September 11th, 2001. A day seared into the memory of every American living at the time. I remember my eyes welled with tears as I watched those towers come down. I felt it in the pit of my stomach as we witnessed the death of thousands of innocent people in a brief instant– live on television. They were average citizens, like you or me– with families, loved ones, dreams and a future. We felt the collective anguish of a nation as we experienced the most traumatic event of our generation. Like many Americans, I spent the day glued to the TV, as my mother attempted to reach loved ones on the East Coast. We passed the day in a general state of shock. When I awoke the next day, a thought began to seep into my consciousness. Something sacred had died that day with the thousands of victims in those towers– the America that I had known and loved was about to change for the worse.
As information was revealed that Osama Bin Laden, and his terrorist organization Al Qaeda were responsible for the attacks, I thought to myself, “Surely, these guys are toast. Interpol, the FBI, and the CIA will investigate; we will send our best guys after them. They won’t stand a chance when the SEALS and Delta Force get their hands on them and bring them to justice.” I thought, “Okay, what happened was absolutely unforgivable. We must apprehend these guys. Hopefully they will resist, and we will kill them.” But all my assumptions were based on the presumption that we would be involved in some sort of police manhunt with the support of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the international community.
Never, in my wildest imagination did I think that in a short time, we would be at war with not one, but two middle-eastern nations. One of which had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks on 9/11. I couldn’t imagine mobilizing the entire US military to invade entire nations in search of dozens of men. I did not foresee the vast quantities of ordinance dropped over populated cities. Never, did I conceive that a full decade after the fact, we would still be at war in these countries; expending Trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and nearly bankrupting the American people. And least of all, did I imagine that we would compromise every principle that has ever defined us as Americans in order to do so.
When I was growing up in the previous century– as youths are wont to do–I saw the world as a clear cut dichotomy of good and evil. It was never presented in any other way. During my elementary school education, we regularly dedicated time to studying current events. Our teacher would show us slideshows on the projector of relevant news, and play a recording of a man dutifully reading the events of the current day to us. Just as each student’s attention began to drift, a loud beep would sound on the recording jolting us awake– signaling the teacher to advance to the next slide. This was how I learned about South African apartheid and its abuses of human rights. I learned about the Soviet Union and its belligerent posture towards the free world. I cheered when our armed forces successfully invaded Panama under Operation “Just Cause” and put that drug-dealing dictator Manuel Noriega in prison.
This was the country I grew up in, and it seemed that whether you were young or old, black or white, liberal or conservative, you pretty much all believed in the same narrative. The rest of the world was full of evil people, and we were the ones who would set it right. We were always the good guys; it was our responsibility and duty as freedom loving Americans to ensure that the rest of the world had a chance at the same kind of life that we enjoyed. We would dispense our brand of American justice upon the evil-doers of the world, only resorting to violence if need be, and stop the spread of that evil cancer called Communism at all costs. This was the American Narrative. We were special.
The thing is, we had no reason to believe otherwise. America had enjoyed the moral high ground and the admiration of the free world for the better part of a century. We had gallantly charged into both world wars to save Western Europe from the peril of fascism. We had staunchly defended– with mixed success– democracy, from the encroachment of Communist invaders in both Korea and Vietnam. We rescued Kuwait from the evil Saddam Hussein, and Kosovo from ethnic cleansing. We were a beacon of light to the world– a shining example of freedom in a world of oppression. If the dictators of the world were threatening you, then the good guys would come to your rescue.
However, along with the respect and admiration we commanded was a great moral responsibility. There was an “American” way to do things and certain things were considered wholly “Un-American.” For example, America never attacks a country unless we or one of our friends is attacked. Americans hate bullies. Americans never target civillians. We don’t spy on our own people. America does not torture. America does not participate in assassinations. America does not negotiate with terrorists. These were the things that made me proud to call myself American. To violate these principles was taboo, and we would never dream to do so– at least publicly.
Perhaps none of the things we told ourselves had been true for a very long time– if ever. Nonetheless, the narrative persisted, and if you had pulled your average American off the street in say, 1995 and told them that within a decade we were going to preemptively invade a country that had done nothing to harm us, fly killer robot drones over them, detain and spy on citizens without due process, torture enemy combatants, assassinate people in foreign countries, and systematically shred the very document this nation was founded upon– they would have thought you’d gone mad.
If you believed President George W. Bush’s assertion that the terrorist’s goal was to destroy our way of life– that they attacked us because they hate our freedom, then we have certainly played right into their hands. We have sacrificed liberty for security and have gotten neither. We have done more to accomplish the goal of the September 11th attacks than the terrorists could have in their wildest dreams. Our country is bankrupt. Our economy is destroyed. We live in a state where every communication is monitored and recorded. Women and children are regularly frisked in airports, and you can lose all rights to due process if you end up on the wrong side of an investigation. We have a state security apparatus that would make the Soviet KGB envious. We have become a paranoid, cynical, and fearful nation. We are no longer free. The terrorists have won.
The greatest tragedy isn’t that the narrative of America the Heroic, is dead; or that it’s no longer true– it may never have been. Perhaps the real tragedy is that this narrative which once served as our moral compass, has become nothing more than a justification for our actions. We tell ourselves that we are exceptional and act in the name of the greater good, yet we have given up the very freedoms that once emboldened us to proudly proclaim ourselves as sons and daughters of this great nation. We have committed acts which we swore never to commit; broken taboos we swore we would never break. Policies that we once would have been ashamed of are now discussed with nonchalance on CSPAN. In seeking to destroy evil, we have become that which we abhor. We have lost far more than the lives of 3000 innocents since that terrible morning in September.