The rise of our President-elect was not fueled by just ebullient star power trumping arcane theory. In 2001, through Clinton era reluctance, and a Bush administration with suspect ties to Saudi oil magnates, our nation experienced its painful adolescence in the form of a hideous terrorist attack. The foreign policy blunders of the New World came to bear as two jumbo jets exploded into the World Trade Center. Children and teens of that generation realized that we would confront a loosely organized but worldly-wise terrorist threat. The theological battle between peaceful Muslim nations and their internal seditious youth was playing itself out on the soil of several so-called First World nations. What a shock it was, too.
The Morehouse men I convened with in a dorm room to watch the CBS live coverage that day huddled around the television in severe disbelief. College freshmen are poorly equipped to decipher the consequences of misguided foreign policy.
In some way, those men had lived another American Dream, training in domestic flight schools, finding sympathetic underground cohorts to support their mission, and eventually carrying out the most effective strike on the United States since Pearl Harbor. The events that followed were responsible for Barack Obama’s meteoric ascent. My generation of dissatisfied, apprehensive voters witnessed government secrecy unseen in our lifetime (but surely commonplace since McCarthy era/COINTELPRO).
The executive branch expanded its power to propel an international witch hunt with the Patriot Act. The Central Intelligence Agency stood at odds with the FBI because of the information crunch applied by President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their resident hawk Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Colin Powell and Condi Rice stood beside junior Bush as he recklessly stomped through Baghdad with few international allies, and decreasing support from his party. The Department of Homeland Security seized responsibility from all other defense institutions. Weapons of mass destruction was a term fraught with meaning: the basis of our pinpointed Iraq invasion. If a ragtag bunch of terrorists could make their stamp on history with planes, imagine what a nation empowered with devastating weapons and an erratic leader could do. Although the U.S. had seen Cuba wave the nuclear cape at our waiting bull, we had not learned from the mistake of pre-emption. Chest-beating bravado dominated our diplomacy, and gradually, we conceded our real power by chasing the wrong villains.
Barack Obama, only a state Senator at the time, openly spoke out against our cowboy-ism, stressing that our only chance to conquer the terrorist threat was to stage a multi-pronged, multinational mission. Concentrating our mission in Iraq ran the risk of handcuffing the world’s most powerful military indefinitely. United Nations and NATO protocol behooves our vigilance even when the difficult possibility of covert terrorists stands to challenge the global accord. But as a green local politician, Obama’s voice was limited to the echo chamber of disloyal anti-patriots, according to the way of the day.
Several events justified his rationale shortly thereafter. The 9/11 Commission findings, as well as the resignation and dismissal of key Cabinet members like Rumsfeld and Powell, verified the brash nature of pursuing unfounded tips. U.S. casualties in Iraq rose in flurrying activity. Perhaps most significantly, though, the American electorate viewed Bush/Cheney’s actions as evidence of a corrosive, single-minded effort to push out the rest of the world, to win at all costs, regardless of strategic soundness. As support for the effort plummeted, and stranded Guantanamo “terror suspects” found legal grounds to push against their totalitarian imprisonment, young Barack Obama’s theories seemed less like the cries of hasty dissent.
Moreover, when the thin premises of the Iraq War unraveled in the public forum, another fold in history’s ongoing self-writing occurred. 9/11 kids had no reason to believe their government. Our childhood had seen a sharp-minded, lusting Bill Clinton felled by personal scandal. We watched the free press get duped by a plotting cabal of insiders driven by party affiliation. The Twin Towers collapsed while most of us groped in the dark world of conspiracy for answers. In the wake of national tragedy, we had no reassurance that our leaders were working for more than vindication and a stake in the resource markets overseas.
President George W. Bush’s bewildering non-expression as his adviser floated a whisper of the 9/11 attacks into his ear in front of a class of elementary school students is a standing memory. Though it is dangerous to contend he demonstrated apathy, the glint of vicious sovereignty shone through in that moment. With no plan yet in place, he proceeded from there hidden in a government-sponsored shroud of secrecy. Sissela Bok once wrote, “Secrecy is as indispensable to human beings as fire, and as greatly feared.” The character of our government changed from repressed transparency to all-out deception.
President-elect Obama has protected his share of valuable information, no doubt. Any of our political leaders ought to block the public from panic, even if that conflicts with serving our needs. However, since he owes his election to the “failed policies of the last eight years” he must re-affirm the basic trust that extends from populace to leader. He has earned the brave torque of correction through consensus. Inasmuch as President Obama will solidify his voice through policy edicts, honesty and clarity should be the tenets that bind him to the generation that swiftly bought into his cult of personality. The charisma factor will likely vanish on Day One, and the 9/11 kids will wait cautiously to see how he deals with the standing threats of blistering ideologies. The curdling clamor of injustice, of a generation starved for truth, will live on for those victims of the World Trade Center. And as we have seen, time has a way of revisiting concealed facts.