Welcome!

I'm James Maxey, the author of the Dragon Age fantasy series of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed, the Dragon Apocalypse series of Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker, as well as the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Did 9-11 change the world forever?

Did 9-11 change the world forever?

Perhaps, but what day doesn't?

The terrorist attacks of 9-11 created a lot of hub bub, but I would say that the world has been far more transformed by smart phones or the collapse of the housing bubble. It's true that we spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives by letting the 9-11 attacks seduce us into two open-ended wars, but how much have these wars really changed the world? Afghanistan seems to be pretty much on the verge of reverting back to the exact state we found it in. Iraq seems temporarily stable, but it was stable when we went into it. It wasn't a threat to the world in 2002, and it's not a threat to the world now. Nor, despite our best efforts, does it appear to be a beacon of democracy for countries throughout the middle east to emulate. Instead, most of the arab revolutions taking place strike me as being closer to the Iranian model: Dictators who were liked by the West are being overthrown, and the governments that rise out of them don't seem like they are going to be particularly progressive. Of course, it's still early for many of these nations. I don't pretend to guess what they will look like thirty years from now.

My suspicion is, if they are more democratic and less "jihady," it will be because of smart phones, and not because of smart bombs.

Is America safer today than it was in 2001? I suppose that an airplane would be much more difficult to hijack today. (Has there been a successful airplane hijacking anywhere in the world during the last ten years?) On the other hand, we have a lot of evidence that if a terrorist wanted to be less spectacular in his efforts, he'd have little standing in his way to purchase a gun and walk into any business in America and open fire. But, perhaps terrorists don't think we'd be overy terrified if they followed this path. Given the flash mobs that started popping up in American cities this year (including Greensboro, at a park I've walked through a hundred times), we've gotten so good as a populace at inflicting random violence on ourselves, we've set the bar too high for international terrorists to compete.

I also remember reading in 2001 that Osama bin Laden was hoping that an attack on the World Trade Center would cripple the US economy. But it turns out that banks in collusion with congress had a far more effective strategy to accomplish this.

I don't want to down play the pain of the day. A lot of people died for no good reason at all. A lot of families were shattered. It was a tragedy by any objective or subjective standard. But, I think it's a good thing that, ten years later, its receded so much from national memory. As anyone who has lost a loved one discovers, life moves on. And I think this was the ultimate defeat for Bin Laden and his ilk. We don't hold national "Bin Laden" hate days. Most of us just went back to our lives. In the long run, all his grand designs have come to nothing.

7 comments:

James Maxey said...

This post was left by Mr. Cavin in the evolution topic just before my 9-11 post. I suspect it was meant to go here. It's a rather thorough attack on my admittedly vague and unsuported assertions. My response will soon follow:

Mr. Cavin:
Interesting. This post seems like reading an opinion from some alternate reality.

I would have said that, since 9/11, rampant government interest groups have used the terrorist attacks--and the brand label of terrorism--nearly constantly to pump support for, and divert funds into, pet projects. That political ideologies have polarized into combatant ethnologies. That we've spent ourselves to the brink of disaster on counter-productive foreign policy even while crippling funding for so-called soft power influence--a combination that ensures little good can come from our positive relationships even while our challenging relationships worsen into hotbeds of anti-US sentiment. I’d have said that the media has systematically used terror-based hysteria as an excuse to sow xenophobia against a fourth of the world population composed of races and ideologies which have been blurred together by association with a handful of criminals whose physical impact has been hysterically swollen beyond all actual importance. This has led to a modern US cultural landscape where racism and intolerance is permissible, even frequently rewarded, amplified and rebroadcast, and used a basis for war support, recruitment, entertainment, and political stumping. I’d have said that it created a modern protectionist mandate when it comes to the government’s control over both US citizens and the citizens of foreign states, institutionalizing the erosion of domestic liberties and infringing on human rights abroad. I’d have said that the bad guys got a better effect than they could have ever dreamed of.

