Reflections on 9/11

by | 14 Oct 2011

Presentation at “The Other 9/11,” Pace University, September 9, 2011.

In my remarks tonight, I want to reflect on the significance of 9/11 for us today, and by “us” I do not simply mean the citizens of the United States, although they will be the focus of my address. Everybody throughout the world has been affected by the policies of the United States government, and more specifically the Bush administration after that fatal day.

First I want to discuss how in my case, as in the cases of so many others, the moral and ethical horror of what happened to the more than three thousand people who were killed in the Twin Towers quickly became a call to respond politically to Bush’s declaration of war. This war, of course, was the famous war on terror, which belied all previous notions of a war with nameable combatants, protections of international law, and a hoped-for peaceful resolution. The war on terror was infinite, because who knew where the next terrorists were to spring up, and therefore there was no hope for its resolution.

Secondly I want to reflect with you about the toll that this war on terror has taken on our constitutional democracy and on our fundamental constitutional rights, which, on one understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the United States, are fundamental to that identification.

Of course, our Constitution is old and, many would say, outdated in many ways. Still, we need to remember that for all their disagreements, the founding fathers of the United States defined citizenship as a commitment to the ideals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. As limited as those ideals might be, citizenship did not turn on any notion of ethnic origin, at least in theory. Perhaps never more than now do we need to remember that our country was founded on this commitment to ideals as the undergirding of the entire nation state. As we all know, it became standard practice to poke fun at idealists after 9/11, for being unrealistic in the so-called “new world.” But what we need to remember is that constitutional rights were never just about law, they were also about this commitment to ideals as foundational to what it meant to be a citizen of the United States.

I live in downtown Manhattan, and my September 11, 2001 began by walking my daughter to school as usual. By the time I returned home, I was told our country was under attack, and without any further questions, raced back to school to get my daughter. My first thought was for my daughter’s safety. But when I arrived at the school, the school administration asked me to take with me not only my daughter, who is adopted and of color, but other children of color in her grade or in her age range, whose parents were not able to make it into Manhattan. Politics had already entered into the scene, because it was assumed that the mother of a child of color was to be responsible for the other children of color. With these children in tow, we headed home to a day of lunch outdoors, ice cream cones, and other entertainments that keep children from driving parents insane. Giuliani would have been proud of us, because we were out shopping even before he asked us to.

I do not in any way want to diminish the tragedy and the trauma of what took place that day. I want to underscore instead the very close relationship between that tragedy and political responsibility. In my case, it was first to those children of color whose families could not make it into Manhattan. Within twenty-four hours, I and many other feminists were also asked to support the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, which was already concerned that Bush’s immediate war rhetoric was going to lead to the bombing of Afghanistan. I had been supporting this organization for years, because of their tireless work on behalf of democracy and women under the brutal leadership of the Taliban. They had developed by that time a government in exile in Pakistan, and rightfully felt they were in an excellent position to take up the necessary leadership roles in the government that was to be created in that country.

In the following week, students at Columbia University organized the first teach-in to discuss the United States response to 9/11, and I publicly came out against the bombing of Afghanistan, as neither an ethically acceptable nor a militarily sound solution to the problem of dismantling Al Quaeda and capturing and putting on trial those responsible for the horrendous deeds of 9/11. I emphasize “putting on trial,” because I saw no reason why we should not put Al Quaeda on trial. I was horrified by the “wanted dead or alive” headlines, because they seemed to undermine the commitment to a thoughtful lawful response to the trauma, and replaced it with a cry for vengeance, worthy of a grade-B Hollywood Western.

My next years were taken up with peace activism, first against the bombing of Afghanistan, and then against the war in Iraq. With the long-time activist and scholar Ann Snitow, I called for the formation of the group which we ultimately called “Take Back the Future,” which participated in all the peace demonstrations, and protests against the Bush administration from 2003 to 2008. But we also began our own campaign in defense of the Bill of Rights. The campaign took the form of a dragon chasing after one of us who held up a Bill of Rights against the dragon’s wrath. Part of our purpose was educational: we wanted to discuss with citizens what was happening to the Bill of Rights through the Patriot Act. We also wanted to discuss the importance of the Bill of Rights as these rights in turn signified the ideals upon which this country was based. Like many of my generation, protest against policies of the United States government were often initially carried out in the name of those ideals. Therefore, we did not see our actions, say, in protest against the war in Vietnam and for the full citizenship of African Americans, as “un-American.” On the contrary, we saw them as actions in the name of what we took to be the best ideals represented by the Constitution.

