President Obama this weekend released five senior Taliban leaders from the Gauntanamo Bay detention facility in exchange for an American prisoner of war that deserted his post. Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden next to the father of that deserter, who spoke Pashto and praised Allah. It was a singularly bizarre and offensive moment. Obama spoke in his remarks about his commitment to winding down the war in Afghanistan and closing Gitmo.
But he never mentioned 9/11.
The Taliban leaders were released to the custody of the government of Qatar, but they will be free to roam the planet in one year’s time. Obama’s administration claimed that it did what it needed to do to bring an American soldier home. The administration had been considering for some time the choice to release the so-called “Taliban Five” in accordance with Taliban demands, so that America can negotiate with the group that harbored Osama bin Laden for peace in a country where we’re only keeping 9,800 troops. A Taliban spokesman said that the organization does not respect the peace process. Taliban leader Mullah Omar, meanwhile, claimed victory.
Obama oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden, which should not be discounted in historical analysis of his presidency. But in his second term, he is also trying as hard as he can to end George W. Bush’s wars and to change the enemies that Bush identified in 2001. Al Qaeda-affiliated militants, seizing on Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops and the incompetence of the current Iraqi prime minister, recently took control of Fallujah, where U.S. Marines under Bush won perhaps their most important Iraq War victory. Arms and aid are being sent to Islamist rebels in Syria fighting Bashar al-Assad with al-Qaeda waiting in the wings to take control of that country. Obama blamed an al-Qaeda attack and the killing of our ambassador on a YouTube video and tried to garner goodwill with the Muslim world by condemning some obscure Internet movie. John Kerry struck a deal to lift sanctions on Iran, part of Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” with no clause that the Iranians would shut down their nuclear program. Bush made grave mistakes during his presidency, and Obama is designing himself to be the president that corrects them.
But he still doesn’t talk about 9/11.
I wonder what would happen if we could go back in time to Game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium, where Bush inspired the world by throwing the ceremonial first pitch from the mound and landing a strike right down the middle of the plate. If we could go on the JumboTron and tell New Yorkers that in thirteen years we would be releasing the Taliban and standing by as al-Qaeda gains strength across the Middle East and Africa. How would the crowd have reacted?
In a political sense, that’s why Obama didn’t mention 9/11 in the Rose Garden.
I remember the months after 9/11. Our own civilians had been senselessly killed. Icons of our free-market system and national defense had been destroyed. We knew who did it: Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network, which was being harbored in Afghanistan by the Taliban government. We vowed not to let the crime go unpunished.
Our citizens were unified in a cross-denominational American character. Rudy Giuliani led by an example of toughness. Billy Joel played “New York State of Mind” for cheering first responders and their families at Madison Square Garden’s Concert for New York City. The crowd erupted in applause when the piano man barked “We’re not going anywhere.” An NYPD officer proclaimed, “Osama bin Laden, you can kiss my royal Irish ass” to one of the most deserved and refreshing ovations I’d ever heard. Movie actor Richard Gere, meanwhile, advocated on stage for no military action, and was roundly booed.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, 90 percent of America supported President Bush, whose virility made him the country’s ideal spokesman on the world stage. We supported his righteous, though practically flawed, small-scale invasion of Afghanistan, his successful temporary overthrow of the Taliban and his shuttering of al-Qaeda training camps. We had shared purpose and a leader determined to wage the War on Terror with conviction.
President Obama doesn’t talk now about the early months of the War on Terror, when we came together to tell Osama bin Laden to kiss our royal (insert any ethnicity here and it would have been fine with all of us) ass. He doesn’t want us to think about 9/11 when he announces that he’s freeing the Taliban. He wants us to think about everything else that happened after that first triumphant phase of the War on Terror without acknowledging that everything about the last thirteen years started with the attacks on New York and Washington.
What happened in those subsequent years that allows Obama to do this, that allows our president to whitewash any mention of 9/11 when he talks about freeing the Taliban? What happened in those years that allows him to stand next to a father praising Allah to celebrate the return of a son — fifteen years old on 9/11 — who said he was ashamed of his country and deserted his post in the midst of battle? Why does Obama want us to forget the patriotic mood of late 2001? We have to start, sadly, at the point where Obama wants us to start.
Most of us believed him when he told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that our campaign against terrorism must next go through Iraq. We watched as U.S. troops tore down the statue of Saddam in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, and saw footage of Iraqi citizens greeting our tanks as liberators. But in May 2003, we tossed out plainspoken Iraq manager Jay Garner, who first told reporters, upon his arrival in Baghdad, “I’m not the ruler of anything.” In came the “president’s man,” a besuited preppie named Jerry Bremer, to manage the Iraqi transition effort. Saddam’s police force was fired – to the surprise of even Bush himself – as part of Bremer’s plan to de-Saddamize the country. Spurned ex-Iraqi military officials, denied their $20 stipends from Bremer, organized themselves into an infant insurgency that carried out the war’s first car bombing in Baghdad. We discovered that Saddam did not have any weapons of mass destruction.
