9/11: A legacy of errors
Published: September 14, 2011
The attacks of September 11 brought me back to the world. I had a year earlier retreated to a high desert outpost to run a startup weekly paper — ditching what felt like a natural progression from West Texas to Las Vegas with the goal of landing at some major metro on one of the coasts. With George W. Bush elected president and oil companies beginning to dictate energy policy in closed-door meetings with Veep Dick Cheney, I was despondent, and yet ultimately clueless as to what the full ramifications of that election would be.
As a former reporter at the Odessa American I’d seen what Bush meant for the environment after the city’s largest employer, Huntsman Chemicals, entered an “upset period” during an expansion process. Two weeks of foul, toxic air hovered close over the town and I came to know what the African-American community there knew as the Odessa Syndrome: body aches, chills, coughing, bloody noses. The Odessa story would eventually be picked up by Gail Sheehy for Vanity Fair, but the failure of state regulators to protect people in this roustabout town didn’t slow Bush’s ascent. After he was elected I was pretty sure I didn’t want to see what would happen next.
When the airliners started coming down on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was living in Alpine, a sort of cowboy Shangri La, firmly in retreat mode. I was in the newspaper office, getting ready for another week when the advertising director called me to the back as her radio relayed the drama of airplanes become missiles and New York under attack. It took what felt like several minutes to understand that what I was hearing wasn’t a radio drama like Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. Weeks later, as our town’s few part-time Texas residents began returning from the Big Apple, those stories of near-misses became personal for us.
In the weeks and months that followed it seemed like all the world was shocked awake. America’s anger, confusion, fear, and grief were shared the world over, displayed in repeated candle-lit vigils in international city centers. And for a moment, the world lived in revulsion: not over any fault or injustice would-be terrorists could use to rally for their cause but for the ugliness that terror itself represented. It was as if all the world’s car bombings, random shootings, and cafe explosions had occurred in a single moment of time, in one fixed location. For a moment we held the world’s sympathy. Then the drums started to beat. We allowed Bush and Cheney to implement the plans of their inhuman playbook, a blueprint for regime change across the Middle East prepared well in advance of 9/11. War went ahead as scheduled.
Despite the heroic service of so many of our veterans since, our higher-ups have made just about every mistake imaginable. But the biggest manipulated “goof” since Vietnam was our attack of the intensely secular state of Iraq in the name of dismantling the frothingly religious Al Qaeda. If ever there was a wasted trip in terms of lives and capital, this was it. A land that hadn’t known Al Qaeda’s influence suddenly became homebase to the organization’s “most visible and capable affiliate,” according to Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, former director of National Intelligence. If this was about making Americans safe, Iraq was a bust by any measure.
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