Sept. 11, 2001 was the fifth day of my junior year at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks from the World Trade Center. Today, a Tuesday like Sept. 11, is the fifth day of my senior year in college. In reflecting on the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many thoughts spring to mind, most of them about what we have lost. I hope the following is not seen as an opportunistic political attack, but as the feelings of someone who loves his home and his country, and feels deeply hurt by what has happened to it since.
Following the attacks, we saw in a rush the best and the worst of America. Millions of Americans sent blood, food and donations as quickly as they possibly could. Thousands of volunteers aided the firefighters and rescue workers who were desperately searching for anyone left alive — so many volunteers that kids like me who offered help were turned away. At Stuyvesant, we received thousands of letters from fellow Americans hailing from throughout the nation. Those letters covered the walls of our school for an entire year, reminding us every day of the gravity of those events, but also reminding us that even at a school composed overwhelmingly of immigrants and the children of immigrants, we were still all Americans.
The worst of America was shown not by ordinary Americans, whose genuine sense of shock, horror and fear was an entirely understandable response to events that seemed too awful to believe, but by the leaders of this country who cynically exploited that fear for selfish ends.
The following we know to be true: On Sept. 12, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld told the National Security Council that Iraq should be the target of retaliation against the terrorists who attacked us. For the next several months, George W. Bush ’68 instructed the CIA to find him a link between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 hijackers. None was found. Having allowed Osama bin Laden to escape capture at Tora Bora, the administration made a calculated decision to pursue an aggressive policy towards Iraq, premised on weapons of mass destruction which posed an “imminent threat” to the safety and security of the United States, and based on alleged links to al Qaida and terrorist movements throughout the Muslim world. Before the weapons inspectors were permitted to finish their job, one they insisted only required a few more months, the administration invaded Iraq, arguing that we would be “greeted as liberators.” All of their claims have been shown false; we can still see the rest of the story every day on the news.
My view has been, and continues to be, that the desire to invade Iraq predated Sept. 11, as shown in the statements of the Project for a New American Century, of which Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and other top administration officials were members. Knowing that their actual rationale for going after Iraq — so-called strategic realignment of power in the Middle East — would not get the necessary public support, they exploited the cloud of fear that hung over our country to argue a case for war that they knew to be false. Since they knew that even with that fear, Americans would not support a protracted and expensive war, they passed a tax cut, just to convince Americans that Iraq was necessary to fight terrorism and would require no sacrifice. In the years since, we have been subjected to incessant dissembling and outright lies about the causes, conditions and consequences of the war in Iraq. And now we are stuck.
Katrina finally cut through the fog that had protected the administration from the wrath of 300 million manipulated by a few. The human suffering brought on by that devastating hurricane was too much for many Americans to bear. With nothing else left, the administration continues to insist that every one of their terrible, un-American policies is justified by the threat of terrorism, that sad legacy of the events of five years ago. Desperate, they have returned to the strategy they used in the early days after Sept. 11, accusing their critics of lacking the will to defend this country.
As an American, and as a New Yorker, I feel that something has been taken from me since Sept. 11. I hate that I feel unable to trust a single word spoken by my government, because I think democracy can’t survive a climate of unshakable distrust. I hate that whereas in October of 2001 Chancellor Gerhard Schroder was able to invite 1,000 of us New York City high school students to Germany to build a “bridge” between young people here and there, now I cannot defend the actions of our government to a foreigner. I hate the feeling that we had an opportunity after Sept. 11 to transform the way the world’s nations cooperate and we squandered it in an ill-conceived fantasy of a world ruled by overwhelming American military might. For five months in 2004 I talked to hundreds of people in Florida, and told them that the reason I had left school to help elect John Kerry president was because the people who ran our government had exploited what happened in my backyard and used it to try to destroy almost everything that I love about America. Five years after Sept. 11, I still think what I thought on election night 2004: What has happened to this country?
Ted Fertik is a senior in Trumbull College.