I had a personal reason for entering this campaign. I grew up under the shadow of McCarthyism, in a small, all-white, all-Republican suburban town in southern California that was also the home of the John Birch Society, a rabid anti-communist organization. Indeed, I did not meet anyone who was in the Democratic Party until I was seventeen, when I was fortunate enough to have a government teacher who was a Democract. He was a brave man, because he was an “out-Democrat,” and as a result, every year I was in high school, some parents tried to have him fired, since there was no distinction in my home town between being a Democrat and being a communist. Many young people do not remember McCarthyism. Joe McCarthy engaged in a kind of reign of terror against anyone who was an independent thinker or activist in the early 1950s. Intellectuals, artists, and professors were called to testify and were put in prison if they refused to speak, appealing to the Fifth Amendment, which protects the right against self-incrimination. Thousands lost their jobs, hundreds were blacklisted and rendered permanently unable to work in their professions. And why? Because they might be communists or know about communists, and for no other reason. Absolutely no proof that they were members of the Communist Party was required, or even that they had attended a demonstration organized by the Communist Party. It was enough to be fingered as a communist by the countless informants that swarmed around independent thinkers and activists to be brought before McCarthy’s hearings. McCarthy’s ideology was that communists were everywhere, and therefore we could only be safe from them if we systematically destroyed all who were associated with them in any way.

I was struck by the rhetoric after 9/11 that the sense of safety guaranteed to U.S. citizens had been destroyed with the Twin Towers. I grew up in a world where I never felt safe, because we were constantly bombarded by the message that the communists were coming to get us, and that they were likely, if they did not get us in person, to destroy us in a nuclear holocaust. On my first day of school, before we even began learning our ABCs, we were taken to the auditorium to see an infamous movie, which I believe was entitled, The Red Smear. It was absolutely terrifying, with blood encompassing the entire globe, and finally a finger pointed at us, the kids in the audience: the communists were coming to kill us, rape our women, destroy our way of life, and take away all our rights. This fear of communism and nuclear destruction haunted my community in the time of the Cold War, and we now know, rightfully so, since a nuclear war was almost unleashed by John Kennedy’s stance against Fidel Castro in 1960. I certainly never felt safe, and indeed my sister remembers that I told her one night, that I would at least live to be fifteen, whereas she would only live to be ten at the very outset. I wanted to make sure that the sense of terror and fear I had imposed upon me was spread among the family.

Movies like On the Beach, where everybody died except a handful in Australia, who finally take their own lives, had many different variations, and we all watched them. Growing up, I at no time felt safe, because “the other” was always about to arrive and kill me. And yet I was still aware of rights, not so much in a legalistic sense, but as signs of the greater ideals for which the United States stood. Even that notorious movie, The Red Smear, emphasized that those of us who lived in the United States, unlike the poor souls who lived behind the Iron Curtain, had the right to vote, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to be protected against self-incrimination, and other rights, and it was these rights that I thought made us different. So my first political activism was to fight for the right to vote of African Americans, because after all, weren’t we the country that allowed all citizens to vote? Of course, this was my interpretation or extrapolation of the meaning of the ideals of the Constitution, because many of those ideals are in fact written in abstract moral language, which demands an interpretation, not a literalist rendering of what the words say.

The consistently liberal political theorist Ronald Dworkin has always insisted, and rightfully so, that constitutional rights, because they are abstract statements of political morality, must be interpreted in accordance with principles that are at least in a broad sense derived from that morality. Of course there are disputes about what that morality is. But my point for now is that despite the lack of safety I grew up in, I took away from that experience, even as a very young woman, a commitment to the rights and ideals that, even accordance to The Red Smear, made the United States different from those societies that were labeled “totalitarian.” Safety, in other words, was never a reason to compromise on the great ideals of freedom and equality. But after 9/11, we have seen the same kind of undermining of our rights that, once again, is justified by fear and terror of “the other” and in the name of our safety. Joe McCarthy did not make the world safer for anyone. Am I saying that we are at this moment in the new age of McCarthyism? No, I am not, but I am suggesting that it is a real threat, and there has been a significant undermining of our constitutional rights, including those that have always been seen as most foundational, such as the right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures and the right to be protected against self-incrimination. This is not just a matter of individual rights, but as Dworkin has relentlessly demonstrated, the aftermath of 9/11 and the “Bush threat” have put our democratic institutions in jeopardy. To quote Dworkin on what has happened to the constitutional doctrine under the dominance of Bush appointees:

