What We Lost on 9-11

    We are approaching the sixth anniversary of 9-11. This might be a good time to stop using those numbers as a way to score political points, and to reflect on what we’ve lost. Not just the tragic loss of life, or loss of America’s historic innocence, but the twin losses of opportunity and accountability.

   In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, we had a brief experience of what could have been an enormously positive aftermath. A genuine wave of fellowship at home—a reaffirmation of the unum in e pluribus unum—was met with an outpouring of support from abroad. We might have built  an enduring monument to those we lost by reinforcing those twin sentiments: by repairing our tattered national unity at home and engaging in an era of co-operative enterprise abroad.

    The fact that we did neither is an indictment of our tragically flawed and inadequate national leadership, of course, but it is also a sign of troubling systemic failure, without which politicians would have been unable to use the events of 9-11 in the service of partisanship, ideology and power. 

    Let’s face it: for far too long, Americans have viewed the concept of civic virtue as “quaint” (to borrow a phrase from our less-than-estimable Attorney General). We have left governing to the few public-spirited individuals willing to undergo the intrusiveness, pettiness and rancor that passes for the electoral process these days. One result has been that along with the public-spirited we have attracted the venal and power-hungry to what used to be called, without irony, public service.

    And when we get the government we deserve, the government we have failed to monitor or control, the government that is increasingly unaccountable, we are shocked! Shocked!

    Do we have a state legislature that has refused to act on consolodation and streamlining of local government, refused to manage our unwieldy and unequal tax system? Let’s spend our energies arguing about daylight savings time.

    Do we have a national government that is bankrupting our grandchildren, isolating us globally, fixated on undermining our constitutional checks and balances? Let’s gossip about the latest sex scandal.

    At the end of the day, we can’t escape responsibility by blaming the Republicans, the Democrats, or the media. Harry Truman to the contrary, the buck stops with us.

    We can’t recapture the window of opportunity that opened in the wake of 9-11. That window is closed. But we can reclaim the concept of civic virtue that is essential to protecting the rule of law—the powerful idea that legitimate democratic governments are responsive to their citizens, but citizens are responsible for creating responsive governments.

    If we don’t rise up to demand a return of accountability—if we just sit on the couch and watch the latest iteration of “American Idol” or the further adventures of Paris the Inane—we will have lost a whole lot more than the twin towers and the people who worked there.

    We will have lost America.