9/11: The Mouse that Roared

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 09/07/07

[Note: This piece is part of ProgressiveHistorians’ symposium on “9/11 at Six.”  If you’d like to contribute to the symposium, details are here.

Thanks to strandsofpearl for alerting me to the Orson Scott Card piece, which was the genesis for this essay, and for helping with Card-related reseach.  Also, apologies to Peter Sellers for use of his excellent title.  This piece is cross-posted at My Left Wing.]

It has been six years since the attacks of 9/11, and the great science fiction writer Orson Scott Card is still afraid of terrorists:

I get letters from soldiers all the time, and they are true believers in the cause. They are dismayed at the thought that all they have achieved might be swept away by political hacks in Congress who think they can gain power by betraying our allies and the American soldiers who have achieved vital objectives in the war on terror.

They are baffled by the stupidity of political leaders who think that if we withdraw from Iraq, the war will just “end.” The soldiering class understands that the battlefield will merely shift — from the Middle East to Europe and our own shores. Though millions would be slaughtered in the Middle East along the way.

What makes this statement notable, other than the fact that it is being uttered by an educated and intelligent man six years after the last terrorist attack on American soil, is that it’s being uttered by a Democrat.  Before 9/11, Orson Scott Card considered himself a political moderate.  He supported gun control, opposed free trade, made virulent attacks on Southern racism, and identified with the liberal internationalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  Then the World Trade Towers were attacked, and everything changed.  Card’s well-read online columns became riddled with raving attacks on the terrorists and assertions that they would be coming to America in force. He became a fanatical supporter of the Patriot Act and backed the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In the 2004 presidential election, he voted for George W. Bush.

Card was hardly the only American whose overblown fears of terrorists led him to a sharp rightward turn.  The high point of this philosophy was certainly Zell Miller’s hyperventilating keynote address at the 2004 Republican convention.  Miller, like Card, was a Democrat, and like Card he was no simpleton; he should not be dismissed out of hand simply because of his post-9/11 remarks.  Miller’s history in Georgia politics is a long and distinguished one; he was a key voice in favor of removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag at a time when supporting such efforts was a political death warrant, and he has probably done more for education in the state than anyone alive.  Yet 9/11 radicalized Miller, just as it radicalized Card, and turned him into a bloviating fool irrationally concerned for the safety of his family:

I ask which leader is it today that has the vision, the willpower, and, yes, the backbone to best protect my family?

The clear answer to that question has placed me in this hall with you tonight. For my family is more important than my Party. …

No one should dare to even think about being the Commander in Chief of this country if he doesn’t believe with all his heart that our soldiers are liberators abroad and defenders of freedom at home.

What happened to these men to turn them into such hyperventilating fanatics?  Was it the horrific death toll of 9/11?  Ask that question of a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) official, and you will find yourself on the wrong end of a quizzical look.  For the answer is that 9/11 was no more deadly than any other of a myriad of national disasters througout our history.  Hurricane Katrina, for one, killed nearly as many Americans as 9/11 did.  And the cause-of-death numbers from 2001 do not even record homicide as a top-ten cause of death in America:

Top Ten Causes of Death, 2001

1 Heart disease…………….700,142  29.0%
2 Cancer…………………..553,768  22.9%
3 Stroke…………………..163,538  6.8%
4 Lung disease……………..123,013  5.1%
5 Accidents………………..101,537  4.2%
6 Diabetes………………….71,372  3.0%
7 Influenza and pneumonia…….62,034  2.6%
8 Alzheimer’s……………….53,852  2.2%
9 Kidney disease…………….39,480  1.6%
10 Septicemia……………….32,238  1.3%
11 All other causes…………515,451  21.3%

(Note: some causes of death are not reflected in these statistics, notably auto accidents and lung cancer.)

What is particularly notable about these numbers is that two causes of death, heart disease and cancer, killed over fifty percent of Americans who died in 2001.  Each of these killed over a hundred and eighty times as many Americans as died in the 9/11 attacks, and they do so every year.  Yet where is the war on heart disease?  Where is the war on cancer?  All we have is a false War on Terror, that still retains so much credibility that John Edwards is savaged by the press for declaring it an empty slogan.

2,819 people were killed in the September 11 attacks.  In the same year, approximately 10,000 children were born with cerebral palsy, a debilitating disease that often ends in death.  One of those who died that year from cerebral palsy was Orson Scott Card’s 17-year-old son.  In fact, Card lost two children in that year, a devastating agony for any father to undergo.

