In preparing for the “September 11 Ten Years Later: Impact on the Heartland” symposium set for Friday through Sunday morning at Bismarck State College, I’ve been reading up a storm.
This is one of the greatest joys in my life, that I get to read about things that are inherently fascinating — for a living! I’m eager to hear North Dakota’s Gen. Chuck Wald, who was one of the top commanders of the United States armed forces at the time of 9-11, former CNN anchor Chuck Roberts, and CNN producer-reporter Peter Bergen, who interviewed Osama bin Laden and wrote an outstanding book, “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda.”
The North Dakota Air National Guard, the Happy Hooligans, also were a part of this amazing, sad, world-changing story, because they were flying CAP (combat air patrol) over Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001. If there had been more hijacked planes, a second wave of terror, that fatal Tuesday morning, the Hooligans might have been called upon to shoot down commercial airliners to spare the Capitol or the White House.
Lt. Col. Dean Eckmann, one of the three pilots of the 119th Fighter Wing Alert Detachment who scrambled into the air that morning from Langely AFB, will be talking about the role of the North Dakota Air National Guard in what is, so far, the seminal story of the 21st century.
It’s hard to believe that 10 years have passed. I know precisely where I was when I heard the news (Phoenix, in a hotel room), and I know that in the confusion, rage, bewilderment, and sorrow that cascaded in upon all of us, I had only one impulse — to get to my daughter, who was just 7 years old at the time, 733.3 miles away, and to hold her tightly in my arms, perhaps forever.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney's memoir, “In My Time,” is being released on the eve of the 10th anniversary. I pre-ordered it a month ago, and I can’t wait to read his account of 9-11 and the troubled decade of its aftermath.
Though he disputes it for a number of good reasons, Cheney was effectively the acting president for most of Sept. 11, while President Bush was being scurried around American airspace at the insistence of the Secret Service.
It was almost certainly Cheney who issued the shoot-down order at 10:39 a.m. EDT, even though from a technical constitutional point of view, he was not in the military chain of command. (It runs: president, secretary of defense, chairman of the joint chiefs, regional commanders).
Predictably, the pundits are spending most of their time mucking around in the so-called cheap shots in Cheney's book, his apparently condescending attitude toward National Security Adviser (and later Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice, and his suggestion that Colin Powell was not a completely loyal member of the Bush Cabinet.
Important, but not very important.
I'm much more interested in what the former vice president has to say about the meaning of 9-11, and the ways in which it has changed our understanding of the separation of powers doctrine, the role of the president in our constitutional system, the sanctity of the Bill of Rights, the relationship of the United States to the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations, and our relationship with our allies in Canada and Europe.
As I understand Cheney's point of view from his interviews and the biographies I have read, he subscribes to the following proposition. The world is a much darker and more dangerous place than you and I know. Beneath the surface of our daily lives, there lurk a wide range of bad actors, nihilists, "terrorists," men bent on the destruction of the West and in particular the United States and Israel. Some of these evil doers possess both the will and the wherewithal to damage America in significant, even fundamental, ways.
Our government dare not tell us candidly just how bad things are out there, because if they did we the people would not be able to sleep at night. We need to trust that our leaders are doing whatever it takes to keep us safe and secure in what is in some respects a nightmare world. While it would be nice to adhere to the ideals of the U.S. Constitution and the international rule of law, we can no longer really afford to do business under such restraints.
Our survival is going to require us to engage in enhanced interrogation techniques that the squeamish might call torture, to conduct widespread domestic surveillance in ways that existing laws forbid, to violate the sovereignty of other nations (e.g., Pakistan) to capture or assassinate senior terrorists, and to wage pre-emptive wars against nations that seem to threaten our interests. It's a shame that it has come to this, but it is a very dark world out there — and you have to trust us.
That’s a very difficult proposition to swallow for anyone who loves our republican form of government, the principles of the Enlightenment, the idealism of America, or the hard-won protections of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
But Cheney may be right.
It kills me to write these words, but what if he's right, that the price of being America in the 21st century is that we must “do whatever it takes” to defeat the nihilists? What I like best about Cheney is that unlike most other leaders he is not afraid to tell us what he fervently believes to be the hard truth about the world. I’m going to devour his book the minute Amazon.com pops it on my porch.
I hope and believe there is another path, a national journey of light rather than darkness, a path that tries harder to honor the magnificent ideals of the American experiment. Still, the fact that President Obama has not closed Guantanamo, and has escalated rather than wound down America's war in Afghanistan, must give every one of us pause.
(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College. He can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)