THE WEEK

Ontario The campaign begins—and the gloves come off

JAMES DEACON September 15 2003
THE WEEK

Ontario The campaign begins—and the gloves come off

JAMES DEACON September 15 2003

9/ll’S LEGACY: UNCERTAINTY

For a few horrible hours two years ago, nobody knew anythin hat lack of clarity haunts us still—or should.

Essay

PAUL WELLS

A DISPLAY WINDOW at a McGill University bookstore last week showed several copies of a handy new book, September 11: Consequences for Canada, by a University of Toronto law prof named Kent Roach. Just in time for the second anniversary of the awful day. The books’ red covers caught my eye, and I thought the things that wonks do when they think about Sept. 11. Ah, yes. Anti-terrorism laws. Sovereignty issues. Is Canada’s defence spending adequate? War in Iraq: tough decision.

Then I spotted the photo in the middle of the display, which showed one of those heartbreaking sidewalk shrines that popped up all over Lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center fell. A tattered poster of a missing woman, flowers and candles. And I remembered what actually happened that day: 19 angry young men, most of them Saudis, carried out a foul plan they had hatched three years earlier in Hamburg, and murdered as many thousands of Americans as they possibly could. Children and parents were incinerated in a hellfire of jet fuel. Dozens jumped from the towers rather than wait for the flames to burn or the smoke to poison them. Twentyfour Canadians died too. As other murderers would demonstrate later in Bali and at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, some people aren’t picky about whom they slaughter.

Every once in a while, you realize you’ve edited your memories, put them in little boxes, so you can get on with your life. Most people have built a little wall in their minds between their knowledge of Sept. 11 and their memory of it. You can debate defence spending or moan about airport security without really thinking. The searing memory stays in its place, off to the side. Mostly. Not always.

It is useful sometimes to examine one’s memories anew under the cold light of honesty. It helps avoid falling into cant and caricature. God knows we have had more than enough of both. “The most surprising thing about most of the published reflections on September 11 is how devoid of surprise they are,” Louis Menand wrote a year ago in The New Yorker.

The day itself was full of surprise: it was quite literally incomprehensible to everyone who watched. There are Internet archives of television broadcasts from Sept. 11. Hour after hour of streaming Quicktime video.

Watching now, it is obvious that nothing was obvious then. There’s poor Charlie Gibson on Good Morning America, watching on the monitor as the second plane smashes into the second tower, talking on the phone to a guy on the street who is looking up at the blast debris roaring out the other side of the building. For long minutes, neither reaches the obvious conclusion—that’s a second plane. This is an attack—because how could it be a second plane? How could it be an attack?

Yet the smoke had not stopped rising from the graveyard of thousands before

the Armies of the Certain began patiently explaining to us what it all meant. To quote Menand again, this was an unforeseeable and incomprehensible attack. Yet for a lot of people, “the initial response was: It just proves what I’ve always said.”

So we were told the murders were proof of America’s enduring wickedness, “blowback” for too many adventures in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq. Not that they had it coming, you know, but... you know. Others turned their sympathy for the victims into an orgy of prostration before the beauty of America: this was the blame-Canada

crowd who interpreted deaths in Manhattan as a sophisticated critique of Canada’s immigration policy or its socialized medicine or something. Damned clever, these terrorists. Subtle bunch. They managed to slip into Florida pilot-training schools because Canada is soft on foreigners. Who’da thunkit.

Still another group, perhaps the most important because it includes the commander of the mightiest army in history, saw 9/11 as an assignment to undertake a solemn mission. If America really is the last, best hope of freedom, and if there is

a region where generations are rising who want nothing better than to make Americans die, then the survival of freedom requires that America do some housecleaning in that region: the Middle East. As he paused between Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush described his position with regard to this mission quite precisely. He didn’t say “we propose” or “we insist.” He said “we accept.”

Or as I like to think of it, “WE ACCEPT.”

Bush spent Sept. 11 as the very living symbol of confusion and uncertainty, holed up in Air Force One as it (quite properly) spent half a day in the clouds, waiting for some clue about what on Earth was going on. It may be the memory of that endless horrible moment of surprise and impotence that has made him reject any hint of doubt about anything, ever since.

He has become like Owen Meany, the tiny child in John Irving’s novel, whose wrecked voice conveys utter certainty about God’s design and simple contempt for doubters. I often hear Bush speaking in Owen’s voice, which Irving conveyed in upper-case letters. “EITHER YOU ARE WITH US OR YOU ARE WITH THE TERRORISTS,” Bush said.

“WE’RE GONNA SMOKE THEM OUT OF THEIR HOLES.”

“THE COUNTRY IS COMMITTED TO MAKING THE WORLD MORE PEACEFUL BY DISARMING SADDAM HUSSEIN.”

The surprise in Irving’s novel is that his absurd little character really does, in the end, turn out to be God’s instrument. One never knows, do one.

Two Septembers later, Bush has logged one indisputible victory: except for the anthrax attacks at the end of 2001, whatever they were about, terrorism has not killed one more American on American soil. Everything else is a Klondike of uncertainty. Afghanistan is no longer a coherent regime running interference for al-Qaeda murderers. This is excellent news. But it remains a very nasty neighbourhood.

Iraq’s liberators found enough mass graves to ensure Saddam Hussein a place in infamy. But no new weapons of mass destruction. And so much daily grief for the Americans that their president has become a fan of the United Nations again, if it will take some of the load off.

Palestine? No progress. Liberia? A dilemma. Korea? Saddam’s denials won him an invasion; Kim Jong II denies nothing, brags about his nukes, wants more, threatens to use them. In some circles, this kind of behaviour is known as calling a bluff.

Certainty about the world does not make the world more certain. The easiest road to moral clarity is a refusal to learn from complex events. For a few horrible hours two Septembers ago, nobody could claim to know anything. That uncertainy, at least, haunts us still. Or should. Iffl