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The Legacy of 9/11

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Perhaps we've gotten enough distance from 9/11 that it's possible to consider what its enduring legacy is. What lesson America learned.

In an age where it's increasingly difficult to say anything with certainty, it's certainly the case that none of us will forget September 11, 2001. No matter what else happens over the duration of our lives, we'll remember the events of that day: World Trade Center residents falling to their deaths, firefighters and police officers hustling into the chaos, towers collapsing, smoke and dust enveloping lower Manhattan... Five years removed, it's important to honor the more than 3000 victims of the terrorist attacks. And, to remember the "secondary" victims of the tragedy: the more than 2000 who were severely injured, the thousands who were traumatized, and the tens of thousands of New York rescuers and residents who incurred respiratory ailments.

At the time, President Bush said, "Everything has changed." Meaning that America's sense of invulnerability was gone. That's right. But in the ensuing five years there've been six other changes to the culture and consciousness of the United States. This sad day is an appropriate time to consider these. To speak the truth about the aftermath of 9/11.

Americans are more fearful than we were before 9/11. Any visit to the airport or hour spent watching the TV news reminds us that terrorists continue to menace the U.S. The Bush Administration manipulated this fear for their political gain. Rather than comfort Americans by saying "you have nothing to fear but fear itself," Bush traumatized them by stating "You have something to fear and little you can do about it except trust Big Brother."

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Overseas, Bush's "war on terror" had disappointing results. At home, it produced an unprecedented expansion of Presidential powers. Bush used his dubious title of "commander-in-chief" to expand his authority and diminish civil rights. First came "the Patriot Act." Then revelations the Bush Administration had abandoned the Geneva Conventions, sanctioned torture and illegal detention of suspected terrorists. Next came news of widespread eavesdropping on domestic transactions. George Bush trampled the Constitution.

Bush supporters expected a new age of empire. Instead, the U.S. standing in the world plummeted. America remains the world's preeminent military power, but the occupation of Iraq revealed the many chinks in our armor. The U.S. has gone deeply in debt to other nations and is in grave danger of losing our economic primacy to China and the European Union. Meanwhile, America's popularity has fallen. Rather than saviors, we're seen as arrogant bullies.

Just after 9/11, George Bush assured Americans that they would be safe and continue to have it all: guns and butter, a massive military infrastructure and a sound economy. But Americans haven't been kept safe, as Katrina amply demonstrated. And only the richest have prospered from Bush's "winner take all" policies. Meanwhile, major problems have been ignored: global climate change, healthcare, national competitiveness, and poverty, to name only a few.

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The foundation of American democracy has always been our shared perception of opportunity: the promise that any citizen could move up the ladder of social mobility through his or her hard work. Most Americans participate in the body politic because they believe in the common good; perceive that participation in civil society helps everyone. The Bush Administration disdained these notions. Spun America off the axis of democracy toward that of plutocracy. Promoted government by the powerful aligned with a cadre of pseudo-Christian religious extremists.

In the face of these failures, it's not surprising that Americans today have less confidence in the future-in the viability of the great American experiment-than at any time in recent memory. On September 11, 2001, the psyche of America was gravely wounded. A real leader would have used our common grief as an opportunity to forge a new American resolve, a new sense of who we are as a people. Built a stronger democracy on the ashes of the World Trade Center. But George Bush is not a leader. And, America's grief became depression.

Robert Heinlein once wrote that Americans should remember to "Love your country, but never trust its government." That's the real legacy of 9/11: Our shared understanding that we can't trust the Federal government to protect us.

My enduring image of 9/11 will not be of the towers falling or the President speaking to the nation. It will be of first responders rushing to the scene of the disaster, heedless of the danger, and toiling in the wreckage for days on end. On that awful day, those were the men and women that represented real Americans.

The heroes of 9/11 demonstrated responsible government: Illustrated that in a democracy we have to step outside our personal interests. Work together. Count on each other. Form a sense of national purpose that resides outside the greedy streets of Washington.

That's the only way to build something of substance upon the ashes of the World Trade Center. We must remember that democracy depends upon the American people. Not our politicians.


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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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