Nine years to the day after Pearl Harbor, American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were fighting and dying
in Korea -- a conflict often obscured
between the shine of World War II and the shadow of Vietnam. Meanwhile, back home on Dec. 7, 1950, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was affirming the perjury conviction of suspected communist Alger Hiss
, further fueling the fire that Sen. Joseph McCarthy
had just months earlier so cynically had begun to stoke. Exactly nine years after the Japanese swooped in on airplanes and destroyed our Hawaiian naval base, America was a country at war, a nation of blacklists and loyalty oaths, run by the politics and policies of fear, grief, anger and prejudice.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Here we are, nine years to the day after 19 terrorists swooped in on hijacked airplanes and attacked American civilians, and the United States is once again involved in a murky and relentlessly deadly war thousands of miles from our shores. At home, meantime, new forms
of McCarthyism have emerged; new voices of rage and hypocrisy, cynicism and suspicion, prejudice and ignorance lash out against those they fear or cannot comprehend. There is aloft in the land, borne swiftly by cable TV and the Internet, a virulent strain of cultural demagoguery and political expediency that might have made McCarthy himself wince. There is even a new and convenient "other" to be feared -- not the in-our-midst, hidden-in-plain-sight communists of 1950, but the in-our-midst, out-in-the-open Muslims of 2010.
By December 1950, America not only had overwhelmed the architects of the attack upon Pearl Harbor -- the Japanese formally surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945 -- but was already far along in helping to rebuild Japan into a bulwark against the spread of communism. By contrast, nine years after Sept. 11, 2001, our Public Enemy No. 1
, Osama bin Laden, remains at large (so far as we can tell); ditto his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri
. The top-ranking al-Qaeda official captured by the Allies, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, hasn't even been tried. If Iraq is ultimately to feel grateful for its destruction under Shock and Awe and its subsequent renewal, Americans have yet to feel it -- and Afghanistan remains an open question. Americans are not known for patiently awaiting delayed gratification. Yet there has been little gratification since Flight 93 -- the last of the four hijacked airliners -- plummeted to the ground near Shanksville, Pa., on its presumed path to the Capitol or the White House.
In New York, Ground Zero was until recently a hole in the ground and is still a far-from-completed construction site, surely one reason why the most tolerant, courageous and open city in America evidently doesn't want a Muslim house of worship built near the site, despite the fact that many Muslims also died that day
in the fire and ash. In the meantime, normally stoic public officials have cited the grim prospect of gut-wrenching testimony about 9/11 as one reason why New York won't host the trial of the aforementioned Khalid Sheik Mohammed
, just as it has virtually all of the other arch-criminals of its past. Nine years on, and despite earnest claims to the contrary, New York is still a place and a state of mind in varying stages of grief over 9/11. Its righteous anger over what happened, and why, and toward those responsible (and in some cases toward those who were not) has never slept.
Washington, too, suffered great trauma on 9/11, and the immediate concussive effects of that ordeal -- torture, the Iraq War, secret prisons -- have been particularly costly for the nation. Our elected officials today say with a straight face that they have kept America "safe" over the past nine years. They have and we are all grateful for it. But we are still learning about what some of the costs of that security has been. There are the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan. The billions of dollars stolen by contractors. The billions wasted on unreliable allies. The loss of international respect for our poor commitment to the rule of law. The creation of a new, "top-secret" and largely unaccountable national security world
. Leave it to the writers of "The Family Guy" to sum up
this sorry post-9/11 phenomenon: "Those things all sound scary," the audience cries out to Lois, a candidate for mayor. "How much money before it can feel safe again?"
The 9/11 terrorists chose New York and Washington as targets because they were (and remain) the two most important and symbolic cities in America. And it is a testament to the stunning success of al-Qaeda's deadly mission that day that, nearly a decade later, the leaders of both venues still are struggling to successfully adapt to the contours, limits and balances of the "new normal" the attacks wrought. We have not yet reached the point of a House Un-American Activities Committee
, but we do have a Koran-burning
event scheduled Saturday in Florida by a so-called man of faith. Where is Joseph Welch
when we need someone to respond to this dangerous nonsense by saying, clearly and publicly: "At long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?"
Nine years later! It seems at once forever and like a blink. It may take another nine years before those who perpetrated the worst crime in American history are brought to justice. It may take a generation or two for America's anger and suspicion to recede. It may take even longer for today's victims of anger and prejudice to feel again at one with some of the great American ideals -- tolerance, acceptance, respect, the absence of collective guilt. But there is hope. Children starting high school this week have no specific recollection of that fateful day in 2001. They were 5 years old that day. Soon those kids will be in college and then into the working world. Eventually, those of us fully into our adulthood on that unforgettable Tuesday will slowly begin to fade away.
This is how time heals even the deepest wounds; this is how a nation, like a person, moves forward from tragedy. Nine years later, it's painfully obvious we've come a long way -- and that we still have a long way to go.