Quick show of hands: Who had ideas on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, that in retrospect were completely, utterly batty?
The rest of you are lying.
Many of us considered joining the military, but envisioned the mission as involving waking up September 12th, destroying and displacing the Taliban–or whoever it was–then fast-roping into Tora Bora–or wherever it was–and wrapping things up, video-game style.
Other people seriously considered selling their homes in cities and moving into the country, to establish a more defensible position from which they’d fight off the enemy. (Presumably the terrorists would wait until we were at least under contract.) Other friends bought motorcycles, which they could use to maneuver more quickly and flee the city on sidewalks in the event of an urban attack of some sort. We had all basically gone crazy.
To be clear: I think there’s no shame in this. It felt a lot like the Blitz because at the time it looked a lot like the Blitz. In the absence of clear interpretive lenses–or even many facts–we reached for grand but comforting analogies in 20th century experience.
The shame came when we allowed and encouraged our rulers to use the opportunity to strike blow after blow against our liberties. The government ransacked our privacy, our pocketbooks, and the rule of law in pursuit of dangers that turned out to be phantoms.
We invaded and occupied Iraq for a decade, at a cost of nearly 5,000 American lives, tens of thousands of American limbs, and over a trillion dollars. We tried to make Afghanistan into a liberal, unitary republic. Never forget, they told us. Otherwise the next one could be an Iraqi nuke. We had to do it, they told us. Remember that crisp fall morning. Never Forget.
After fifteen years of manic foreign and security policies pursued in the name of never forgetting, perhaps we would do better to forget. Not the memories of lost loved ones, or even our fury at what was done to us. Not the simple, cheap things, like reinforced cockpit doors, or a bit more overseas intelligence gathering.
But to forget those grand analogies of history, or the idea that our lives would become a Mel Gibson movie, and that we needed to heed and take to heart the dire warnings of our rulers. We could forget the idea that the terrorists deserved a place in the pantheon of dangers next to the Nazis or Genghis Khan.
With the benefit of hindsight and hard-won experience, maybe it’s time to try something different. Let’s forget.
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