Sour Memories of 9/11

The Editorial Board

Last Sunday, on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, New York Timescolumnist Paul Krugman decided to remember the occasion on his blog in a way that, shall we say, turned a few heads. In a post titled “The Years of Shame,” Krugman wrote that because of its exploitation for purposes of military adventurism abroad and Republican political advantage at home, “[t]he memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.” His post elicited a predictable flurry of outrage from the right, with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tweeting that he had cancelled his subscription to the Times after reading it.

Such words as Krugman’s are increasingly easy to throw around, and this is especially true in a place like Oberlin. It was with similar ease, after all, that conservative figures in the months after the attacks addressed critics of President Bush’s “global war on terrorism” as defeatists, cowards and traitors whose “tactics only aid terrorists,” in the words of Attorney General John Ashcroft. The Daily Show recently ran a memorable segment titled “9/13: The Day We Started to Forget,” referring to Jerry Falwell’s infamous comment two days after the attacks that gays, feminists, ACLU members and other standard bogeymen of the religious right had “helped this happen.” If the few Americans who never threw their support behind President Bush after the attacks feel a bit of schadenfreude when Krugman’s accusations offend figures like Rumsfeld, it’s hard to blame them.

At the same time, however, there are lines that even a righteous indictment of neoconservative imperialism should not cross. A memorial to 9/11 on campus was recently vandalized early in the morning of Sept. 10 when two students took one of the four displayed flags from Wilder Bowl [look at the Security Report]. As President Krislov and Dean Estes wrote, this occasion should remind us that the imperative of “respect for the expression of views that differ from our own” is crucial, particularly at an institution like ours devoted to the uncensored and unapologetic search for truth.

In the interest of free inquiry, then, do people like Rumsfeld have a point? A standard line of thought on such issues that might come up in an Oberlin dorm-room smoke session is that neoconservatives pursue military action in the Middle East primarily because of oil, and that the corrupt puppet dictators we have sustained in power for decades are there to provide stability and allow the oil to flow uninterrupted. A typical Obie might then opine about the need for greater reliance on renewable, sustainable energy to replace our reliance on fossil fuels, for environmental as well as geopolitical reasons.

But as is often noted on this campus, students who propose such grand schemes do so in buildings powered, heated and cooled by fossil fuels. We forget to turn the lights off, we dawdle in the shower, we take two cars when we might have been able to cram into one, we even buy treadmills for our new dorm buildings instead of solar panels. Even for the maximally conscientious, the unpleasant truth is that short of going into the woods and living as a hermit, there is no way to be a member of the modern world without contributing to its reliance on oil.

So if we take issue with Rumsfeld and his fellow neocons for sounding as if they’re quoting Jack Nicholson’s courtroom rant from A Few Good Men, we should first make sure that we aren’t obliviously relying on their terrorism-exploiting policies to support our consumer lifestyle. One way or another, our inability to put our money where our mouth is creates pressure on our policymakers to keep the oil flowing, and for us to get outraged when they do this in ways we find unsavory — in ways we don’t talk about at cocktail parties, as Colonel Jessup would say — is in a sense immature and short-sighted.

In another sense, of course, it is precisely people like Rumsfeld who guard the levers of power against any attempt to reduce our need for oil, and for Middle Eastern intervention. But the fact is, the more time we spend bickering over who has or hasn’t brought shame to the memory of a national tragedy, the less time we spend working to change the underlying reasons the tragedy occurred in the first place.