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Miller: Beyond 9/11

Alex Miller

As a kid growing up on Long Island, I watched the construction progress of the World Trade Center’s twin towers on occasional trips into the city. They were completed in 1972 and 1973, and I remember asking my dad – a NYC firefighter with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city – the one burning question on my mind: How in the heck would they get those cranes down when the thing was finished? (They took them apart and lowered them down, he told me.)

I didn’t realize it at the time, but growing up so close to the city meant quite extraordinary field trips. In junior high, we routinely went into the city to see Broadway matinees and places like the American Museum of Natural History. One trip brought us to the World Trade Center, where we took the elevators to the top and marveled at the extraordinary view from lower Manhattan. As boys, we could only wonder at the fences to prevent jumpers and what it would be like to jump or fall from such a place.

Little did we guess at the time that the monolith upon which we stood would fall in our lifetime, or that in the course of that awful day, many would leap from its windows – the only alternative to being roasted alive.

Ten years on, we’re still trying to come to terms with what it all meant. Nineteen evil morons with box cutters and a twisted goal, all dead as soon as their act was completed. Our response was to launch two ground wars – one in a country that had absolutely no connection to the attacks – at an estimated cost of $3.3 trillion. We also created a new federal bureaucracy in the form of the Department of Homeland Security, which to date has spent another $1 trillion. In Colorado, part of that money went toward a statewide emergency radio system, which cost up to $300 million and doesn’t work very well – particularly in the mountains. Locally, the illusion of security is manifested at the Dillon Dam, where Denver Water has spent a great deal of money in a futile attempt to make the dam safer.

Believe me, if a terrorist was serious about attacking the dam, a guy sitting in a little shack isn’t going to deter him. As 9/11 and other attacks around the world have repeatedly shown us, determined terrorists will always find a way. Harden one target and they’ll look for another. Implement things against one tactic or weapon and they’ll find something else. Go after them at the source may help, but one also risks creating more anger – and terrorists – in the process. It’s that old whack-a-mole scenario.

The more logical approach would seem, then, to become a country that doesn’t inspire terrorism, although what that might be isn’t entirely clear, either (remember Bali). But surely it’s the opposite of the low road we embarked on a decade ago: pointless wars, xenophobia, anti-Muslim sentiment, unilateral foreign interventions, legally questionable drone strikes, extraordinary rendition, torture and the like. Finding a way to avoid Middle East entanglements by avoiding the purchase of that region’s oil (and while not destroying our own backyard) would seem to be a better tactic, but we can’t seem to get serious about that, either.

If the goal of the terrorists on 9/11 was to diminish the U.S., they certainly succeeded in that. Or, more precisely, they provided the catalyst to allow us to do it to ourselves. And by having exactly the wrong president at the time, veering onto that low road was inevitable. Perhaps even more disappointing, though, is that Obama has perpetuated some of the more execrable practices of the Bush administration. And we’re still in Iraq, we’re still in Afghanistan, Guantanamo is still open and terror threats such as the one we’re hearing about for this weekend still exist.

Given the extraordinary nature of the 9/11 attacks, we can concede that our leaders at the time wouldn’t have all the right answers. But written into this country’s history, into the very fabric of our society, is a sort of genetic code for handling big stuff: pull together, get it done and don’t leave our integrity (or the Constitution, for that matter) in the dust. This last has shaped up to be a lost decade, beginning with 9/11 and pitifully winding down in a great recession and gridlocked leadership.

We can and should remember and honor the dead and maintain our vigilance. But it’s also time to move on. Somewhere in all those ashes is the great nation we once were, but a decade later, it sometimes seems like the smoke from that day is still obscuring our vision, making us cower and bicker. We’re reminded of it every time we have to remove our shoes at the airport or when we realize most of us have no answer to the question of what we’re doing in Iraq or Afghanistan. And maybe instead of marking 9/11 in future years, we should be celebrating 9/12: the day after. Yes, it happened, it was awful. But what are we going to do next that’s meaningful and forward-thinking? How do we move on from the calcified political climate that makes us seem that much smaller and stupider than previous generations? And what is our next big thing?

As a nation, we’ve yet to answer that one.

Summit Daily editor Alex Miller can be reached at amiller@summitdaily.com or (970) 668-4618.


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