We Forget

Five years after 9/11, Cornel Bonca finds your memory wandering around Vegas

If polls are any indication, most Americans have finally come around to realizing they've been manipulated—most people no longer think, for instance, that Iraq is part of the War on Terror. But the damage has been done, and God knows, liberals haven't helped. The moderate liberals who have commandeered the discourse of the left—and I'm thinking chiefly of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—have basically accepted the neocon strategies about American innocence and the need to preserve it at all costs . . . and then backed off them a tiny bit. Which makes them look irresolute—representatives of diluted pink states to Bush's bold red. Hence Kerry's voting for the war and then voting not to fund it. Hence Kerry's embarrassing appearance at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, saluting and saying he was "reporting for duty" (which was a sort of weak imitation of Bush in his flight suit declaring "Mission accomplished"). Hence Madame Clinton's savvy triangulation of supporting the Iraq War until she knew Americans began to realize what a mess the administration was making of things.

The attitudes of both right and left have been disastrous. The right has squandered the good will of the world after 9/11 by invading a country that had nothing to do with the attacks, resulting in the loss of 2,634 American lives (as of the day I'm writing this), 20,000 American wounded (thousands like the Vegas Vet), and more than 50,000 Iraqi civilian deaths—all to get rid of Saddam Hussein and install a government of Shiites sympathetic to Iran and one that has refused to condemn Hezbollah. Not to mention straitjacketing American foreign policy by making it impossible to fully confront Iran or North Korea, who are greater threats than Iraq ever was.

The soft left raises a finger of objection as to tactics once in a while. The harder left—moveon.org, etc.—says it's time to get out, but can't answer the question of what to do if, when we leave, Iraq falls headlong into civil war.

It's a hell of a place to be five years after the attacks. It's sad and sickening, and the more you love your country—its ideals, its people, and, yes, its innocence—the sadder and sicker it feels. It's tempting to say fuck it and go play on your Xbox or surf websites on home decoration ideas. Yet it's also tempting to imagine an alternative history, one where the love of country in the past five years got expressed in a different way.

Here's what I think: one of the ways Americans maintain their sense of innocence is by ignoring the Vegas Vet, by turning away from the consequences of our enmeshment in the larger world. But we can't wholly ignore this larger world, so we render up to our country's leaders the responsibility to deal with that world for us. This is what the right calls patriotism, which gets hammered home every time Dick Cheney chides any critics of American policy for "being on the side of the terrorists." Patriotism thus understood means that the people are children and the "nation" is the father. (The root word of patriot is "pater," or father.) Thus, the people get to preserve their innocence, and government officials, who run the nation, get to act unfettered.

This way of looking at patriotism—this ignorantly innocent interface with the complexities of the larger world—has been catastrophic for a humanist politics, and it needs to be radically reconceived. Rather than look at America "patriotically," as a father or fatherland that commands and demands our allegiance so that we can remain children, it might help to conceive the country as our child and ourselves as parents. I don't mean to bring any sentimentality into this, believe me. A people that thought of the nation as its offspring would have to take responsibility for it, the way parents do children, and wouldn't think of ignoring it (the way we ignore the Vet) or of signing away responsibility for it to people in power. They would also think of their nation as possessing a future, which would mean they would treat its resources in such a way that would as much as possible guarantee the future health of the child. It would mean transforming but not abandoning our ideas of innocence. No longer would we think of ourselves as innocent—no, we're the parents now, and though we've done a lot of things right, we also committed Hiroshima, My Lai, Abu Ghraib. But we could work in good faith to create a nation that was better than we are, the way parents want their children not to make their mistakes, and to live better than they have.

It's only a metaphor—nation as child rather than parent—and you can say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. This country in the five years since 9/11 has worked itself into cul-de-sacs it can't find its way out of. The Vet is wheeling himself in circles all over the streets of Vegas, and it's time we stopped being afraid of who he is, and gave him a hand.

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