September 11, 2001, has become an exceptionally memorable date, and a great deal more, for Americans. Not simply the date on which the infamous terrorist attacks took place and the great World Trade Center towers collapsed with horrific loss of innocent life, 9/11 has become a compelling ideological symbol as only a few other dates in our history, such as July 4, 1776, and December 7, 1941, have become. A visual representation of the burning skyscrapers brings a plethora of 9/11 associations instantly to mind and triggers a suite of strong emotions.
Any symbol of such tremendous evocative potency invites exploitation, and each anniversary of that terrible day brings us an abundance of efforts to place its symbolic power in the service of various exploiters. The news media, of course, use the remembrance of 9/11 to attract consumers to their broadcasts and printed materials, and hence to gain advertising revenue. In the United States, everything memorable becomes an article of commerce in some fashion, and 9/11 is no exception. Many of these commercial offerings are maudlin or otherwise in bad taste, to be sure, but in this country no one is shocked when sellers market tasteless products successfully, and anyone who does not fancy the goods may simply decline to consume them. Indeed, one suspects that by this time, the demand for 9/11 media extravaganzas may be wearing rather thin even among those of mawkish sensibilities.
Far more troubling and much more dangerous, however, is the state’s exploitation of 9/11. During the past six years, 9/11 has often served as an all-purpose instrument in the state’s propaganda kit. For the Bush administration, it has provided the answer to every critical question about foreign and defense policies, among other things. If we challenge the wisdom, legality, or morality of the U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the government’s spokesmen and supporters throw 9/11 in our face. If we criticize the enormous run-up in spending for military purposes and for “homeland security,” much of it obvious political pork that contributes nothing to the public’s safety, the response to our criticism is that the people dare not risk another 9/11. If we express doubts about the wildly ambitious and morally presumptuous U.S. foreign policy of global hegemony, which, in its present swollen form, followed closely on the heels of George W. Bush’s embrace of a humble foreign policy with no nation building during the 2000 presidential campaign (“I don’t want to be the world’s policeman”), we are told that 9/11 changed everything. If we object to the government’s multifaceted assault on our civil liberties, the president stridently declares that everything being done is necessary to prevent another 9/11. If we wave our copy of the Constitution and express doubts about the president’s claim of overriding power as a “unitary executive,” the government’s lawyers assert that since 9/11 the nation has been “at war,” and hence the president’s constitutional power as commander-in-chief trumps everything else.
Although 9/11 has served as an “open sesame” for the government’s seizures of power, revenue, and liberties during the past six years, its potency is waning with the passage of time, and eventually it will no longer measure up as a “daily special” on the government’s menu of irresistible dishes. Not many Americans today feel an emotional rush at the mention of December 7, and even the news media have more or less abandoned their ritual anniversary remembrance of the infamous “surprise attack” that caused a large majority of the populace to switch instantly from opposing to favoring war in 1941. Now, of course, this attenuation of the date’s symbolic potency hardly matters, because December 7 served its intended purposes extremely well more than sixty years ago, and the consequences, for better or worse, have become irretrievably embedded in the course of world history.
Recalling December 7, however, reminds us that eventually we may awaken to discover that 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, was not exactly as the government represented it to be. From the very beginning, the Roosevelt administration described the Japanese strikes on U.S. military bases in Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific region as “sneak attacks” launched by a cunning and deceitful enemy without provocation — “this form of treachery . . . unprovoked and dastardly attack” — catching the somnolent commanders completely unaware in Honolulu and the Philippines. Anyone who has dipped into the serious literature on World War II, however, understands that this official line is utter humbug. From the immediate postwar revisionism of Charles Beard, Harry Elmer Barnes, and many others to the recent books by Robert Stinnett and George Victor, the facts have been sufficiently exposed for anyone who cares to transcend the myth. Unbiased scholars appreciate, for example, that the U.S. government systematically goaded the Japanese Empire with a series of increasingly stringent economic-warfare measures, eventually placing the Japanese in a natural-resources chokehold from which their only means of escape, apart from war, was acceptance of a U.S. ultimatum that struck at the very heart of their foreign-policy commitments and their sense of honor.
Moreover, because U.S., British, and Dutch cryptographers, who shared information with one another, had broken the Japanese diplomatic and naval codes, officials in Washington had ample warning that the Japanese were moving toward an attack in the Pacific that included Pearl Harbor. General Walter Short and Admiral Husband Kimmel, the commanders in Hawaii, were consciously set up and made scapegoats for a devastating attack that the U.S. government deliberately provoked and knew was coming — an acceptable price, Roosevelt and his top advisers believed, for gaining the public’s approval of U.S. entry into the war in Europe, to assist the British — and the government subsequently conducted a far-reaching cover-up of what its leaders had known and what they had done prior to the attack.
Everyone with any critical sense understands that like the attack on Pearl Harbor in its immediate aftermath, the attacks of 9/11 have thus far left many unanswered questions. No one should be surprised if twenty or thirty years hence, information has surfaced that completely controverts the government’s current story of what it knew and did not know, and what it did and did not do, prior to the attacks. Certainly everyone with a serious nonpartisan interest in the matter already knows that the attackers did not carry out their murderous plan simply because “they hate our freedoms.” More than fifty years of significant U.S. government interventions in the political and economic affairs of the Middle East did much to sow the seeds of 9/11, even if those interventions did not foreordain the 2001 attacks in every detail. As Stephen Kinzer aptly concludes in his recently published book Overthrow, “Fateful misjudgments by five presidents had laid the groundwork not simply for the September 11 attacks but for the emergence of the world-wide terror network from which they sprung.”
No one needs to wait twenty or thirty years, however, to understand how the government has exploited 9/11 at every turn to provide a knock-down justification of its irresponsible (and sometimes criminal) political, legal, military, and fiscal actions. For the Bush administration, no mistakes are ever made, because no matter what the government chooses to do and no matter how disastrously that action works out in practice, it is always alleged to rest on the same purportedly unimpeachable foundation — 9/11.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.