The most important day is when we attacked Iraq.
Some events stick out in our minds more than others, not because they are more important, but because they are more shocking. The explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in 1898 was shocking, but it wasn’t more important than USA’s Declaration of War on Spain, and even that pales in comparison to our fateful acquisition of the Philippines. The one event could have caused a diplomatic crisis, I suppose, but the subsequent decisions that were made were not necessary or inevitable. We did not have to go to war with Spain, and we did not have to take over the Philippines. Those were decisions that helped determine the course of America’s future, causing a lot of unnecessary bloodshed from American-made bullets and bombs.
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was shocking, but the USA’s involvement in World War II was more or less an inevitable reaction. Politics being what it is, and politicians being who they are, there seemed to be no other choice. But more important even than Pearl Harbor and subsequent War was the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was nothing necessary or inevitable about President Truman’s decisions to use atomic weapons. But that committed the United States down a course of superpower politics that has cost Americans trillions of dollars and made life hell for much of the Third World.
Likewise, JFK’s assassination didn’t define America and a generation - the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that escalated the Viet Nam War did. I think most Americans clearly understand this. But most people probably don’t remember exactly where they were when the heard about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Probably just on their sofa watching Walter Cronkite. Where they were when they got the news of the President being shot is universally unforgettable.
Another example was the Stock Market Crash of 1929 which launched a severe recession which became the Great Depression. There was nothing inevitable about the reactions of the Federal Reserve Board or President Hoover. And in 1932 FDR ran to the right of Hoover. But life after the Crash could have developed in other ways than it did. What we have instead is the New Deal, whose crowing achievement, Social Security, is going to bankrupt the nation in thirty years.
One odd exception to this is not an “event” but different years. Who remembers what happened in 1913, as opposed to World War I (1914 in Europe, or 1917 in the USA). Who would think that anything in 1913 would transform society the way the Great War and Prohibition did?
But in fact, 1913 saw the establishment of the national banking cartel called the Federal Reserve System, the Constitutional Amendment for a federal Income Tax, which was unlimited, and the Constitutional Amendment providing for the direct election of Senators within the states (They were previously chosen by state legislatures.)
Why is this more important? Because it gave the federal government the tools to launch a national Military-Industrial complex (fortunately put on hold for twenty years after the USA realized the mistake of participating in the War). The government, in collusion with the Fed, could manipulate the economy in order to gather the resources for expansive, national ambitions. And the direct election of Senators made it more likely for demagogues to get into office and exploit national prejudices than their predecessors who, being accountable to state legislators jealous of their own authority, had generally restricted the powers of the federal government. After 1913, it was open season on the American people and the world. World War I wasn’t necessary or inevitable, nor was Prohibition. But something like them were to be predicted to happen eventually. You just don’t give politicians that much power and expect it not to be used foolishly.
The United States can recover from stock market crashes, attacks, and Presidential assassinations, just as much as it can from earthquakes and hurricanes. They’re just more memorable and politically charged. But they are usually not the most important or defining thing.
Was the political reaction to the 9-11 attacks disappointing? Very much. But it was understandable, considering politicians being who they are. “Being what they are” meaning not reading a crucial piece of legislation, such as the Patriot Act - before voting for it. The creation of brand new bureaucracies like “Homeland Security” is to be expected. And the War in Afghanistan was also to be expected. That’s why our NATO allies backed us up in that conflict. It was all as predictable as our joining World War II following Pearl Harbor.
So yes, that was all disappointing, but not surprising.
(This is presuming, of course, that the Administration was telling the truth and had its fact straight that Al Qaeda was behind the Sept 11 attacks. This has also been drummed into my own head for so long that I’d be surprised if it was not true. But only surprised - not shocked.)
The War on Iraq is different. It was not politically inevitable. There was no reason for it to happen. And for those who say that it was based on the “best intelligence available” all I can say is that you are in denial of the obvious: that the Administration was on a fishing expedition to verify their pre-determined conclusion that Saddam Hussein was guilty of, well, something. And even then it had to cook the reports and use Colin Powell to mislead the world.
So we come from 9-11, after which most of the world stood in solidarity with us in our search to find those responsible - to a pointless war in Iraq. We are the most hated country in the world. And by our aggression we have religiously radicalized the most secular and liberal country in the Arab world, inspiring more and more terrorists and terrorism.
This is a bigger deal - what we started to do to Iraq on March 19, 2003 - than what was done to us just three short years ago. We might not remember it as well in some ways (I had to look up the precise date of our attack on Iraq), but it has certainly set our country on a self-destructive course. And it didn’t have to happen this way.
And the worst part, is that I have the feeling, or intuition, that this self-destructive course will not be reversed no matter who’s in office, politicians being who they are.