Most peculiar, mama. Hoo.
– John Lennon
I know, I know, the decade doesn’t really end until next year, but whatever to that. The calendar police can come and arrest me, because I’m calling this damnable decade over and done with first thing Friday morning. To hell with it, and anything that looks like it. The odometer is rolling, and I say good riddance to bad rubbish.
I mean, what else can you say about a decade that began when the world didn’t end? Everyone woke up on Y2K-plus-one expecting to find fifty million computers transformed into inert paperweights because of a glitch in the calendar software, and when that didn’t happen, there was a bewildered sigh of relief. Prophesies of doom have always been a part of the show on the eve of triple-zero years – Did they call it Y1K back in 999? – and the advent of 2000 was no different. The trains ran (mostly) on time as usual, planes didn’t tumble out of the sky and things rolled along exactly as they had the day before the end of the world failed to come to pass.
The last night before this finally-fading decade began also ushered in the last year of the Clinton administration, a night that was almost certainly that administration’s finest hour, though very few were aware of it at the time. On New Year’s Eve 1999, terrorist plots were underway to attack Los Angeles International Airport, the Amman Radisson Hotel in Jordan, several religious sites in Israel and the USS The Sullivan Brothers at dock in Yemen. Thanks to the leadership of the United States and broad international military, intelligence and police cooperation, every single one of the intended millennium terrorist attacks was thwarted. The Clinton administration began the new decade by proving beyond doubt that the will and intent of terrorists can be stopped, that explosions and death are not a fait accompli whenever a plot is undertaken and that the US and its allies can, with proper preparation and execution, derail and defeat even the best laid plans of dangerous men.
The lesson, tragically, did not take hold during the subsequent administration.
There have been a hundred billion words written and spoken about the calamity that befell this nation on September 11, 2001. Who did it, how it happened, who was responsible and what it all means: these questions and a thousand others have been poured over endlessly since the attacks took place, a cottage industry of investigation and speculation ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. From Unocal pipelines through Afghanistan to theories on controlled demolition and even to missiles instead of airplanes, from Congressional investigations to “Nobody could have anticipated,” the debate over how and why 9/11 took place has raged since that first plane appeared on the New York horizon.
One event above all others, however, remains paramount in the cause-and-effect nexus of 9/11: the presidential election debacle of 2000. Nine months before the attack, the Supreme Court leaned on a preposterous Equal Protection argument and handed the White House to a man who became, in the fullness of time, the worst president in the history of the office. The disastrous Bush administration, staffed from stem to stern by deranged neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, failed to follow up on any aspect of the anti-terrorism efforts of the Clinton administration – incoming NSA Director Condoleezza Rice famously ignored the voluminous al-Qaeda files left for her by outgoing NSA Director Sandy Berger, reading them only after the attacks had taken place – and likewise ignored a blizzard of warnings about an impending attack, including the now-infamous Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001. As far as failures go, for the decade’s first presidential administration, these were just for openers.
It is not at all difficult to argue that if the broken election of 2000 had not taken place; if the right-leaning majority on the Supreme Court did not take rank partisanship to the highest and lowest levels by giving that election to their party’s man instead of letting the votes be counted in the proper fashion; if Al Gore had been allowed to assume the office he rightly won, his administration would have continued to pursue the rigorous Clinton-era anti-terror policies that had successfully defeated those would-be millennium murderers. In other words, but for the sad and sorry electoral debacle at the outset of this decade, two tall towers would still stand in New York City, the Pentagon would be whole and there would be no hero’s graveyard in that field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Three events – half a dozen terror attacks thwarted in the final year of Clinton’s stewardship, followed by the ersatz ascendance of a brigand and his band of fools who came to power by way of a broad-daylight fraud that would make even Tammany Hall blush, followed by a day of horror that should have never been allowed to happen at all – came to define these last ten years. All that came to pass is aftermath, a deadly chain of events loosed by those three truths. For all his myriad flaws, President Clinton was the most significant anti-terror leader in American history, but the hard work of his administration was ignored by a bunch of Bible-beating absolutists who thought they knew better. Their failures – “failures” being used loosely, because a few special people got rich at our expense, and it’s awfully hard to call that an accident – are our inheritance.
You know the rest all too well. Nearly 5,000 of the best soldiers America has to offer are dead. Almost 50,000 more are wounded, most of them permanently. Bush’s wars have cut down a full third of America’s combat strength, leaving us with fingers crossed that no other would-be foes decide to see if this punch-drunk champion can be taken down. Less important than the lives lost is the very present truth that hundreds of billions of dollars got spent to no good end, except to make a few people you’ll never meet rich. The economic calamity still enveloping this nation should be called “The Iraq Depression,” as it is a simple, bloody and absolute fact that we would all be better off in every measurable way had Bush not ignored Clinton’s good work, had Bush not assumed an office he did not win and had this nation not been taken into the nightmare that defined these last ten years.
Those three realities are what birthed the disgraced and disgraceful American era we were forced to endure these last ten years, and will suffer still for many more years to come, thanks to the myriad nightmare consequences of the failed decade that opened the close of what was known as the American Century. Things are different now, at least on the surface, but the cancer remains. The last ten years were not up to us – we voted, and our votes were cast aside in the most cynical fashion imaginable, with ghastly consequences – but the next ten years are an open book.
Let’s see if we can do better this time.