Not what we were all doing that day. Not where we were when. But where we are now, and how we got here. Some bits:
Bush's, and America's, response to 9/11 was fundamentally flawed for two reasons: It was atavistic and instinctive, and it was based on a distorted, ignorant and bigoted view of the Arab/Muslim world. These two founding errors are qualitatively different: The first involves emotions, the second ideas. But mixed together, they created a lethal cocktail. The grand justification of "spreading democracy in the Middle East" merely provided a palatable cover for vengeance and racism.I cannot add to that. I wouldn't even try.
We attacked Iraq because of 9/11. That is the scandalous and surreal claim that reveals our fatal emotional-ideological flaw. Anyone who knew anything about the Middle East knew that Saddam Hussein, a secular tyrant, had nothing to with 9/11 or al-Qaida. War defenders like to claim they were "misled by bad intelligence" into thinking Saddam had WMD. But there was no new evidence that Saddam posed a threat. He was the same old Saddam. He only became frightening in light of our prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. Moreover, despite the appalling effectiveness of the 9/11 attacks, it was clear that al-Qaida posed no existential threat to either America or to the Middle East. As the invaluable analyst Juan Cole has pointed out, apocalyptic Salafi jihadists like al-Qaida were an isolated and weak force within the Arab-Muslim world -- or at least they were until Bush invaded Iraq.
What makes these wildly disparate entities so evil and so threatening that we're prepared to attack them without cause? Simply that they reject the U.S.-Israeli writ in the Middle East -- and that they're Arabs or Muslims. They are clearly not on our side, but they pose no significant military or economic threat to the U.S. In realpolitik terms, they are no more beyond the pale than many other dubious countries we do business with, from Venezuela to Nigeria to Russia to Saudi Arabia. No one would dream of suggesting that if Cuba attacked the U.S., we should respond by invading Venezuela. But we play by different rules in the Middle East.
Like a vibration that causes a bridge to collapse, the 9/11 attacks exposed grave weaknesses in our nation's defenses, our national institutions and ultimately our national character. Many more Americans have now died in a needless war in Iraq than were killed in the terror attacks, and tens of thousands more grievously wounded. Billions of dollars have been wasted. America's moral authority, more precious than gold, has been tarnished by torture and lies and the erosion of our liberties. The world despises us to an unprecedented degree. An entire country has been wrecked. The Middle East is ready to explode. And the threat of terrorism, which the war was intended to remove, is much greater than it was.
All of this flowed from our response to 9/11. And so, six years later, we need to do more than mourn the dead. We need to acknowledge the blindness and bigotry that drove our response. Until we do, not only will the stalemate over Iraq persist, but our entire Middle Eastern policy will continue down the road to ruin.