As I write this the families of 9/11 victims are reading at Ground Zero the names of the 2,973 killed there and at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. It takes about five hours. The verbal memorial, now a ritual commemoration of that day, is more heartbreaking than any monument could be, though the two memorial pools, carved into the rock where the Twin Towers used to stand, speak those names almost as powerfully. The names are written in bronze all around the pools. They’re lit from below. They’re even heated and cooled, depending on the season, so that they’re at a familiar temperature to the touch, or the drop of a rose or a flag in the carved lettering. But no words can convey the moment—or the grief of those 10 years—like the reading of the names, or the six moments of silence that punctuate the ceremony to mark that morning’s successive shocks: the planes striking the towers and the Pentagon, Flight 93 Crashing in Pennsylvania, the collapse of the North and South towers, 29 minutes apart.
Three-thousand six-hundred fifty-two days have passed since the attacks of 9/11. I have in front of me this morning’s special section by The New York Times commemorating the 10th anniversary. It’s called “The Reckoning: America and the World After 9/11.” On a day like this, short of being in New York, where I spent my high school and college years and returned to walk the streets the week immediately after 9/11, and the only place I would have liked to be today, The Times, as 9/11’s hometown paper, is the next best thing to C-Span’s wordless coverage from Ground Zero. (Not a single other television network carried the ceremonies in their entirety, as if even those five hours could not be spared the talking heads’ compulsion to speak where no words are needed.)
The section is 40 pages. Like the section’s cover, a full-page photograph of one of the two reflecting pools, those pages are mostly contemplative: a taking stock of where we were then and what has become of us since. You don’t really need The Times to tell you that it hasn’t been the greatest of journeys. Some of the full-page ads’ claims aside (“A Decade Stronger,” claims Newmark Knight Frank, the real estate firm that should know better than to boast from the ruins of a crash), the nation is weaker, not stronger, in almost every way that matters: it’s in more debt than it’s willing to handle. Its credit has been downgraded for the first time in history. Its power and credibility abroad are diminishing day by day. It’s stretched militarily in losing wars. Its economy is in a quagmire of its own making. Liberties, civil and otherwise, have narrowed stupendously. Fear is a national reflex. The future looks dim. Much of that is the result of a decade of misguided responses to that day 10 years ago.
The Times’ special section includes 14 full-page ads, three of them from the nation’s three biggest military contractors, to whom 9/11 was a rebirth of wars and profits: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing. It’s too much to expect of military contractors grieving all the way to the bank to put discretion before gaudiness. And 9/11 commemorations would not be complete without their share of inelegance. We’ve become used to government agencies, from the highest federal levels to the lowest, and sometimes very low, local levels, using solemn national occasions such as 9/11 to the point of abuse, or cliché, as if the 3,000 victims of that day are so many excuses for patriotic bluster instead of reflection.
On the whole, however, it appears as if commemorations were more muted than not, not just because of the nature of the day itself, but because it’s become difficult to hide behind illusions about the last 10 years. The Obama administration’s 9/11 observance guidelines to federal agencies at home and embassies and consulates abroad were designed to keep bluster in check, for good reason. Of course they briefly turned into another occasion for grandstanding. Critics whined that the president was micromanaging personal emotions, though there’s nothing personal about American embassies and government agencies. They’re reflections of the nation, preferably a nation’s dignity, not its chauvinism.
These were some of the common phrases immediately after 9/11: We are all Americans. United we stand. We will never forget. “America will never forget the sounds of our national anthem playing at Buckingham Palace, on the streets of Paris, and at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate,” President Bush said in his address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2011. “We will not forget South Korean children gathering to pray outside our Embassy in Seoul, or the prayers of sympathy offered at a mosque in Cairo. We will not forget moments of silence and days of mourning in Australia and Africa and Latin America.”
Of course, we did forget. Who today remembers those gestures, who today would be so grateful, so deferential to other nations’ sympathies? We’ve been too busy looking in to remember that fleeting moment when we were, finally, a nation among nations, instead of a nation too self-absorbed to concede that there’s more to the world than Number 1.
Until recently there’d been a little too much pride in the last 10 years, too much mission-accomplished swagger and these-colors-don’t-run bombast, without good cause. The attacks triggered three wars—the “war on terror,” as it was dismally known, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq. Students entering high school this fall have no personal recollection of when these devotions to futility began. None has been won, though the war on terror should have never been declared, because there was nothing to win: there were a few murderers to hunt down, imprison or kill, which didn’t take trillion-dollar wars to do. Yet those wars continue, at a staggering cost.
