What's Tony Thinking

Twenty Years Later


I was surprised, the other day, to find on-line my Seattle Post-Intelligencer column written in the days immediately after 9/11. I guess everything is out there somewhere in cyberspace. Looking at that column again after all these years was one way — at least for me — to look back, to remember that time and to consider how things have unfolded since that awful day twenty years ago.

Columnists do not write their own headlines. Our editors, who were supposed to know what it takes to attract readers, did that. The one heading my column that day was “Let Response Be Decent and Noble.” It was fair to what I had written, but on seeing it I winced a bit as I imagined the kinds of responses such a headline would trigger amid the boiling pot of anger and calls for revenge.

I was right. I got nearly 500 emails, a new high. The positive ones contented themselves with calling me “naive.” Other used words like “unpatriotic” and “traitor.” Still others simply stuck to profanity.

I was invited to appear on a conservative talk-radio show where the host, Jon Carlson, led his listening audience in schooling me on the “realities” of the world. Caller after caller spoke condescendingly of the “Reverend” who had no idea how things worked in the real world or “what kind of animals these terrorists really are.”

I had called for a restrained response to the attacks of 9/11. I thought the perpetrators of 9/11 would like nothing better than to catalyze the kind of “shock and awe” military assault that would prove their case, i.e. America is “the Great Satan,” while entangling us in costly wars.

I wrote then, “violence cannot be redeemed by violence. The central claim of the Hollywood movie genre is precisely the opposite. But Hollywood has not invented this myth. It is as old as humanity itself.

” [It is] the myth that good violence can overcome evil violence. That the only way to restore order is to beat down and destroy all that represents chaos in the world.”

I thought of that column as I read another, and better one, today by Spencer Ackerman in the NYT. It is titled “How Sept. 11 Gave Us January 6.”

Ackerman argues that the response to 9/11, “The War on Terror,” legitimated the “civilizational violence” that has spilled out and over in all sorts of ways, not least the “patriots” insurrection on January 6. Here’s Ackerman:

“The war on terror accustomed white Americans to seeing themselves as counterterrorists. Armed white Americans on the far right could assemble in militias, whether in Northern states like Michigan or on the southern border, and face little in the way of law-enforcement reprisal.”

Donald Trump, argues Ackerman, understood the political potentials of the War on Terror far better than its actual military and political architects. He cast it as a civilizational struggle.

In that narrative ours is the good violence and so anything goes. Which is how Ackerman draws a line from 9/11 to January 6. The January 6 insurrectionists were not attacking or undermining our nation or democracy. They were defending our civilization against all the dark and nefarious forces that wish to destroy it.

More from Ackerman:

“As the foreign wars became disasters, the faction of the far right that became part of President Donald Trump’s MAGA coalition found itself less interested in the wars themselves than in civilizational violence. Many MAGA adherents applauded when Mr. Trump as a presidential candidate said he would “bomb the [expletive]” out of the Islamic State and called for the barring of Muslims from entering the country.

“According to the story told by Mr. Trump and his allies, American leaders of the intelligence agencies and the military were unwilling to unleash sufficient violence against sufficient Muslims, unwilling to close the borders, overly willing to conduct “nation-building and regime change” in unfamiliar countries and aligned with enemies like President Barack Obama, whom he suggested was a secret Muslim.”

I’ve come to think that my critics of twenty years ago were right when they called me “naive.” But they were also wrong. I may have been, as they claimed, naive about jihadism. But what I was most naive about just how fear-driven and self-destructive the American response to 9/11 would prove to be. We have done a great deal more damage to ourselves than our foreign enemies have managed or perhaps even contemplated.

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