While it is not my place to judge Card’s reaction to his children’s deaths, one natural reaction would be for a father to lash out at the diseases that killed them.  I have personal experience on this ground; I lost one of my best friends to breast cancer nearly two years ago.  I rarely walk past a coffer with a breast-cancer research label on it without contributing something to the eradication of this terrible disease.  Yet instead of joining the campaign against what actually killed his children, Card has become obsessed with protecting his family from something that has never actually harmed them: international Islamic terrorism.

As it is with Card, so it is with the nation.  It seems as if the victims of 9/11 have taken on the characteristics of everyone Americans have ever lost.  Symbolically, not only the 2,819 authentic victims have died at the hands of the terrorists, but also everyone’s mother, brother, uncle, child.  The national mourning is thus transformed into the national vengeance, for the killers of 9/11 are everybody’s killers, and their blood and that of those who would succor them must be sacrificed in a murderous trade for the deaths of those we loved.  9/11 has resulted in an insane national hysteria far out of proportion with the actual event; to the extent that the American national purpose has been transformed into the eradication and murder of suspected terrorists, America itself is the final and most tragic victim of 9/11.

Historians will look back at 9/11 as the event that took Lincoln’s hope “that these dead shall not have died in vain” and turned it on its head — that transformed the avengement of those dead into a national crusade that subsumed every other goal America ever had.  It is the Roman rape of three thousand Lucreces writ large on the American stage.  But the rape of Lucrece was only powerful to the Romans because she was raped by a powerful man, a king’s son, whose overthrow could stand as a noble cause.  Al-Qaeda, that ineffective fringe group that controls no countries and represents few individuals, is not such a dominating Tarquinian figure as all that.  Indeed, our crusade against the Taliban reads rather like the Romans killing poor Tarquin and then defiling his whole family in revenge for the single offensive act.

But Americans do not view terrorists as the pathetically inept group they actually are.  The terrorists have become in America the stuff of nightmares, of legend.  Nothing could delight them more.  Al-Qaeda’s chief philosopher, Ayman al-Zawahiri — the man responsible for the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat — has noted that “the United States knows in advance what the consequence of its invasion of Afghanistan will be, judging by the lessons of history.”  Yet could even Zawahiri have predicted that, through a misapplication of , the U.S. would have inflicted more damage on its own national character through its response to 9/11 than Al-Qaeda did through the actual act?

For that is exactly what has happened.  9/11 was no more than a bee sting against America by any metric you can imagine, but apparently America is allergic to bee stings perpetrated by bearded Arab men with death wishes.  By treating 9/11 as a mortal wound, by saying, as President Bush did, that “this war will end…but our remembrance never will,” America has betrayed a terrifying weakness.  In truth, we should forget 9/11 — not to cleanse it from our memories, but to expunge it from our nightmares.  Rarely has a nation that so dominated the world politically, economically, and militarily become fixated on such a small and insignificant threat as fringe Islamic terrorism; such a fanatical obsession with the minuscule Al-Qaeda is in fact the most shocking and incomprehensible outcome of the events of September 11.

And so history will remember 9/11 as the mouse that roared, the thorn brushed in passing that somehow pierced the very soul of the nation, rending it in two and laying bare the stunning fragility of the American national character.  It will remember 9/11 as a small tragedy compounded by the much larger one of an America that cannot move on, an America that would rather run endlessly after phantom terrorists than focus on fulfilling its own great promise, an America that was diverted so easily from its great mission of world peace and world prosperity.  The metaphor of the mouse and the elephant is particularly apt here, for of course a mouse cannot really strike in any significant fashion at an elephant, yet the elephant is so irrationally afraid of the mouse that it becomes completely paralyzed by the very sight of him — the powerful beast takes on the ultimate animistic visage of a coward.

Long after we are all dead, historians will look back at this sorry state of affairs and ask, why?  Why did America abandon its promise at the very moment it had the economic and political power to really accomplish something great in the history of the world?  Why did the Americans not simply ignore the terroristic mouse, or use the international goodwill 9/11 gave them to promote a world order of lasting mutual peace?  And they will turn sadly away from this historical epoch, knowing that the only answer to their query is that too many Americans were, incredibly, afraid of the mouse; too many, like Orson Scott Card and Zell Miller, were even more afraid of the mouse than of the real threats America faced.  They traded their unique opportunity in exchange for petty vengeance because only that vengeance could ease their fitful, irrational nightmares.


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