The revolution that many commentators predicted when President Bush appointed two ultra-right-wing Supreme Court justices is proceeding with breathtaking impatience, and it is a revolution Jacobin in its disdain for tradition and precedent. Bush’s choices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, have joined the two previously most right-wing justices, Antonio Scalia and Clarence Thomas, in an unbreakable phalanx bent on remaking constitutional law by overruling, most often by stealth, the central constitutional doctrines that generations of past justices, conservative as well as liberal, had constructed.[1]

But it is not only the Supreme Court that has been affected, but the election process itself. In his article, “The ‘Devastating’ Decision,” Dworkin powerfully argues against the Court’s argument that corporations and unions should be allowed to spend without limits in our elections. Again, to quote Dworkin:

The Court has given lobbyists, already much too powerful, a nuclear weapon. Some lawyers have predicted that corporations will not take full advantage of it: they will want to keep their money for their business. But that would still permit carefully targeted threats. What legislator tempted to vote for health care reform or Obama’s banking reorganization would be indifferent to the prospect that his reelection campaign could be swamped in a tsunami of expensive negative advertising? How many corporations fearful of environmental or product liability litigation would pass up the chance to tip the balance in a state judicial election?

On the most generous understanding the decision displays the five justices’ instinctive favoritism of corporate interests. But some commentators, including The New York Times, have suggested a darker interpretation. The five justices may have assumed that allowing corporations to spend freely against candidates would favor Republicans; perhaps they overruled long-established laws and precedents out of partisan zeal. If so, their decision would stand beside the Court’s 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore as an unprincipled political act with terrible consequences for the nation.[2]

Dworkin is demanding that we confront the seriousness of the changes in our constitutional foundations, from the undermining of the rights themselves to the rightwing coup, as he has described it, that has taken place in the Supreme Court, which has been used to undermine basic institutions like the vote. So as we reflect upon “the other 9/11,” we need to think about what we have lost in terms of our basic constitutional rights and the ideals of citizenship they signified. I write this not as someone who idealizes either rights or the Constitution of the United States, but I do want to underscore that a relentless liberal like Dworkin remains important in our public life, because he emphasizes the significance of ideals, including the ideal of democracy, in our constitutional order, and warns us about how ominous the threat is to even our somewhat outdated Constitution. Obviously, many constitutions, such as the South African constitution, have gone way beyond the United States Constitution in protecting sweeping socio-economic and multicultural rights, which call into question in a much more rigorous manner the right of unfettered capitalism to control the economic organization of society. Yet that said, we should at least think about what we have lost in terms of our limited constitutional rights.

I have said that I do not idealize the U.S. Constitution, and, beginning long before 9/11, I certainly do not idealize the U.S. role in world politics. I early on learned that our so-called “interventions” to impose democracy in South America were in fact attempts on the part of the ruling class of the United States to impose Milton Friedman’s economic policies against legally elected governments. In the early seventies, Salvador Allende, a democratic socialist, was elected president in Chile. His program was one that promised the highest ideals of socialism combined with the fullest range of participatory democracy. He refused to organize armed self-defense leagues to support his government, counting on the allegiance of the people for popular support. There is now a voluminous literature on the U.S. reaction to the election of Allende, which first engaged in an all-out economic assault by withdrawing its aid from Chile, and then, when that alone did not succeed, began a collaboration of the CIA with the military generals and the wealthy of Chile to overthrow the man who represented “romantic socialism.”

I and thousands of other young people went into Central Park to mourn the fall of the man who rejected the idea that the armed struggle and the seizing control of the army was the only possible way to maintain socialism. When Pinochet, who was to become Chile’s brutal dictator, and whose advisers included many students of the University of Chicago economics department, marched against Allende, there was no real resistance to him. There were thirty-six supporters of Allende inside the presidential palace, La Moneda. The military launched twenty-four rockets into the palace, blowing it to pieces. Relatives of Allende now tell the story that the man who refused to engage in armed self-defense of his government ultimately locked himself in the presidential office and staged a futile but courageous self-defense. He was found with a bullet in his head, which, according to the family story, was one that he put there himself, so that the people would never see him as surrendering to what he considered the enemy of the democratic socialist project. In his last address, Allende used the following words:

I am certain that the seed we planted in the worthy consciousness of thousands and thousands of Chileans cannot be definitively uprooted (…) They have the strength; they can subjugate us, but they cannot halt social processes by either crime or force. History is ours, and the people make it. (cited in Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 128).

