September 11th revealed that our leadership no longer believes in the idea of a nation state that promotes the general welfare and protects the common good. They pantomime their beliefs, they talk of bravery and patriotism supporting the troops, but in the end, their actions betray them.
Ten years ago I sat on a couch in a small Korean city and watched the Twin Towers fall live on CNN International. I went to class the next morning, before the casualty numbers were known, and thinking that tens of thousands of people might have perished. I remember that the University and town where I was staying ran their air raid sirens and held a moment of silence for all the people who had died, and I remember having a room full of people ask me how Americans on the first two planes could go down without a fight.
I remember riding the train back to Seoul two days later and crying when I thought about all the people who had died in the towers, the first responders who ran into the burning buildings, and the valiant passengers and crew on Flight 93 who gave their lives in defense of our nation when every other institution had failed us that day.
I remember flying home on September 14th, and the South Korean troops in armored vehicles at the airport, and on foot patrolling with assault rifles at the ready. I remember an older couple rolling a huge box into the middle of the concourse and walking away, and how my friend and I debated whether we should say something…and how we tried to talk in broken Korean to two of the soldiers who were as freaked out as we were, and who severely reprimanded the older couple when they came back for the box. I remember the plane leaving the gate and stopping on the runway, as the pilot announced that they had not matched someone with their luggage, and how security burst into the airplane and sprinted up and down the aisles until they located the missing person and matched them with the luggage.
I remember watching President Bush on television, and waiting for him to issue a generational call to action, and being confused when he told people to go shopping. I didn't understand why he wasn't calling Americans to service in Afghanistan, since it was obvious that really rebuilding it after an eventual invasion would have required huge numbers of people. Only later did I realize that it was because our leadership really believed that they could privatize vast parts of the invasion and reconstruction, and indeed believed in building a kind of hollow nation-state in Afghanistan with core function outsourced and privatized. This has also been true in Iraq as well, post-invasion. At best this is ignorant of the risks that vast mercenary forces pose to the safety of the Republic. At worst, they do this to enrich themselves and their cronies at the cost of not only dollars but in irreplaceable human lives of many nationalities. I also watched the normalization of torture and invasive government surveillance over our daily lives. These are actions which are indisputably illegal, but the only people who have been punished, if any, are the lowest level military enlisted people, while the civilian leadership that gave the orders remains free to go on television talk shows to pitch their memoirs.
As events unfolded in front of me I realized to my horror that the order of the day was privatization over all else, and damn the consequences. I was involved very briefly in work that touched on the Enron scandal. Reading over the Congressional investigation records, it was apparent to me that all the talk of efficient markets and privatization was simply cynical ideological cover for the destruction of public power utilities so a few people could get rich. And later, as I began to learn more about the mortgage industry I saw how often management were utterly fraudulent in their activities, to the detriment of millions of Americans who trusted them. Instead they have in the main been rewarded with bailouts, and with a court system that has far too often turned a blind eye to their ruthless attempts to illegally drive millions of Americans out of their homes and into the streets, actions that destroy families and communities across our nation. Despite our leaders so-called commitment to national security, these people who have shaken the very foundations of Americans' economic well being have suffered minimal punishment. Bernie Maddoff went to prison, but Angelo Mozilo the CEO of Countrywide merely had to pay a fine. I can think of no executive from Bank of America, Washington Mutual or the many other cases of control fraud, who received any meaningful punishment. Just as in the torture and surveillance cases, there are separate rules for the powerful.
The problem is that our elites and a militant faction of the public no longer believe in a nation state at all. They no longer believe in America. On the right, you have the Tea Party, the latest manifestation of a bigoted faction that has systematically dismantled core governmental functions, such as education, transit, water, financial market regulation, and food safety. They have dismantled institutions that ensure the general welfare because they do not want to live in a nation-state that benefits those who do not share the same ethnic background. They do still support spending on law enforcement and the military, only insofar as they perceive the institutions can be used on those unlike them. And even then, their leaders still support slashing pensions and medical benefits for those who have served-- which shows you just how much all the talk of supporting the troops and first responders is pantomime and not reality.
At the elite level,there are plenty of people in the finance sector who realize that privatization and the growth of private indebtedness is good for their bottom line. This is also why they want to slash the government spending deficit because slashing the deficit forces individual Americans to borrow money from the private sector to make up for declining government spending.
Naturally, the finance sector pursues this via sponsoring various elected officials. While it is obvious when the finance sector sponsors right wing, Republican candidates, it is less obvious when it sponsors Democrats. The majority of national level Democratic leadership embraces the exact same ideology of privatization and deregulation-- its just that they feel bad about it so they occasionally throw a bone to some social services or non-profit types, or make soaring speeches that never turn into action. President Obama is the leading example of this type.
You can see how little he and the senior Democratic leadership actually believe in a government that promotes the general welfare when they speak the language of austerity, while millions are out of work, and when they spoke about healthcare reform and instead delivered a guaranteed revenue stream to the health insurance industry.
While there is still some remaining opposition on the left to the onslaught of the finance sector, too many of its exponents express themselves in the language of universal internationalism. As one person said to me "nationalism is one of the scourges of humanity." This is foolish for two reasons. First, because it fails to understand that all the things that the left wants, like universal healthcare, labor standards and economic justice happen within the confines of the nation state, and its economic system. Second, it is foolish because it needlessly antagonizes the majority of Americans who are quite rightly suspicious of such views.
The patterns of human organization default to the clan/extended family, and then to the fictional kinship seen in religions and fraternal organizations. The nation-state is a way of extending the kinship bonds to people within a bounded geographic area. In the United States we are bound by ideals, by belief in ideals like due process, freedom of speech, and in the belief that tomorrow should and will be better than today. All the ideals that Americans profess to hold dear, depend on the functioning of a nation state, and the economic prosperity that we experienced during the 20th century is directly related to the bonds of patriotism.
September 11th demonstrated that evil religious fanatics crashing planes into buildings could not cripple America. No, it took our misguided and corrupt leadership to do that.
While our elite leadership may no longer believe in the United States, there are many of us who still do. Since we have been abandoned by our leadership, it is up to us to make this the country we want it to be. It is up to us to make good on the promise of the United States.