TEN YEARS AGO, a weekday that dawned in the usual fashion was quickly eclipsed by the unthinkable. It was a day that no American will ever forget. As disbelief gave way to despondency, we were forced to confront the hard truth of the moment. Nothing would ever be the same for us, or for our country.
As horrifying as the attacks were, it is also horrifying to think about how little has been made of the opportunities for change that 9/11 brought. American culture has budged little from the attitudes that fueled the disdain that resulted in the attacks. Today’s politics are governed by more—not less—of the sort of ideology that Dick Cheney represented when he stated that “the American way of life is non-negotiable.” Even the 2008 financial collapse, rife as it was with signs that our economic systems are flawed and unjust, resulted in no real change to those systems (nor—incredibly—in any judiciary action). And it is abundantly clear that big government and big business have no more interest in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels (often from countries whose citizens resent us) now than they did a decade ago. The irony is clear: if America’s foreign policy was the target that put us at risk on 9/11, then we have only repainted that target with bolder colors.
September 12, 2001, could have been a date from which Americans measured anew the progress of our nation. It could have been a time to reconsider our priorities. Instead it ushered in an era of aggression, self-interest, and shortsightedness. It is hard not to speculate about how different the past ten years could have been if the money that has been poured into Iraq and Afghanistan ($12 billion to $16 billion dollars per month, according to the Washington Post), let alone untold billions of dollars on internal security measures, had been spent more judiciously. Think about where we could be with renewable energy, education, social services, physical infrastructure, food production, environmental remediation, and any number of other projects of national significance. Instead we are witnessing the sobering effects of kicking these areas of intense need down the road, while, during the same span of time, our national debt has more than tripled. One cannot honestly look at our current situation and believe that the war on terrorism has been “won” in any way.
It is even harder to reckon with the total moral failure of the actions that the American government has taken since 9/11. The chance to remediate decades of failed foreign policy through more enlightened leadership has been virtually ignored. It could take the United States longer to recover any moral authority than to pay for its two sprawling wars. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, we are content to see the number of Priuses on the road slowly increase, while oil companies continue to reap record profits.
Despite the fact that our leaders in Washington have squandered the opportunity to make 9/11 a turning point toward a safer, more sustainable future, millions of individuals have taken up the task. You know them; perhaps you are one of them. They’re the new farmers, the affordable housing advocates, the alternative energy enthusiasts, the climate activists, the peace workers—the list is long, and gratifying. But nothing would matter more to our future than to have that same level of passion and energy at the highest levels of government. Demanding that leadership have that resolve is an essential step toward a better future.