Excuses, excuses

Via the Slate Gabfest on Facebook: a great long profile of Andrew Sullivan. I started reading the Daily Dish regularly during the presidential campaign last fall, and I still check it multiple times a week; I can identify with Sullivan’s attempts to reconcile his (apparent) internal contradictions. What struck me, though, was the piece’s account of what you might call Sullivan’s “neoconservative period,” his reaction to the attacks of 11 September, 2001:

“I experienced 9/11 very personally,” he says. “The jihadists attacked my dream, my place—I felt like I had been beaten or raped. I succumbed to the fear a lot of us felt—panic really—about this country being in mortal danger. And neoconservatism seemed like the only ideology on the shelf with a plan for how to react immediately, and I turned to it.”

Having voted for George Bush in 2000, he now became one of his most militant supporters, urging him to invade not just Afghanistan but Iraq, in charged and extreme language. His blog posts from that time are quite startling to read now—more expressions of rage and grief than political analysis.

Sullivan is hardly the only person in American politics who reacted like this. (I recall just about falling out of my chair when a commentator on NPR proposed that a nuclear strike would be a good response to the destruction of the World Trade Center.) And Sullivan has clearly come to his senses and now strongly repudiates the positions he took during that period.

But all that said, I’m tired of this narrative about post-9/11 panic. It feels like excuse-making, and it implies that the near-immediate search for a retaliatory target and the fearmongering push for the invasion of Iraq were natural, understandable responses to the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. You know what? They weren’t. Panic and fear and anger may be natural, but acting on them is stupid. If we haven’t learned that lesson from the Bush Administration, then we’ll almost certainly repeat the same mistakes in the aftermath of the next terrorist attack on U.S. soil. And I’ll be frank — the prospect of re-making those mistakes scares me more than whatever that attack may turn out to be.