What pansies we are.

I agree that the world should be the way you describe. That even though the events of September eleventh were awful, that we mourned and eventually got over them. But I don’t believe that what is happening. I don’t see that at all. Our feelings were hurt, yes, but we were also publicly offended. And like a dumped college co-ed, we’ve been taking it out on our friends and enemies alike ever since, immaturely entitling ourselves to be public jerks with the public excuse that we got hurt and the secret excuse that we’re embarrassed. We’ve been on our worst behavior for ten years now. Meanwhile, the dominos are still falling, and we are still in a precipitous and steady national decline. But we’re not paying attention, we’re reeling drunkenly around, ranting about being “the best” and “not forgetting” and “terrorism” like 9/11 was the end of the damn world or something And if we keep acting like this, we may very well prove ourselves right.

Mr. Cavin said...

Ha! (I replied over at the Evolution thread, but had to post something here just so I could subscribe to the comment thread. Thanks for the copy and paste, James.)

James Maxey said...

"Interesting. This post seems like reading an opinion from some alternate reality."

A recurring theme in my novel Greatshadow is the idea that all truth is local. At the small scale, you and I do live in different realities. You are overseas and the Americans you deal with on a daily basis are probably highly engaged with politics, world history, different cultures, etc. My daily encounters with people seldom involve discussions on any of these topics since Greg passed away. While media devoted a lot of time to the anniversary, not one person that I encountered on 9-10 or 9-11 even brought up the subject. One person that I directly asked didn't instantly remember that the date was significant! I live in a world where 95% of the people I know probably couldn't point out the country you currently reside in on a map. This isn't to say they are dumb. They just have very little need for information about the larger world in their daily life.

"I would have said that, since 9/11, rampant government interest groups have used the terrorist attacks--and the brand label of terrorism--nearly constantly to pump support for, and divert funds into, pet projects."

I would concur, but I don't regard this as a change in America. I wrote Nobody Gets the Girl while Clinton was still in office, and even then I made international terrorists my bogey-man that could justify any action. Do you remember the "Carnivore" system that conspiracy theorists back then said was put in place to monitor emails? It was real! We spent the decade of the 90's bombing Iraq, and made cruise missile attacks into Afghanistan and Pakistan to try to kill Osama bin Laden. The ramp up to a war on terror replacing the cold war as a cash cow for the military industrial complex was in place long before 9-11. Government has been diverting money for dubious pet projects in the name of security since at least the Civil War. 9-11 definitely changed the scope and scale of the abuse, but the fundamental pattern was already in place. Haliburton hogged up government contracts after 9-11, it's true, but it wasn't as if they weren't feeding at the government security trough before.

James Maxey said...

"I’d have said that it created a modern protectionist mandate when it comes to the government’s control over both US citizens and the citizens of foreign states, institutionalizing the erosion of domestic liberties and infringing on human rights abroad."

My main dispute with this is that, while the government has ratcheted up its security theatre, I don't know that there's a huge mandate. Most people seem to regard the majority of airport security "improvements" as a giant, pointless hassle. I also can't point to a domestic liberty we had prior to 9-11 that we don't have now (with the exception of the small handful of US citizens who have been taken into custody as terrorist suspects and held without trial). I will say that I found our cultural acceptance of torture embarassing, and still roll my eyes when I hear right wing nuts try to justify it. That said, both political parties in our last presidential election nominated candidates who swore to end the torture of prisoners. To my knowledge, this promise has been kept, but you may have information I'm not aware of.

"I’d have said that the bad guys got a better effect than they could have ever dreamed of.

What pansies we are.

