A year ago 19 men changed the channel on America's TV to an obscene and demonic cartoon. We clicked on to see an enormous jet plane flying at a skyscraper, its nose approaching the great vertical glass and metal wall, the nanosecond of the moment of penetration so odd and unbelievable and weirdly gentle that again and again as you watch it you find yourself hoping the jet will somehow pass right through, as if the whole moment is a mirage, an abstraction, a bad dream. Then everything explodes in glass and enormous fragments of steel and burning flesh, and the bad dream of a few deeply religious, very angry men becomes a nightmare for all of us.
A year later, the terror and trauma have long faded for those not personally affected by the attacks in New York, Washington and high above western Pennsylvania, where some passengers who moments before had been eating foil-wrapped peanuts showed what human beings are capable of. The mind-numbingly vast wreckage of the site in lower Manhattan has been cleaned up. A short, overwhelming air assault in Afghanistan succeeded in blasting the unlamented Taliban out of power and disrupting Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, but failed to capture or, apparently, kill the Saudi terror head or his close associates.
Venerable hawks brought in by President Bush as wise men used the attacks -- and their callow, ill-educated leader's sudden, religiously mediated intoxication with "moral clarity" -- to seize complete control of his administration, pushing through draconian security laws, using patriotism as a political bludgeon, siding with the might-makes-right policies of Israeli leader Ariel Sharon in the crucial Middle East arena, withdrawing into haughty unilateralism and advocating an unprecedented new doctrine of preemptive American military action, with Iraq as the first target.
At home, the political landscape remained curiously unaffected by these matters, as timorous Democrats declined to challenge a popular president on anything "war"-related and voters seemed more concerned with the sputtering economy.
Leaving aside the larger consequences of the Bush administration's move to the hard right, it is difficult to assess its effects on the outcome of the so-called War on Terrorism (a term that led former Monty Python member Terry Jones to observe, "Can you wage war against an abstract noun?"). The failure of al-Qaida to strike again has suggested to optimists that perhaps they have shot their bolt, but it is impossible to say that with conviction -- just as it is impossible to say whether the events of a year ago represented the first battle in a "clash of civilizations" that could threaten our nation's very existence, or were essentially a fluke, never to be repeated on this scale. The uncertainty over this -- just what happened to us, anyway? -- leaves the entire episode murky, impossible to pin down. Rarely if ever before in our nation's history have personal obsessions, religious zealotry, geopolitical issues and pure happenstance combined to wreak such deadly havoc: Trying to unearth the meaning of Sept. 11 is like diving into a psychotic's subconscious.
This psychological and emotional fog is all the more reason to try to stay lucid about what has happened to us and the world since the attacks. At home, this has begun to happen: As wartime hysteria has faded, courts have begun to methodically overturn Attorney General John Ashcroft's attempt to strip civil liberties protections from terrorism suspects. Abroad, things are less clear. The effect of the U.S.'s anti-Islamic shift -- its pro-Sharon tilt, its demonizing of Iran and saber rattling against Iraq -- on the Arab and Islamic world remains uncertain so far. The key players are Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Administration hawks -- and not only hawks -- argue that the threat from the "Arab street" is overblown, and that if "friendly" regimes in Riyadh and Cairo are threatened by unrest, that might actually be a positive development: The fact that most of the hijackers had ties to Saudi Arabia or Egypt indicates that the status quo in those corrupt, despotic regimes is no longer safe for America. In any case, they argue, any Saudi regime is going to have to sell oil to us if it wants to have enough money to keep its people from toppling it.
The most triumphalist hawks, true to their Cold War-forged ideology in which they believe that American might should have been used directly against the evil Russian empire, see the "clash of civilizations" as untroubling, because they regard Islamic fundamentalism as a paper tiger; in their view, American force will quickly rout the Islamists, who at bottom respect only force. (However, this optimism cannot be openly articulated, because it is necessary for the American people to fear the satanic power of the dark Islamic zealots. In this regard, 9/11 was an absolute blessing for the hawks: It inspired enough popular terror to support a decisive escalation in U.S. global militarism, while not actually in their view really threatening us.)
Others are not so sanguine, warning of regional chaos and the possibility of fundamentalist regimes' seizing power. The U.S.'s decisive siding with the Israelis in their conflict with the Palestinians has enraged the Arab and Islamic worlds, but what effect that rage will have on either the war on terrorism or global politics, beyond making it impossible for moderate Arab states to take part in an attack on Iraq, is unclear.
It will be noted that all of the above analysis is harshly realistic, concerned with cold calculations of power and self-interest. Sept. 11 gave the Bush administration license to bury the last remnants of the derided idealism of Clinton, with his language of altruism and morality. The world envisioned by the ascendant Rumsfeld/Cheney/Wolfowitz/Ashcroft cabal within the Bush regency is one where a righteous America, its superiority sanctioned both biblically and by the Calvinist proof offered by our bulging bank accounts, lords it over the world. Sept. 11, the national pain and anger and yes, understandable self-righteousness that followed it, allowed those who cling to this dream of American righteousness and domination to take control of the American government. Will the fading of the emotions stirred by 9/11 cause them to fall from power?
Over the next week, Salon will explore these and many other issues -- large and small, tragic and mundane -- raised by the events of a year ago. We examine whether an attack on Iraq will inflame the Islamic world against us and result in Osama's "winning." We look at why urban legends about 9/11 persist, and visit with firefighters whose grief over their lost comrades has been darkened by anger over revelations of high-level blundering. We assess the military campaign so far, and explore how American judges are rolling back Ashcroft's anti-terrorism measures. We cast an unsentimental eye upon the warm sea of bathos about to be dumped upon us, and stop to remember our losses. Accompanying these pieces will be stories that ran in Salon after the attacks, stories now anthologized in our book about 9/11, "Afterwords."
Among the good things that resulted from the terrible events of a year ago were renewed dialogue about matters important to our country, and a spirit of intellectual exploration. In a small way, we hope to contribute to both. We invite you to join us.