When Stu Bykofsky, a columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News, wrote a column last week in which he openly hoped that America suffers "another 9/11," he merely had the poor judgment to say what many a right-wing politician and pundit is thinking.
Evidence for this is everywhere: in the fact that Bykofsky was invited to appear on the GOP's unofficial network, Fox News, to "explain" his comments; in the keen disappointment that ripples throughout the right-wing blogosphere every time the collapse of a bridge or a steam pipe explosion turns out not to have been the work of Scary Brown People Who Hate Our Freedoms; and in predictions such as that made by former Sen. Rick Santorum, that the GOP's electoral fortunes will improve as soon as there's another terrorist attack.
Indeed, at this point one can practically see these people wringing their hands in frustration at the apparent inability of "the terrorists" to kill a few Americans somewhere (preferably in a solidly red state, although New York or California would do in a pinch), so as to once again give war a chance.
Bykofsky's column is a nostalgic look back at the days immediately following 9/11, when the nation was unified by fear and anger, and a desire to find and destroy "the enemy." (Typically, Bykofsky doesn't bother to define who "the enemy" is. This spares him the effort of having to consider whether invading a country that had nothing to do 9/11 made any sense.)
Six years later, it's worth looking back on that terrible day with something other than a wistful longing for a repeat performance, in order to recognize a couple of obvious if unpleasant truths.
First, in the weeks immediately following 9/11, a lot of people said and did a great many ridiculous things. This was somewhat understandable under the circumstances. Still, it's important to recognize the cultural forces that made it mandatory to attack the likes of Susan Sontag and Bill Maher (Maher was actually fired for merely pointing out that, whatever else they were, the 9/11 terrorists weren't cowards) helped create a collective atmosphere of national hysteria.
Second, in the years since, we have been encouraged to develop a kind of narcissistic obsession with the events of Sept. 11, 2001 (indeed, the very term "9/11" reflects this.) "9/11" is invoked over and over again, as the day that "changed everything," and that therefore justifies everything from banning toothpaste on airplanes to wholesale spying on Americans without a warrant to torturing people who have been imprisoned for years without trial.
The narcissism at the heart of the Cult of 9/11 is captured by an episode of Larry David's mordant comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. David meets with a rabbi whose brother-in-law was killed in uptown New York in a bicycle accident on the day of the terror attacks. When at the meeting's end David innocently exclaims "Let's roll," the rabbi is outraged: "You knew my brother-in-law died on Sept. 11! How dare you say something like that!"
A nonplussed David replies, "I didn't realize that if you died uptown it was still part of the tragedy."
The fact is that if you, like me, are one of the 99.9 percent of Americans who doesn't know anyone who was killed or injured in the 9/11 terror attacks, or in the subsequent rescue efforts, then 9/11 was at bottom a very disturbing thing that you saw (over and over again) on TV.
It didn't "change everything," and it didn't (and doesn't) justify the Iraq war, indiscriminate spying on Americans, extrajudicial renditions, torture, or any of the other immoral actions that continue to be done in its name.
It's high time to stop wallowing in our obsession with what is becoming the most overblown and shamelessly exploited event in American history.
Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The Rocky Mountain News