What have we learned about our country, about ourselves, in the 12 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks? And what have we given up in those years, through manipulation and fear?
I began drifting over this idea while listening to a man on the radio who was participating in that now-familiar ritual from ground zero. He was reading a list of the dead. And his voice got to me.
It was the voice of a native New Yorker, a man who'd lived long enough to have been broken, but it sounded clear as he read name after name. Then it stopped. There was a terrible break in it, like a rag being torn in half. A second later, I knew why.
He'd just read the name of his son.
The Sept. 11 commemoration is a familiar ritual now, and ritual is by definition comforting and even sometimes hypnotic. You know why we do it: America lost almost 3,000 people to the Islamic terrorists that day. And afterward, we lost many more in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we lost something else, too.
So I listened to the voices of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, reciting the litany of the dead. And I thought about those 12 years, and who we were and what we've become, what we lost by force, and what we've given up through fear.
So what have we learned about ourselves since 9/11/2001?
That some hate us and will kill us if they can. And that others among us used that hate, and our own anguish and fear, to push the policy of never-ending war and the rise of the national surveillance state that tracks our every move.
The wars were sold first with revenge, and I have no problem with revenge, especially if it means revenging ourselves on terrorists. They come after us, we'll come after them. To do otherwise is to invite more aggression. And I don't know many Americans who would disagree with me.
But what came afterward was the sin. Perhaps not yours, but definitely mine. I'd bought what the neoconservatives were selling, because I'd forgotten the words of William F. Buckley, who warned us that conservatism was not an ideology.
But the neocons who took over the Republican Party had an ideology. It involved warring with Islam, and projecting American military power, and building democracies in places where such seeds rarely grow. Many of us were stoked on patriotism, and lust for revenge and fear, and I shamefully went along and supported that ridiculous war in Iraq.
How did we ever think we could export democracy to cultures that weren't prepared to receive it? In the Middle East (and in Chicago), there is no sharing of power. You win, you take. You lose, you're out.
Ultimately, the neocons will pay by losing control of the Republican Party as new coalitions form. Now it is the Democrats' turn. After swallowing power, they, too, will list and bloat just as the Republicans have done.
Here's how I see them, establishment Democrats and Republicans: Two statist horns on the head of the same government goat.
But there is hope. Americans got tired of being manipulated, and they recoiled when a desperate and increasingly irrelevant President Barack Obama partnered with neocons to win support for an unnecessary war with Syria. The American people told Congress they wanted no more Middle Eastern adventures.
The war in Iraq was corrosive enough, but there is something else that grew out of the 9/11 attacks. We can go into denial, or laugh it off like the Obama mouthpieces have laughed it off. But that would be bad for our health.
It is the national security state. It presses on our necks, and on our faces as we are recognized by security camera software when we take a walk on a city street. The same technology examines the license plates of our cars, and other techno marvels can track our phone calls, read our email, watch us from our new Xboxes as we play video games, and so on.
And our liberty? That's the currency we used to pay for it.
Fools will play this as a partisan game, but the danger of the national security state is that it isn't run by political hacks. It's run by bureaucrats who prize reason. What they crave is efficiency.
And they are extremely efficient in the way they measure us and watch us and protect us. And all we had to do was forget our history and trade freedom for the promise of protection.
The science fiction stories of my childhood told me that earthlings could not thrive in captivity, but look around and you'll see that we're plump enough. Many of us tell pollsters that we don't "mind" being watched if the watching will protect us from the terrorists.
Young people don't know any other way. Orwell isn't horrifying. It's status quo, right down to the self-censorship of subversive thoughts.
When my boys were little, they'd relive 9/11 by building twin towers of Legos and crashing them to the playroom floor. Years later, they're young men who can't live without their smartphones.
Now there are phones that require you to scan your fingerprints in order to use them. They will be popular.
So what have we given up after 9/11? Answer that one yourselves. It's your country.