We supporting Bush faced a cold and eventually indefensible truth: this chapter of the war was a naive experiment in nation-building, one predicated on the goal of political transformation for an entire region that had hated us for longer than we understood. Ethnic conflicts that had been contained by Saddam’s brutal nationalism resurfaced. Iran gained influence in Iraq through proxy agents carrying out terrorist acts. And by 2004 we knew that a new agent was at work in the country for the first time: al-Qaeda.
As the charred bodies of Blackwater employees hung like terrorist trophies from the Fallujah bridge known to U.S. troops as the “Brooklyn Bridge,” as photos from inside Abu Ghraib prison galvanized moderates to join the anti-American opposition, and as the Bush administration failed to properly train the new Iraqi army, we faced a wave of disillusionment at home.
Far-left foreign interests seized on the Iraq quagmire to inculcate doctrines so radical that it was almost unbelievable to watch them rapidly permeate the American mainstream. Groups like Media Matters for America, funded by Hungarian-born socialist George Soros, led a new progressive infrastructure that used the model of the Vietnam peace movement to turn confused students against their own country. Ramped-up rhetoric from ThinkProgress and the Huffington Post found their way onto dorm-room computer screens. Extreme-left websites like The Daily Kos emerged to organize young liberals around anti-American lies. A second-tier Hollywood comedian named Jon Stewart became not only America’s “most trusted news anchor,” but also, as far as anyone within a 50-mile radius of any Connecticut prep school in 2004 was concerned, an inspirational political leader in his own right. 9/11 conspiracy theories tore up the Internet, convincing a vast cross-section of kids in failing public schools that our own president killed his own people. Those theories, sadly, still have many adherents today.
As Young America turned against Bush’s Iraq policy, so too did a generation turn against George W. Bush the man. Before Iraq, Bush’s cartoon-like embodiment of Texas conservatism had been, for him and half the country, a necessary political device. Faced with the electoral inevitability of Bill Clinton’s vice president, Republicans needed a pro-gun, law-and-order evangelical Christian Gore’s own age speaking in blunt working-class tones carefully crafted by Karen Hughes. Bush gave voters a stark aesthetic contrast in the first election of the 21st century. But his broad appeal ended up undermining every ingredient of it.
There were very few substantive issues at play in the 2000 campaign: vaguely different school reform policies, the ethics of the Texas death penalty, a shared desire to do something about Social Security, and how to deal with an attack on the USS Cole by some fringe radical named Osama bin Laden. Issues like Bush calling a New York Times reporter an “asshole” in a hot mic moment and Gore lying about a Tennessee lullaby dwarfed ideological conflicts. Gore talked about the World Wide Web while Bush picked a Buddy Holly number as his favorite song. Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond’s Saturday Night Live caricatures further defined the split. Never before had two opposing candidates taken on all of the most identifiable aspects of their respective parties, leaving voters faced not with a choice between competing policies but rather a choice between every single cultural tenet of the Red Team against every single archetype of the Blue. So Americans voted based on identity politics. By a tiny margin of hanging chads they chose Bush. A comic strip character forced by mass-media politics to absorb every plank of American traditionalism took control of a divided nation.
After the first failures in Iraq, Bush’s personality became Liberal America’s target. “Bushisms” spawned book series and linked George’s down-home dialect with gross stupidity. The country listened to Michael Moore weave together conspiracy-laden riffs about Bush family oil interests, and so wealth and the oil business got demonized. The water-boarding of al-Qaeda chief operating officer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed became the media’s anti-war talking point, long-held views on how to define enemy combatants were questioned, and the national security forces governing our country were roasted. The ridiculous notion that Bush’s Middle East policy was based in spiritual dogma gave rise to anti-Christian sentiment and intense fear-mongering against the Christian Right. All of the symbolisms stitched into the broad coalition of Bush’s personality were spliced out, one by one, and targeted for attack. Was the Iraq War about oil? About American imperialism? About the renewal of the Crusades? About the stupid and selfish desire to avenge his father? All of these unsubstantiated and contradictory theories were given credence by a frothing liberal base willing to throw anything and everything against the wall.