I agree that the world should be the way you describe. That even though the events of September eleventh were awful, that we mourned and eventually got over them. But I don’t believe that what is happening. I don’t see that at all. Our feelings were hurt, yes, but we were also publicly offended. And like a dumped college co-ed, we’ve been taking it out on our friends and enemies alike ever since, immaturely entitling ourselves to be public jerks with the public excuse that we got hurt and the secret excuse that we’re embarrassed. We’ve been on our worst behavior for ten years now. Meanwhile, the dominos are still falling, and we are still in a precipitous and steady national decline. But we’re not paying attention, we’re reeling drunkenly around, ranting about being “the best” and “not forgetting” and “terrorism” like 9/11 was the end of the damn world or something And if we keep acting like this, we may very well prove ourselves right."

My main point of contention here is the notion that we've been on our worst behavior for the last ten years. Worse than prior to the civil war, when we actively engaged in the slave trade? Worse than the "banana republic" era, when we used to routinely overthrow democraticly elected governments in South America in order to install dictators who would allow US corporations to all but enslave their citizens in order to provide American's with cheap fruit? Worse than world war two when we rounded up loyal American citizens into prison camps because they happened to have Japanese ancestry? Worse than the cold war era that followed, when we supported brutal dictators all around the world as long as they paid lip service to hating communists? Our modern middle east woes can be traced to the fact that we have thrown billions of dollars of oil money to kings and strongmen, who enriched themselves but oppressed their citizens.

9-11 wasn't the climax or the pivot point of history. The world in its aftermath is horribly messed up, but it was horribly messed up before. Also, please note that I'm not making an argument that we have ourselves to blame for 9-11. We aren't to blame for Bin Laden deciding to hurt a lot of people any more than we are to blame for McKeigh blowing up the Oklahoma City Federal Building. There have always been frustrated people in the world who feel like violence is their only hope of getting their point across.

Mr. Cavin said...

It's a little arch to go backward, but this way I can dispense with this semantic bit before getting on to the real discussion. I understand the term "on our worst behavior" to mean that we are exhibiting our least desirable traits, not that we're acting worse than ever before. When you say someone is on "his best behavior," the intimation is that the individual in question is suppressing inappropriate tendencies by trying to act correctly, not that he is exhibiting his noblest-ever behavior. Even if I'm wrong in my understanding of this common phrase, please understand how I meant it: we are letting go of better qualities to act in accordance with worser ones. Certainly we have been just as big--or bigger--bastards in the past, but it seems to me that it was for many of the same reasons. The extremes may have waxed and waned, but the behavior is the same.

I am happy to concede your point about the word "mandate". It feels very much like the US populace is allowing its government to run away with fistfuls of money, enact abominable invasions of privacy, and prune the liberties of people both foreign and domestic all in the name of post-apocalyptic safety. My optimistic side wants you to be right about this one. Maybe all of this is happening without the direct collusion of the US citizenry. Meanwhile, I see videos of kids being frisked and adults herded into possibly unsafe backscatter imaging machines. I travel freely around Europe and Asia, but I am prodded extensively if I try to come home. I'm also embarrassed by the torture, but you can add to that my chagrin over the wild western-style hits we publicly put on the lives of foreign combatants--even US citizens--when we see fit, oversight-free holding facilities on foreign soil where people foreign and domestic languish in jail without trial--or maybe even being charged. You said this was an infringement on a handful of people's rights. Well, as statistically insignificant as the number may be, it is the institutionalization of the infringement I'm complaining talking about, not the score.

Of course, what embarrasses me most is the loud microphone we give the swelling number of idiots who air ignorant opinions about the world via televised editorials and the internet. I know this is part and parcel of our not being able to micromanage the first amendment, thank god, but it's also symptomatic of the problem I was trying to complain about in my first response. No matter how bad we've acted in the past--or how likely we might have been to do these things even if the twin towers were still standing--the fact is that everything, for the last ten years, has been justified through the lens of the events of late summer 2001, and it is all being focused on the same part of the world. It's not just that the US is selfishly pulling the puppet strings in dozens of places, making up excuses as it goes. It's not just that the government is spending our money in ways that I don't like and pocketing the profits. It isn't just that the purveyors of ignorant opinions are political and media professionals (and the tacit justification this lends ethnic bigotry). It's that the US openly doing whatever the hell it wants while selling its worst behavior to its customers with the one repetitive marketing ploy: we're doing these things to save you from the terrorists, the middle-east, the Muslims, the extremists.

