September 11, the day that "changed everything", has become a platitude, a rationale for American impulsiveness in domestic and foreign policy that would upend any other nation.
September 11 has been recast, not as a day of loss and victimisation, but as a wake-up call for action, a justification for lashing out, for curtailing civil liberties and for diverting limited resources to a defence budget that is defying gravity. September 11 has emerged as the raison d'etre of Americans staking claims for empire and national greatness; it has replaced anti -communism as the driver of foreign policy and domestic sacrifice. September 11 means doing "something", getting the bad guys, no matter what the costs, monetary or otherwise.
Two years ago, America's heart was torn to pieces when thousands perished in hijacked airplanes and the buildings they destroyed. Mass media transmitted the images of horror to every corner of the globe. America's obsession with reality TV and the omnipresence of camcorders and would-be experts have turned September 11 into a famous tragedy -- so much so that it will be a central reference point for this and future generations. Politicians for years to come will not be able to resist the temptation of using September 11 as the justification for whatever cause they are championing.
September 11 even provided the current administration with a few miracles. It helped President George W. Bush escape his "guilt by association" problems with the scandal-ridden Enron and its chief executive Kenneth Lay and gave him the opportunity to appear presidential in ways that a wealthy son of an ex-president would not normally enjoy. It furnished him with military photo opportunities and repetitive prime-time television spots to reach out to an American public in pain and angry at those supposedly responsible for the attacks -- first Osama bin Laden, then Saddam Hussein.
Unfortunately, September 11 is not about victims any more; it is about opportunity and politics. September 11 -- and all the rage, hurt and righteousness that is wrapped up in that date -- is held by Mr Bush as a shield of infallibility, and those rushing to join his crusade are profiting from it. September 11 is the rallying cry for a rolling global war against rogue states, dictators and terrorists; for huge defence budgets that are poorly designed to meet the true dangers of asymmetric threats; and for an overwhelming surge of presidential authority in domestic and international affairs, upsetting the checks on executive power which now seem weak or broken.
The true impact of September 11 on US foreign and domestic policy cannot be fully assessed for years, but one pattern is clear. A fundamental casualty is trust. During the 1990s, the high-speed exchange of people, ideas, technologies, communication lines and finance was tying the world together in a process dubbed globalisation by some, Americanisation or homogenisation by others. For globalisation to thrive, trust had to be on the rise and stakeholders in the expansion of the global network had to proliferate.
September 11 demonstrated that while trust takes a long time to build, it can vanish overnight. The institutions and fortunes of trust-builders have and will continue to suffer compared to those institutions and individuals whose welfare increases during times of fear. In the next fiscal year, the US defence budget is equal to the defence spending of all other countries in the world. This was the case before Mr Bush's request this week for another US $87 billion to support America's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with US $65 billion of that going to the Department of Defence.
September 11 has reordered the political winners and losers in Washington, has made the promise of global, interconnected development and wealth creation highly doubtful, and has caused America to appear poorly prepared for a complex world. Americans must hold their leaders accountable for identifying bona fide opportunities to meet the challenges of a post-September 11 world and for rejecting opportunistic and reckless policies that undermine American civil society and our national interests. Otherwise, the US will be a weaker global hegemon than it deserves to be.
Copyright 2003, South China Morning Post