By Roger Cohen
September 12, 2017
I watched my president perorate at the Pentagon and all I could think as he held forth about heroism on the 16th anniversary of 9/11 was how did we end up with Humpty Dumpty.
It was Humpty Dumpty, of course, who declared: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” At least Humpty Dumpty said it without that repetitive thumb-to-stubby-forefinger gesture of our esteemed leader.
Words cascade from that pinched mouth and they mean nothing, because when a man of moral emptiness tries to exhort a nation to moral greatness the only thing communicated is pitiful, almost comical, hypocrisy.
Between a hero and a huckster, between speaking and mouthing, the distance is great. Watching the esteemed leader’s head turning jerkily, like an old electric fan, from teleprompter to teleprompter, I almost felt pity. His is the Age of Indecency.
President Trump seems lonely in his evident unfitness. Between him and his wife Melania I imagine what John Lanchester once described as “one of those silences which can only be incubated by at least two decades of attritional intimacy.” Well, they’ve known each other for 19 years.
We’ve had a big fall. For the perpetrators of the attack on America, the biggest success has been the injection of fear into the national psyche. Not even they could imagine how social media could turn fear into contagion and how the politics of fear would help propel a buffoon with feral instincts to the White House.
Looking back over the years since the attack that bright September morning — it was my daughter Adele’s 4th birthday and she had just recovered from an infection so serious I had to hold her little body while doctors performed a spinal tap — I am reminded of lines from Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
First, there was the downward glide: the misbegotten war, the soldiers and shoppers, financial implosion, impunity for the mighty, recession, anxiety and polarization. Then Americans, and not only Americans, decided it was better to blow things up than have more of the same. That’s when things precipitated.
The esteemed leader won even though Americans know he makes stuff up and wants a victorious small-to-medium-sized war that will allow him to proclaim American greatness restored. People do crazy things. They invade Russia, for example. Just look at history. Trump might think bombing Iran is his ticket in 2020.
What is all the fear about? It’s the loss of sanctuary. Menace could be anywhere since it came out of a clear blue sky. It’s the loss of victory. There is none to be had. It’s the loss of confidence. America’s power is greater than its ability to use it. It’s the loss of community. Technology is a great connector but also a great isolator. It’s the loss of self-worth. Life in the Facebook age can become an endless invitation to feel inferior or unloved.
All of this has fed a tissue of fear and disquiet easily exploited by the esteemed leader, whose instincts are above all for human weakness.
Hence Muslims and Mexicans and Mullahs and trade manipulators and all the other menaces to America that the leader deploys as needed.
In “The Sun Also Rises,” Hemingway wrote something else: “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.”
It’s hard to shrug off the darkening skies. The worst of 9/11, almost a generation on, is the feeling that the perpetrators won. They didn’t buckle Western freedom and democracy, but they injured them. They disoriented the West. They sucked some of the promise out of a new century.
The assassins of Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi and John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King took the lives of great men but did not destroy their ideas. Perhaps they reinforced the immortality of those ideas. The assassin of Yitzhak Rabin and the mass murderers of 9/11 dispatched by Osama bin Laden were, however, more successful.
Yigal Amir, Rabin’s killer, uprooted the Oslo seeds of peace by assuring that Israeli Messianic-nationalist religious ideologues got the upper hand over secular pragmatists. They have never relinquished it. Bin Laden sapped America’s confidence, wove fear into the nation’s fabric, and inspired a metastasizing form of Jihadi fanaticism that continues to terrorize the West in the crazed pursuit of a restored caliphate.
And Humpty Dumpty wants to build a wall he can sit on to contemplate xenophobia and Islamophobia.
I broke down a couple of days after 9/11 when I saw an image of a woman’s ultrasound stuck on a subway wall at 42nd Street with the words: “Looking for the father of this child.” Perhaps, in retrospect, my sobs were for all the innocence lost that day, the dreams unborn.
Adele was very brave through the spinal tap. Today she’s a brave young woman. They are out there: the brave, the stoical, the imaginative and the decent. Despite everything, they will have their day.