Or maybe it's not even that. Maybe what's really pissing me off is my perception that we are still buying into it. Remember 9/11! We can't let that happen again, by gum! So to circle this thing back around, I'm heartened to discover that you feel we aren't falling for it so much anymore. I know my concept of US culture is skewed, coming from a very small sample of foreign professionals and whatever overview I get online, where things get reduced to vitriolic black-n-while boilerplate. So I'm happy I might be wrong about all this acceptance I seemed to see.

James Maxey said...

Cavin, I did kind of misuse what would have been the commonly accepted meaning of "on our worst behavior" when making my points.

I don't want to be some sort of neo-luddite who complains "it's all the internets fault," but I sometimes wonder how long it's going to take our world to adjust to the fact that we can now read news tailored to our own predjudices. For instance, if a right-wing blogger wants to make his case that Islam is a religion of death that intends to overthrow everything that American's hold dear, ten minutes of googling is going to produce scads of evidence supporting his claim. He can have videos of flag burnings, imams shouting that the Great Satan must be brought low, and a dozen quotes from the Koran saying that it's good karma to kill infidels. (Well, maybe not that exact phrasing.)

On the flip side, if you are a muslim, ten minutes of internet access can produce all those right wing blogs pronouncing yours to be a religion of evil and mob hysteria. And, to protest this horrible slander, you and your friends can go tear down the local Isreali embassy.

We've entered a world where governments no longer need to control the media and feed us propaganda and censor things they don't want us to hear. We (meaning humans, not just Americans) now are showing a grand talent for devouring the propaganda of our choice and censoring out the 99.9999999% of additional information that doesn't directly play into our own inner narratives of victimhood.

Will the inventions that bring mankind closer together ultimately tear us apart? Or will we somehow just learn to chill out, and accept that there are idiots everywhere and it's not worth getting worked up about?

Mr. Cavin said...

“He can have videos of [mascot] burnings, [coaches] shouting that the [opposing coaches] must be brought low, and a dozen quotes from the [playbook] saying that it's good karma to kill [hooligans].”

Your point about context is excellent. The same information can be taken in whatever way necessary to plump the imagined validity of our personal opinions. I paraphrased your quote above to further illustrate how banal the same sentiments can seem when applied to something less incendiary than religion. The words and the concepts do not offend us so much, in and of themselves; but if we happen to already be offended, they can certainly be used as proof as to the legitimacy of that offense. I admit to feeling a secret kind of satisfaction when I discover someone formally stating my opinion--especially if that opinion is against the prevailing wisdom. Suddenly I feel kind of vindicated, as if my thoughts had just become that much more valid. Of course, this illusion of agreement hasn’t really changed the validity of my opinion at all.

It seems to me that the problem with well-balanced information is primarily a problem of resources. Most people don’t have all that much time to consume news. What time is available will probably be spent economizing the expenditure: watching TV takes less time than reading the paper, a known source is more accessible than an unknown source, updating familiar prejudices takes less energy than discovering new facts. This worked just fine for however many years we could count on being guided to the facts by a very finite number of vectors. Well, if it didn’t really work out “just fine,” then at least there was little alternative. Now, with a seemingly infinite number of outlets to deal with, our confusion over sorting them out has dovetailed with the news industry’s own burgeoning license to cherry pick information. Even someone frustrated with the fact that name-brand information has become unreliably polarized will have to expend twice the usual amount of time trying to balance sources with their opposite number. Most people just don’t have the disposable resources for this.

For the first time in history I feel more comfortable with those who do not bother. Even though I’m sympathetic, I find the willfully ignorant more ethical than the willfully one-sided.