I believe that George W. Bush was a good man. For the sake of his party, he shaped himself in 2000 to stand as a symbol for all that the Right was supposed to encompass. After 9/11, he shaped himself on the world stage as a one-man vessel for all that America in a time of war was supposed to project. It was a tremendous responsibility, and on a rhetorical level – the level that Bush as a politician and amateur historian most understood – he never strayed from his mission. He spoke in platitudes befitting the massive scale on which his words were scrutinized. His rhetoric promoted freedom, private enterprise, democracy, human and civil rights and Christian generosity. They were messages that needed to be said simply for easy translation. But to Americans they seemed self-evident and stale. We, here, didn’t need to listen to the same core themes over and over again. As Bush’s actual Middle East policies failed we ended up deeming the very ideas he was talking about dishonest and invalid. In a time of fevered, frenzied emotions, the man straining to represent every single American republican idea became just another marginalized voice. Bush’s effort to make himself a symbol – like so many aspects of his presidency – was simply too much for him to manage.
From these divisions, and the left-wing financial interests fanning them, came Barack Obama. The generation for which Bush had once been a father figure was ready to play with its cool new friends and rebel. 2008 was 1968, with the children of Baby Boomers gaining their first vote and using it to send a message. Obama won on a cult of personality fashioning himself as the anti-Bush, and America rejoiced. Only in office did Obama’s policy priorities become clear. And we realized how different his political views, for a president, really were. A party-line health reform vote pissed off millions of older people and gave rise to the tea party. The idea that One Percent controlled the country forged a muddled Occupy movement that took capitalism as its enemy. In four years, Obama intentionally deepened Bush-era wounds. When it came time for him to run for re-election, he ran on a platform of grievance.
The progressive president appealed to every hard-fighting interest group and promised them each their one big thing at the expense of other things: pro-life Hispanics were given amnesty, African-Americans emboldened by Clinton-era welfare-to-work policies were instead promised economic reparations, women were pledged new levels of abortion support and emergency contraception if they happened to find themselves at a Catholic hospital, gays were told that Obama had no personal problem with it, and the unemployed young were briefed that the big banks were wronging them in ways too complicated for them to even understand. They came together as a strained coalition of malcontented groups, glued only by the media’s vicious treatment of the other side. Obama’s bitter second win was the culmination of all that started in the mid-2000s when egghead progressives tuned in to The Daily Show still seemed like the underdogs. It cemented the validity of socialist views that during the Cold War would have seemed unpatriotic, treasonous, maybe even criminal.
Bush failed. Obama divided. With division working so well at the ballot box, progressives don’t want these last thirteen angry years to be undone. They don’t want to go back to the way it felt during the World Series and the Concert for New York City. So they don’t talk about 9/11.
9/11 was a ferocious and unprecedented event in the history of the United States. When the second plane hit, we realized that there’s no guarantee of permanent supremacy for this young experimental republic. We felt at that moment like London during The Blitz, defending against existential challenge. The newness of 9/11, paired with the newness of a media that democratizes in mere seconds all global viewpoints and favors the most extreme, left us historically confused to the point of sensory overload. We heard an unregulated mess of previously unthinkable ideas and had no competent moral authority to sift through the bad ones.
America broke apart in the last thirteen years. We didn’t understand the enemy, we didn’t trust our leaders, and we wondered who we even were as a people. The last time we had moral clarity was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when cops were heroes and pissed-off indignant guys were telling bin Laden to kiss their Irish ass.
The progressive Left, which thrives on divide-and-conquer, fears that spirit. They want to diffuse the American nationalism that poured, unabashed and genuine, from the hearts and minds of the American majority in the fall and winter of 2001. They want to keep the truth confused and the people disloyal to each other. Now maybe they can even change the enemy itself.
If we free the Taliban, then what’s left of those months? Young people in the coming years will be told that we’re negotiating for peace with the Taliban – a group from some country that had something to do with 9/11 and George Bush all those years ago. Then the Taliban won’t be our enemy anymore. 9/11 will be a forgotten moment and the man who led us that day will be a discredited monster in the new versions of the history books. The Left doesn’t want us to go back and re-watch the Concert for New York City, where Richard Gere was booed. Where the people of New York booed, as soon as she took the stage, their own senator: Hillary Clinton.
I remember 9/11 and I will always remember who the enemy was. It was clear and irrefutable in those months. The president can unilaterally, illegally release Taliban leaders back into the fields of battle against us. But he, or the Internet or progressive interests, cannot ever change the facts: al-Qaeda attacked us, and the Taliban were proudly giving al-Qaeda safe haven. 9/11 was the greatest crime ever committed against a country spirited enough to band together, rebel and fight with muskets out of distrust of royal tax policies, let alone a terrorist attack.
In the period after 9/11, we came together and told each other that we were strong, and we believed it. We the people reacted to evil violence with a shared call for justice, if only for a few months. Bush’s mistakes never erased the reality of 9/11. Progressive political interests must not erase it, either.
You can tell me that diplomacy is complicated, that our national security agenda is above my pay grade, that things are just different now. But that doesn’t change the crime and that doesn’t change who the criminals were that carried it out. It’s a crime that changed our country forever. For that reason, it’s a crime that we’ve decided to no longer prosecute.