far right ten years ago, toward a praetorian state of perpetual war, a society where workers were forestalled from unionizing, a society where the government routinely spied on phone records and emails, a society where warrantless surveillance became routine, a society where basic rights such as habeas corpus were placed in doubt …”
Ten years later the narrative is still being recycled because the state needs a continued rationalization of its security measures and foreign wars. Letters to the New York Times, some from people who experienced the attack first-hand, give a refreshingly different point of view. A survivor from the South Tower who lost 13 of his colleagues writes: “When will we stop this nonstop memorializing? Ten years have passed and the reconstruction on the World Trade Center site has barely begun. Ten years after World War II Europe was largely rebuilt. I know families who lost loved ones, and all they ask for is that they stop being reminded constantly about what happened. A quiet and tasteful memorial for first responders and victims should be enough. It is time to close the door on the event and let the survivors live our normal lives.”
The abiding legacy of 9/11 is its strengthening of Republican absolutism. It legitimized the centralization of power in the executive, the ability of Bush and Cheney to manipulate and bypass Congress, and brought Bush’s administration closer to the super-rich who were benefiting from his tax cuts and no-bid Pentagon contracts. In turn, they financed the Tea Party fake grassroots movement after the collapse of the financial sector to drive the Republican party to the right and veto any rational approach to the crisis of a jobless economy.
As Paul Krugman notes in his blog today: “What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons. … The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.”