September 11th Didn't Change Everything
In the days and weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, it was often repeated that September 11th "changed everything." For the thousands who lost family, friends, jobs and health on September 11th, that was no doubt true. But by "everything" most commentators seemed to go beyond the profound personal losses caused by the attacks, to mean that historical events would now be marked as either before or after 9-11, and that both the American psyche and global politics would be transformed.
It hasn't turned out entirely that way. With apologies to those whose lives were changed forever by the attacks on the World Trade Center, here is a list of 10 things, local, national and international, that did not change as a result of September 11th.
1. We are again complacent about security. Human nature and confusing messages about being alert for an unspecified attack while getting on with a normal life have led to this state. A few of us are still touchy about the subway, but most are recovered enough to be grouchy about train delays. Some people detect a general softening among New Yorkers, but there is plenty of cursing of strangers for failing to move quickly enough at a green light or for taking up two parking spaces with one car. New Yorkers are having fun again, too. Clubs and concerts are full, and tourists crowd the Brooklyn Bridge and the Circle Line.
2. Downtown Manhattan is vibrant. The financial district had been the one place in the country where it was hard to avoid the smells and sights of destruction. But Ground Zero became a tourist attraction and Tribeca looks brighter than before, with its cobblestone streets paved over and many buildings sandblasted. The area is becoming more residential and wealthier, a trend that started before September 11th. Even in areas closer to Ground Zero, it is easy to forget anything happened.
3. New York has the same problems as before 9-11. Union organizers, homeless advocates and environmentalists are working on exactly what they were working on before: a living wage, housing, public transportation, health care, protection of watersheds and open spaces, among other issues. Rebuilding downtown, while important, is the concern of a relatively few.
Added to the day-to-day struggles of some New Yorkers, are the effects of the toxic dust that blanketed lower Manhattan for months. Many of those at risk for health impacts from asbestos, dioxin and heavy metals found in the air near ground zero, are the non-union, immigrant day laborers hired to do the clean up. Also at increased risk are young children and pregnant women in the neighborhood. The health threat is new, but what's familiar were the knee-jerk official assurances that the contaminants posed no danger.
4. George Bush is still immature and arrogant. One of the things we heard a lot last fall was that W. grew up, became serious and found his voice as a result of the attacks. But this "grownup" divides the world into his "friends" and "the evil ones." He just spent his vacation thumbing his nose at the largest gathering of heads of state in his tenure, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. His policies there, and elsewhere, amount to a taunt of "if you don't play by my rules I'll take my marbles and go home." Sometimes he takes his marbles elsewhere even when everyone plays by his rules.
5. The Democrats are still wimps. While the Administration uses September 11th and the "War on Terrorism" as an excuse to do exactly what it wanted to do anyway, the Democrats cravenly refuse to challenge their agenda.
6. We are still obsessed with the stock market. Of course we are obsessed with watching it spiral down instead of go up, but this is more a result of the technology bubble, Enron and WorldCom than of September 11th. On the positive side, the tragedy probably helped people keep their financial losses in perspective.
7. We're still dangerously addicted to oil. The U.S. addiction to oil is the cornerstone of US policies in the Middle East, as well as a key cause of global warming. September 11th was a golden opportunity to use the patriotic fervor of Americans to begin a serious effort to reduce oil and gas use, through both conservation and a push for renewables. Instead of asking this sacrifice of Americans at a time we were willing, our leaders told us to strengthen the economy by going shopping. Not surprisingly then, we are as consumerist as ever, while claiming to have a new unity based on values deeper than love of malls.
8. The Global Justice movement is alive and well. In late September of 2001, mass protests against the World Bank were cancelled, and many thought a new geopolitics would mean the end of the anti-corporate globalization movement. But by January, when the World Economic Forum came to New York and was met with a 10,000 person protest march, it was clear that the movement would not allow itself to be realigned out of existence. At the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development, the protest themes were privatization, debt, structural adjustment and corporate power, just as they were before September 11th.
9. The Israeli - Palestinian conflict has only intensified. The attack on the United States could have led to reflection on the enemies Washington has made as a result of its support for Israel's unjust, illegal settlement policies. Instead, the administration and congress continue to support Israel's most militant right wing government ever, while a growing number of Palestinians have embraced a desperate and inhumane suicide ethic.
10. "They" still hate us. On September 13th, Senator Charles Schumer of New York said, "They hate us for our freedom." The certainty with which politicians dismissed the resentment of our country was a tragic disservice to us all, and the refrain of "they hate us" is both a misleading statement of fact and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Frustration and anger toward the U.S. goes beyond fundamentalist fanatics, to include European intellectuals, Third World farmers, Latin Americans of almost all classes, and the list goes on. Washington has had its foot on their necks for years, and naturally policy makers are afraid of what they'd do if the administration lifted it for even a moment.
After the attacks, we had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to force Washington to lift its foot off most of the world, without fear of being jumped. The administration, backed by much of the public, decided instead to press down harder.
In November 2001, when I traveled abroad, people asked, "How are you? What was it like? Did you lose family?" Recently, visiting South Africa for the World Summit on Sustainable Development there was almost no talk about September 11th, and no sympathy. Now the questions are "How can you have such a stupid president?" and "What are we going to do about the U.S?" Our Secretary of State was booed in a convention hall where the strongest condemnation is usually expressed as "We are deeply concerned..." One year after the attacks, the U.S., through its own arrogance, has lost the worldwide solidarity it enjoyed for a brief moment.
September 11th changed many things, but the things it did not change are perhaps more significant. On the human level some of what remains unchaged is positive. We are resilient enough to forget tragedy, to eat, sleep, raise our children, fall in love, live our lives.
But September 11th was also a rare opportunity to make changes that were already desperately needed, changes that could have made the world a safer, better place. We have squandered that opportunity.
Kenny Bruno coordinates the Campaign for a Corporate-Free UN and is co-author of "Earth Summit.biz." He lives and works in Brooklyn.
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