I have held on to those words, and still hold on to those words, because I am a democratic socialist, knowing full well how much work has to be done in order for us to rethink both the history of socialist movements, the so-called socialist states, and what socialism might mean now. But again, I want to stress that what made Allende so unique at the time was his insistence on the compatibility of constitutionalism and socialism. Indeed, he argued that it was “radical capitalism” that was incompatible with both democracy and socialism.

I have spoken of Chile for so long to emphasize that we do indeed have to come to terms with the bloody significance of the U.S. drive to achieve economic hegemony in South America, Africa, Indonesia, and other major parts of the Global South. There is for me an act of double mourning that I engage in on September 11. The first is for the great experiment in social democracy that came to a bloody end on that specific date in 1973. The second is for the citizens of my own country who either died in the Twin Towers or died in the effort to save people who were so brutally trapped in those towers. Let me stress that I do not speak of the “other 9/11” now understood as the coup in Chile to in any way detract from the deep sense of grief and trauma that have resulted from the attacks on the Twin Towers.

I have spoken of my own unflagging commitment to democratic socialism, which is part of why I mourned so terribly the loss of Allende, as he represented that possibility. But I want to underscore another point here, which is not simply my commitment and personal history. Even for those who are not democratic socialists, we at least need to connect the attack on our constitutional rights and on the very idea of democracy with the austerity measures which are now being pushed upon us by rightwing extremists in Congress. To quote Naomi Klein:

The Bush administration immediately seized upon the fear generated by the attacks not only to launch the “War of Terror,” but to ensure that it was an almost completely for-profit venture, a booming new industry that has breathed new life into the faltering U.S. economy. Best understood as a “disaster capitalism complex,” it has much farther-reaching tentacles than the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned against at the end of his presidency: this is global war fought on every level by private companies whose involvement is paid for with public money, with the unending mandate of protecting the United States homeland in perpetuity while eliminating all “evil” abroad. In only a few short years, the complex has already expanded its reach from fighting terrorism to international peacekeeping, to municipal policing, to responding to increasingly frequent natural disasters. The ultimate goal for the corporations at the center of the complex is to bring the model of for-profit government, which advances so rapidly in extraordinary circumstances, into the ordinary and day-to-day functioning of the state–in effect, to privatize the government. (The Shock Doctrine, 14-15)

Our Constitution does not protect socio-economic rights. If we had such rights, then certain measures, say to cut social security or Medicare, would not be matters of political policy: they would be part and parcel of the political morality of the constitutional order. Perhaps because we do not have such rights, we tend to separate attacks on our economic well-being from attacks on other constitutional rights, even as, I pointed out, those attacks have been allowed to pass constitutional muster in a way that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. If a constitution protects socio-economic rights, then attacks on those rights, and attacks on other basic rights can be thought together, rather than separately. My suggestion here is that the series of severe economic crises that we have undergone can first of all not be separated from the toll on our country from its military efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and more generally, in the “War on Terror.” Secondly, that the measures suggested by the right-wing, which entail severe cuts in all the social wellfare programs, as well as the basic rights of workers to organize and protest, should be seen as part and parcel of an overarching right-wing Republican agenda, which has the impact of undermining democratic possibilities in the United States.

Even if one does not identify as a democratic socialist, as I do, the staggering crises of capitalism that we faced in the last few years, and the attacks on the basic social welfare of the citizens of the United States should at least prod us to think about how equality, at least of some measure of equality, and political freedom are tied together. It is that tie that also seems to have been undone by the ideology of security that has been promoted by the Bush administration and has come to have resonance with so many of the citizens of the United States. But as I have suggested earlier, the McCarthyism that justified itself as making the world safe by eradicating communism, did not achieve its end, but only made the world desparately unsafe for so many citizens of the United States. Should we not be wary of any position that advocates that we give up our rights, together with the economic wellbeing of our nation as a whole, in the name of our security? After all, social security is called that for a reason. So I want to end my remarks tonight with a call for us to reflect on what we have lost in terms of our democratic lives together as citizens of the United States in the aftermath of 9/11.

[1] Ronald Dworkin, “The Supreme Court Phalanx.” The New York Review of Books, September 27, 2007.

[2] Ronald Dworkin, “The ‘Devastating’ Decision.” The New York Review of Books.


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