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“Al Qaeda spent roughly half a million dollars to destroy the World Trade Center and cripple the Pentagon,” The Times reports today. “What has been the cost to the United States? In a survey of estimates by The New York Times, the answer is $3.3 trillion, or about $7 million for every dollar Al Qaeda spent planning and executing the attacks. While not all of the costs have been borne by the government — and some are still to come — this total equals one-fifth of the current national debt.” Imagine if just half that amount, or even a quarter of it, had been invested at home—on education, on infrastructure, on finding new sources of energy or cures for diseases, on economic security. Imagine is all we can do at this point: the money is gone, and with it American preeminence.
Bin Laden is dead, but his victory lives on: he managed to sucker the United States into the costliest wars since World War II, for a pittance. When China overtakes the United States as an economic, political and military power in a few years, it’ll have al-Qaeda’s fanatics to thank. That overtaking may happen sooner than we think, because one lesson of the last 10 years is that we have yet to learn the lesson of the last 10 years: we are not only on a spiral downward. We are feeding the spiral, voting for it, insisting on it by refusing to correct the mad course we’ve been on—by looking only at next year’s tax rate or finding the next-easiest constituency to bash as if it were the enemy. Teachers, public employees, the unemployed, the foreclosed, welfare recipients, the uninsured, single parents, immigrants, “legal” or not: take your pick. Some of the very people who make this country work and would ensure its future are targets of its worst derisions by those rolling in richer dole and tax breaks and subsidies of their own.
The disconnect abroad is just as corrosive.
Last week, newspapers carried a supposedly happy story about August being the first month since the war began in Iraq that not a single American soldier had been killed there, although Iraqi civilians continue to be murdered at a rate of about 250 a month. Fewer newspapers carried the story that August also broke a record for the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan in what will be 10 years just 26 days from now. I wonder if anyone will mark that gloomy anniversary of what is now by far America’s longest war, a war no less senseless, no more winnable, than Vietnam. Obama could have ended it. He chose to escalate instead. How many more pointless deaths will be on his conscience is any mother’s guess.
Here’s another grim milestone that went unremarked a few months ago: the death tally of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is now 6,229, well over twice the mass murders of 9/11. And yet that number pales in comparison to the true magnitude of the loss—of the crime—since 9/11: in Iraq alone, the lowest estimate is of 103,000 civilian deaths since the American invasion of 2003, fully a third of the deaths attributed to Saddam Hussein’s regime in the quarter century before the invasion. How can anyone look at those numbers and claim that removing Saddam by force was worth it, especially in light of the Arab Spring’s more authentic and less bloody toppling of bloody tyrants? The tally is likelier double that when the dead of Afghanistan and Pakistan (which estimates its own deaths at about 30,000 since 9/11) are added in. Those numbers don’t call for restraint, let alone for those hypocritical moments of silence at the beginning of local government meetings. They call for outrage. Instead, we’ll move on to September 12, and it’ll be war as usual, and another commemoration, another reading of the names, 10 years, 15 years hence, not to mention the crowding of war monuments that will by then include the dead from those additional wars.
To bring it back to today’s commemorations at Ground Zero: no other place, in the end, speaks more loudly and symbolically, in its silence and disarray, than the site of the former Twin Towers. Ten years later, it is still a mess. Only today were the memorial pools opened to the public, and even then, only partially, hurriedly, behind schedule: the memorial pavilion and museum won’t be finished until 2012, if then. The “Freedom Tower” is finally rising, but it’s just 961 feet high (going up to 1,776 feet). But it’s going to be a literal waste of space: it’ll add 2.6 million square feet of office space to a Manhattan that is sinking in a glut of office space, with more offices going vacant, not less, as businesses flee the city, or go bankrupt. That “Freedom Tower,” at $3.3 billion, will be the most expensive office building ever built, part of an $11 billion World Trade Center project, taxpayer-backed, that will never recoup its costs. In another symbol of lopsided disgrace, high-end businesses like Condé Nast, the publisher of ritzy magazines, are being subsidized by taxpayers to occupy office space in the Freedom Tower.
“And who will be paying for that subsidy?” Joe Nocera, the columnist, asked recently. “The mailroom attendants who use the Lincoln Tunnel to get to work. The middle-class New Jersey-ites who use the George Washington Bridge. The firefighters and police officers who live in Staten Island.” All of whom will be paying bridge, tunnel and boat tolls to get in and out of Manhattan at rates approaching $70 a month. The money is collected by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, owner of the World Trade Center. “Thus, in the name of 9/11, does New York and New Jersey place another economic burden on the already overburdened middle class. How sad.”
Ground Zero could not be a more heartbreaking symbol of what America has become in the last 10 years, what it is so rapidly unbecoming. We are all mourners, and not just for 9/11’s victims.