After 9/11 George Bush said that the problem was that al-Qaeda was evil incarnated, and that the solution was to initiate the War on Terror. After all, he said, 9/11 Changed Everything. At first, these three statements just seemed like more of the really stupid things the guy has said, the kind of mindless drivel that would wither in the cold light of reason, but as he and the rest of the republicans kept it up, it sank in as part of the conventional wisdom. Even today, there are plenty of people who think that terrorists are evil, using the word as a noun. Even today official US policy revolves around the War on Terror, with the incumbent, McCain, and their clone armies saying over and over that Iraq is the central front in the War on Terror. And even today, there are plenty of people who believe that everything changed when the World Trade Center fell.
Obviously this stuff wasn’t directed at thinking people. It was intended for an audience looking for an answer, one they could comprehend, and one that had a rinse of authority. By the time we liberals found our old college books, read up on “evil”, fighting terrorism, dealing with the rise of Islamist separatism and its causes and goals, finding people who were doing the same things, talking and thinking some more, and reaching for a strategy to cope with the real problem, the battle was over. We were stuck fighting idiocy that had a huge head start, not just among the republican true believers, but in the media and in the Democratic Party. It took years just to get in the game, and the root ideas still hold sway among many of our fellow citizens.
Emptywheel reminds us that once we had lives that didn’t revolve around the minutia of politics. Evil and the war on terror are hard, and I’ll take them up later, but I’ve got an answer to 9/11 Changed Everything: the Flitcraft Story. Go read it. It has one of the greatest similes in American literature.
In the story, Flitcraft took a new name: Charles Pierce, which Wikipedia surmises is a reference to the American Charles Peirce, the philosopher who, with John Dewey and William James, is credited with creating pragmatism, the only original American philosophy. Maybe. Sam Spade is nothing if not pragmatic. At the end of the story, Spade tells Gutman they need a fall guy, someone they can feed to the police and hang the murders on (read this with your Humphrey Bogart voice):
At one time or another I’ve had to tell everybody from the Supreme Court down to go to hell, and I’ve got away with it. I got away with it because I never let myself forget that a day of reckoning was coming. I never forget that when the day of reckoning comes I want to be all set to march into headquarters pushing a victim in front of me , saying: “here, you chumps, is your criminal.’ As long as I can do that I can put my thumb to my nose and wriggle my fingers at all the laws in the book. The first time I can’t do it my name’s Mud. There hasn’t been a first time yet. This isn’t going to be it. That’s flat….
“Listen Gutman, we’ve absolutely got to give them a victim. There’s no way out of it. Let’s give them the punk.” He nodded pleasantly at the boy in the doorway. “He actually did shoot both of them – Thursby and Jacobi—didn’t he? Anyway he’s perfect for the part. Let’s pin the necessary evidence on him and turn him over to them”
We could have responded to 9/11 by catching bin Laden and working to change people’s attitude towards radicals in the Islamic world: “here, you chumps, is your criminal”. Instead the administration decided to change our self-definition from can-do people to frightened sheep. We quit being a nation of Sam Spades and became a nation of Joel Cairos. Oh sure, we covered it with an ugly bellicosity, invaded a couple of nations, and wasted our blood and treasury, but we gave up the very freedom and morality that formed the foundation of our standing in the world.
In that sense, 9/11 changed everything about us. That was a choice we didn’t have to make. It was only possible because so many of us were shocked out of being who we really are. But maybe there’s hope, and we will return to being the decent people we thought we all were.
Spoiler alert, here is a short version of the Flitcraft story. Sam Spade is in his apartment with Bridget O’Shaughnessy, waiting for Joel Cairo to call, and tells her the story. Flitcraft disappeared suddenly from his regular guy life in Tacoma. He was married, had a couple of kids he seemed to love, wealthy, had that very morning arranged a golf game for late that afternoon, and missed a closing that would have brought a nice commission. Another operative found him several years later in Spokane, new wife, new kid, same kind of job, same regular life.
Turns out he had been on his way to lunch when a steel beam fell from above and just missed him. He was a regular guy, and suddenly he was confronted with a completely random event that could have killed him. He reacted, in what seemed to him like a perfectly reasonable way, by leaving. He bummed around the West Coast a couple of years, wound up in Spokane, and settled down into a regular guy life. The operative talked to him and his wife and the matter was quietly settled.
Spade says the guy never even realized he had fallen back into the same life: “But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”
The simile? You’ll have to click through to find it.