The Lileks Zone

What we could have done differently


Everyone’s spending the day on recollections and remembrances, and I’ve said enough of that. Started wondering: What should we have done differently? In no particular order of importance, some thoughts.

Nomenclature. The Department of Homeland Security: hated the term then, hate it just as much now. It’s a tin-eared appellation with overtones of paternalistic daddy-states. Couldn’t say Motherland; Russia has the copyright on that. Can’t say “Fatherland,” for obvious reasons. How about Yankeeland? No, insults the south. Doodleland, then? An amusement park. Office of Domestic Security? No, too totalitarian . . . except it’s not, really. It’s just blunt. It’s true. If there’d been a Bogart movie in WW2 where he worked for the Office of Domestic Security, smashing Nazi spy-rings, the term would feel right, and would connote diligence and competence and authority. But the language has changed; we’ve been trained by movies and TV and the rest of the popular culture to believe that every such agency is really an apparatus for doing something horrible to Americans at the behest of the Shadowy Forces who use national paranoia for their own dark purposes. So we have the DHS, and no one knows what it does. Beyond that: “homeland” is different from “nation.” People don’t think of America as a “homeland,” which sounds pre-national, rooted in place and tribe, not an idea. Americans don’t set foot in Hawaii and think “ah, the homeland.” They think of the ideas and values that make this place familiar.

Likewise: The War on Terror. This was the first sign of careful locutions intended to reassure the world we weren’t going to go all Crusader on everyone. “War on Evil” would have sounded ridiculous, of course, and impractical; so many fronts. “The Axis of Evil” was derided as the sort of term you’d find in an old movie serial, and who’s to say what’s evil, anyway? One man’s evil is another man’s shining sweet goodness with sprinkles on top. Can’t say on “War on Islamists” because that would insult everyone was Muslim, even though we were constantly told that Islamists weren’t really acting in the name of Islam, and were horrified by Islamists, and by-gosh would expunge them from civil society, except there were only about six or seven, so it wasn’t worth the bother.

World War Four would have been an apt name, but since no one really named the Cold War for what it was – number three – it would seem like we’d skipped an episode. My daughter once said she was scared of thinking about World War Three, and I said we already had it. We won. Now we’re having Number Four. This seemed a relief, somehow.

 Post-war Iraq. There’s either the school that says “leave after Saddam was toppled, and let the brutes sort it out” but we would have got Al-Qaeda or some such indistinguishable band of medieval totalitarians. Another school said “install an SOB who’ll keep the lid on, and leave,” and that has a certain appeal – but it went against the Bush approach to draining the swamp and planting the flower of democracy in the stony earth of the Middle East. Hindsight, 20-20, etc., but it’s clear that the post-occupation clusterbungle sapped the United States of every atom of momentum we had. Speaking of which:

Iran. Recall a cover of the Weekly Standard after the fall of Baghdad? “On to Iran!” We’ll probably never know what the US and its allies have been doing to Iran in the last decade, but if they go nuclear and use them, history will look back at a country that was flanked on two sides by a powerful adversary that stayed its hand when it could have struck. History will be scratching its head over that one.

Likewise, North Korea: it’s not as if we couldn’t take them out. As a member in good standing of the Axis of Evil, as the nation voted Most Likely To Sell a Nuke for a Case of Hennessey,  they need to go. But the necessary steps – flattening Pyongyang, sowing the border with daisy-cutters, giving the Chinese a wink if they decide to gun down anyone who tries to cross the border – were always unacceptable, unthinkable, inhumane, and will continue to be so right up until the moment they discover that the nuke that took our an American city came from Kim Il-Jong. Then it’ll seem like the right thing to do. But not until. We have to wait for the “until” part.

Reconstruction. The new World Trade Center is an underwhelming, mediocre, undistinguished group of buildings that could be built anywhere  – except that it took them ten years, which means it could only be built in New York.  The architecture is rootless and universal, divorced from our own vocabulary; the monuments are pits that speak of sadness without anger, remembrance without a nod to a future where the struggle is won. It was unthinkable that they would build the towers again, because –

. . . well, why, exactly? Can you think of a better rebuke, a better response? The towers weren’t great architecture in the first place, but as Paul Goldberger of the NYT said, the fact that there were two banal towers instead of one transformed them into abstract sculpture, and he’s right. Over time they became an icon, a symbol of New York as powerful as the Empire State Building, and replacing them with a tower that twists as if it’s been slapped, and another that looks as if its top has been sheared by a giant’s angry scythe is a lost opportunity.

For all that, we did so many things right, and we’ll never know most of them. We weren’t hit again. Everyone thought we’d be hit again.

Most everyone still does. It will be different; our reaction will be confused, unsure how to reply. But one thing will be the same, at least for the left.

It’ll be Bush’s fault.

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September 2011