Monday, September 12, 2011

Ten years

I remember exactly where I was on "9/11". I was at work, labouring joyfully in pleasant company at work I was good at. It was Carol, our systems administrator, who came into the room and asked "Has anyone been following the news?"

No-one had. It wasn't until I was driving home with the radio on that I learned the full extent of what had happened. (There was also, which is easy to forget now, the nervous undertone of what might happen next. Was it all over, or was this just the beginning?)

Part of me was shocked, and part of me was scared. But a large part of me, and I quickly learned never to discuss this part in the hearing of Americans, was deeply impressed. At last, someone had figured out a way to attack America on its home turf.

Nobody had ever done that before. Barring some minor incidents involving a handful of private nutjobs - not once, in the history of the United States, had a foreign enemy landed a first-strike attack on the homeland. (Indian nations, and Confederates, don't qualify as foreigners, and Pearl Harbor is an imperial outpost.) Indeed, not within living memory had an enemy successfully struck the American homeland at all - even when its defence budget was tiny. And now some enemy - we didn't know who - had bypassed the largest and most sophisticated military in history, shown up the military-industrial complex for the colossal boondoggle that it is.

Well, we all know what happened next.

For the record, I thought the invasion of Afghanistan was foolhardy (the Taliban were bad, but they were willing to co-operate in arresting Bin Laden; and as every student of history knows, invading Afghanistan is the easy bit). And the invasion of Iraq was, also, a potentially just war (Saddam was a monster), fought for all the wrong reasons.

But the worst of it was what America did to itself.

As luck would have it, in late December 2001 I was passing through Los Angeles on my way from London to New Zealand. LAX is, I have been reliably informed, a hellhole at the best of times, and three months after 9/11 it was carnage. In between two 12 hour flights, being forced to stand in queues for three hours and interrogated by unsmiling officials about why I was entering a country I didn't, in fact, have any desire to enter at all, was not my idea of hospitality. (When I booked the flight, the rule was that transit passengers didn't have to go through immigration and customs proceedings. To this day, I don't know how that change was supposed to improve security.)

In 2002 President Bush announced the formation of a "Department of Homeland Security", and I knew they were in deep, deep trouble. You just don't come up with names like that, if your overriding priorities are peace and freedom.

In 2004 they instituted the policy of arresting all foreigners on arrival in the country, and I sadly concluded that I would never set foot there again. And since then, they have shown no sign of returning to the hospitable, free country I like to remember. Both parties have taken to demonising foreigners, even more than they loathe each other.

This juxtaposition of headline and picture, from the BBC today, says it pretty well. "US ideals" are dead. We may remember them, we may mourn them, but we can't bring them back.

And that's why, even if he didn't win his stated objective, from my perspective at least, Bin Laden won his war. "America" is gone.

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