Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Age of Terror

For a while after 9/11, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I had a feeling there would be some other major attack on our cities or our infrastructure. From a few weeks after 9/11 until I moved out of L.A., my recurring nightmare involved terrorists blowing up the Hoover Dam, and the devastation that would result as the water supply for the entire Southwest was suddenly cut off.

Then I moved out of L.A., and I stopped having the nightmare. Eventually I found that I'd only think about that other shoe from time to time, always surprised at how long had passed since the last time it popped into my head.

One thing I thought I was sure of: we'd never see anything like 9/11 again in one of our major cities, with people running wildly through the streets, afraid for their lives.

This time the force of the catastrophe was made by nature, not by man. But that is hardly a defense of our government's response, for this was the most widely predicted natural disaster in American history. Our government had years to prepare for the eventuality. They had days to put the plans into practice once it became clear where Katrina was headed.

Terrorists, operating as they do on the basis of shock and surprise, tend not to announce their plans so clearly. If our government cannot save lives in a situation they spent twelve days practicing for last year, how can we expect them to keep us safe from terrorists?

We can't. Not this government, not now. And I do not mean to make this entirely a criticism of the Republican Party that controls the executive and both houses of Congress. A huge part of the problem is the mediocrity of our political classes in both parties, perhaps also a byproduct of a baby boomer generation more invested in feeling good than working hard.

The weak character of our political classes can account for many of our government's shortcomings: the focus on winning power (in elections) rather than using it wisely, fairly, and competently; the focus on contributors over constituents, of taking money from a few over listening to the masses.

In a healthy two-party system, the flaws of one party serve to the advantage of the other. The other party can always insist upon accountability and transparency. However, when one party dominates, as the GOP has the last several years, its weaknesses and flaws become institutionalized. When the House decides not to hold ethics investigations, when the president and his advisors claim executive privilege to make torture acceptable and invisible, how can there be accountability? And without transparency, those in the majority party can deny there is even a problem, that those complaining are affected by liberal media bias or engaging in a partisan political attack. Because before substance, before values, first and foremost there is always politics.

But now it's as if two-thirds of the nation has been jolted awake, out of the torpor of politics as usual. Four years after 9/11, we realize we really are no safer. That what we thought our government was up to was nothing more than sleight of hand, nothing more than a magic cloak to keep us from noticing how naked and exposed we really are.

We are no longer living in the post-9/11 era. Because now, post-9/11 is also post-Katrina. It's going to take a long time to pick up the pieces. And who knows long it will take for us not just to feel safe again, but to actually be safe again?

We thought it was the post-9/11 era, but now we know. This is the Age of Terror. And God help us all. Because, for the time being, our government sure as hell can't.


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