As I write, on September 11, 2003, anyone who is listening to the radio, watching television, or reading a newspaper is being reminded that today is the second anniversary of the infamous terrorist attacks. Indeed, the news media have been alerting everybody for weeks that this anniversary was imminent, and inviting us to participate, if only as spectators, in some species of choreographed remembrance.
Although I, like all other civilized persons the world over, recoiled at the horror of so many innocent lives taken when the hijackers turned fuel-laden airliners into incendiary missiles and crashed them into skyscrapers crowded with people, I cannot help feeling at this point — indeed, I have been feeling for some time — that the remembrance of these terrible events has become maudlin and subject to more than one sort of self-interested exploitation.
Of course, the mass media have no shame. They will supply anything that they expect will attract consumers to their product, no matter how emotionally spurious it might be. Tearjerkers are part of their stock in trade, and the events of 9/11 can serve as an inexhaustible wellspring of manipulable emotions. Have the relatives of the victims of any other great tragedy received comparable solicitude or such extensive, persistent consideration?
On any given day in the United States, more than 6,000 people die. Although some are elderly and may be viewed as persons whose inevitable “time has come,” others perish tragically, because they are young or because they are especially worthy and still full of potential. Many persons just leave home for work or shopping and never return, being cut down by accidents or cardiac arrest. Some are murdered — on a typical day about fifty homicides occur. We may presume then that on September 11, 2001, for every person who died at the hands of the murderous hijackers, more than two other persons died in other ways. Why do the deaths of the Twin Towers decedents merit such lavish remembrance whereas the deaths of others whose lives ended on that day merit no remembrance at all? Is there something memorably heroic about having happened to be in the wrong building at an unfortunate moment?
Perhaps the 9/11 deaths stir such hyper-emotional fascination because so many persons perished together. Nobody can know about or keep track of all the thousands of separate deaths that normally occur across the country each day, but everybody can remember just two big adjacent buildings falling down only minutes apart.
Neither the government nor the media, however, make a big ado about commemorating the events of April 19, 1995, when another devastating terrorist attack mangled the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 167 persons (including 19 children) and injuring another 675 persons who required medical treatment. Might the relative lack of interest in recalling this calamitous attack have something to do with its having been mounted by a native-born American and veteran of the U.S. Army, rather than by Arab Muslim zealots? Might the apparent eagerness to forget the attack and its victims spring from the government’s desire to discourage the recollection of what motivated it, namely, the government’s own murderous assault on the Branch Davidians at Waco precisely two years earlier?
I have a hypothesis about why the government and its lapdog media continue to stimulate such bloated observance of the tragedy of September 11. I maintain that doing so helps greatly to justify the government’s initiation and continued prosecution of its current spate of military campaigns, conquests, and occupations in Southwest Asia. Even though the Bush administration has never produced a shred of credible evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks, the administration has never ceased to claim or to insinuate that some “link” existed. This big lie, persistently repeated, has had a big payoff. According to an IBD/TIPP poll conducted during the first week of September 2003, some 63 percent of the respondents believe that al Qaida and the old Iraqi regime were connected.
The 9/11 attack, then, is to the Bush administration as the Pearl Harbor attack was to the Roosevelt administration: an enduringly evocative pretext for whatever “retaliatory” measures the government chooses to take, even if as in the present case the retaliation is aimed in large part at parties who had nothing to do with the initial attack. (A year before the 9/11 attacks, the neocon Project for the New American Century, whose members included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, seeking to build up the military, noted the need for a “catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.”) Every time that Americans relive the tragedy of September 11, their blood boils and they yearn to lash out at the responsible parties, or, if not at them, then at somebody who bears a vague resemblance to them.
So, we can expect from here on to be bombarded with annual observances that are on the one hand tearfully sentimental and on the other hand implicitly if not explicitly jingoistic. The core message will remain: weep, but don’t just sit there crying forever; get up and kill somebody — or better yet, support with great cheer your government as it does the killing in your name.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute, editor of The Independent Review, and author of Crisis and Leviathan and the editor of Arms, Politics, and the Economy.