I will be traveling to a family reunion in Boston duringÂ the September 11 commemorations, so will not be doing much posting during that time. What I will do now is brieflyÂ opine on what the US public might reflect upon a decade onÂ after the attacks.
It is clear that, in terms of security against large-scale terrorist attacks, the US is safer. The price for that safety, from the indignities of airport security to the infringements on civil liberties and constitutional rights allowed by the Patriot Act and attendant legislation, is something that Americans take for granted, even if large gaps still remain in the defense against a committed and well-organised attack against mass targets (one need only to see shopping mall security to get an idea of the potential targets such places represent). By and large the US publicÂ is resigned to living in an age of fear, and go about their business willfully ignoring the myriad aways in which it is being surveilled, eavesdropped, video monitored and otherwise treated as a nation of suspects. Such, as they say, is the price for freedom.
The US has also become the most fearsome military force on the planet, with a level of combat experience and lethal technologies that exponentially exceedsÂ that of any other country or combination of countries. For all their rise as important powers, when was the last time China, India or Russia were capable of sustaining two prolongedÂ wars of occupation half way across the globe for years on end? What rivals, such as Iran or North Korea, have the ability to bring sustained multi-layered force to the battlefield, and which of these countries has a cadre ofÂ combat-hardened 30 year old field commanders and enlisted personnel capable of wreaking organised havoc at a tactical level? The answer is none. The US is a war machine par excellance, and allies and adversaries are well aware of this fact.
But the US has paid a price for its war-mongering. Having engaged in torture and the killing of thousands of innocents in the Muslim world in its pursuit of those responsible for 9/11 (and some who were not, such as Saddam Hussein), the US has lost much diplomatic stature and respect in the international community. It no longer represents the so-called “shining house on the hill” that all people aspire to. It is now just another great power bullying its way, with little to none of the moral authority it used to claim just ten years ago. Nor is it much liked, not only in places that have been traditionally exhibited antipathy to it such as Latin America, but now even amongst the community of liberal democracies that it ostensibly leads. The situation is so dire that even the Russians feel compelled to critique the US on issues of democratic governance and values. That is a sorry state indeed.
The ongoing commitment to unilateral pre-emptive war has exacted a toll on the US economy. More Americans are out of work than anytime since the late 1970 (the overall unemployment rate is over 9 percent and the unemployment for some sub-groups such as young Afro-American men exceeds 16 percent). More Americans are devoid of affordable health care since before World War Two. The dream of secure home ownership, the foundation of the American Dream as much as the quarter acre pavlova paradise is in NZ, is less attainable for the majority than at any time during the last fifty years. Crime rates have crept back up after record lows in the late 1990s. Political, class and ethnic divisions are at their sharpest in a quarter century. Polarisation, not solidarity and communitarianism, are the hallmarks of US society today. There is more to this litany of despair, but the point is thatÂ the US may still be proud, but it is bowed. It may be physically safer from foreign attack than ever before, but it is also more insecure than at any time since the war of 1812.
The mood, from what I can gather speaking with friends and family across the country, is sombre. This contrasts sharply with the historical sense of US optimism, if not idealism, that existed prior to 9/11.Â A friend of mine, a former Pentagon official, drew the analogy this way: the US went on a bender from the mid 1990s until 2008, only pausing in its partying ways during the weeks after 9/11 while the immediate damage was assessed. It now saddled with a massive hangover and the need to sober up by living within its diminished means. Although the Fox News and Tea Party crowd will engage in the usual jingoistic patriotism and shout that “we are still number one” to all and sundry, for the vast majority the anniversary will be ignored, be spent quietly, or be cause to reflect on what once was, and is no more.
Thus, my questions for the dayÂ are this. Is the US more or less strong than it was on 9/11/2001? Are its people more or less secure than they were on that terrible day? And if not, why is that, especially since al-Qaeda has been largely routed as a large scale irregular fighting force and Osama bin Laden is dead?
The answer, I reckon, lies within the US itself.
There is no question that the US is substantially stronger and understood to be stronger than it was in 2001. Clinton cut and ran from Somalia after 17 Ranger deaths. Reagan withdrew Marines from Lebanon. Bush Sr did not want to take on nation building responsibilities in Iraq. All those things and more caused AQ and Bin Laden to believe that the US would withdraw further or make stupid ineffectual attacks after 911. What they did not expect was such a robust response.
America has eliminated its last strategic enemy. China will be a strategic competitor but is technologically so far behind US naval and space power that it will be unable to take on the US directly for decades to come.
The only real weakness for America is that which has affected so many other successful civilizations, and that is excess debt from an unsustainable level of spending leading to a crisis in society. America paid the price of two wars but needs to make compromises elsewhere to maintain its unchallenged strategic global leadership.
I would say the narrative of the Tea Party is not of unabashed American supremacy, quite the reverse. The Tea Party see America as on a road to some sort of financial/moral catastrophe and believe that only they can save it.