Last Days of Rome

August, 2001

They were, truly, the dog days. Me, living in a shack behind a shack on the Jersey Shore, commuting to the city 80 miles away, deeply regretting my decision three months earlier, upon the collapse of my marriage, to “do what I always wanted to do and get a beach house.” The country, as insular as ever, had nothing to fear but fear itself – that, and “killer sharks,” which cable news outlets, including MSNBC, the one I worked for at the time, portrayed as menacing anyone within 50 miles of the Atlantic seaboard.

It was a miserable time to be an international editor – my job at the time. World News simply was not in fashion, and as the Cold War faded into memory, almost in direct proportion, the country’s appetite to know what went on “over there” shrunk. In those days, I used to jokingly tell friends, being a foreign expert at an American television network was like being the head of the womens’ studies program at the Virginia Military Institute.

In Washington, weightier matters held sway. A congressional intern named Chandra Levy had been murdered; the new president, on vacation, spent the month “clearing brush’ at his Crawford, Texas ranch. Tim McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was executed; quintuplets had been born; the first Bush tax cut caused the CBO to drastically reduce its estimate of the budget surplus (yes, surplus).

Then, BOOM!

It pissed me off, I must say. As a witness, a friend and relative of some of the dead, but mostly as one of the small handful of people in this great, imbeccilic land who know what OBL stood for, it pissed me off. People ran around asking “Why Do They Hate Us?” Newsweek ran an excellent answer (penned by Fahreed Zakaria). But some of us – Fahreed included — knew it well before 9/11.

At the turn of the 21st century, America was uniquely ill-equipped to answer a question like that. In the election of 2000, before 9/11, Bush won the presidency in part by criticizing the amount of time his predecessor in the “Clinton-Gore administration” had spent on world affairs — as if airstrikes in Bosnia and Kosovo were just too much to bear. “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us,” he said in a debate with Al Gore less than a year before the attacks. Deeply ironic in retrospect, Bush had, in fact, channeled the zeitgeist.

During the late 1990s, following the suicide bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, my NBC News colleague Robert Windrem and I agitated internally for more coverage of Osama bin Laden, who was regularly threatening to strike at the United States in his rambling video releases. Yet we confronted enormous resistance to this idea at the time; Americans simply wanted to enjoy their millennial prosperity. In the summer of 2001, as 19 Arab men infiltrated the United States and prepared to hijack four airliners, citizens of the greatest power in history were engrossed by the salacious Chandra Levy case, Windrem and I were ridiculed for pushing the “downer” topic of some far-off Islamic zealot. The head of NBC Nightly News at the time, David Doss, referred to my friend derisively behind his back as “Robert bin Windrem.”

An editor at called me a “war monger” for writing a column about bin Laden and the Taliban in late 1999 that asked, “what order of atrocity will it take for these great powers to put aside their differences and act together against the Taliban and the threat it nurtures. Would the destruction of the Seattle Space Needle have been enough? It’s hard to say.”

After pitching a story about bin Laden’s role in helping the African embassy bombers to return to Pakistan and elude justice, Phil Griffin, then a senior producer at MSNBC, bluntly said no.  “Unless bin Laden is training killer sharks to attack young American girls in Florida, our viewers aren’t interested.” Like Bush, Griffin, now president of MSNBC, was dead right about what Americans cared about.

Looking back 10 years, now, surveying the disastrous miscalculations that followed 9/11 again and again, it is deeply depressing to imagine what could have been. We remain on the wrong side in many ways — tied to the Saudis and Pakistanis, and missed the golden opportunity to confront that perversion once and for all in 2001. We attacked the wrong country in 2003 and we’re still stuck in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as the most recent surge of violence in both places show. We’ve given India, Brazil, Indonesia and other up and coming powers no reason to want to get too close, and even some of our friends – the Turks, the Japanese, the Germans – are hedging their bets.

To top it off, we destroyed whatever semblance of an argument for American leadership survived the Iraq-WMD debacle by pushing a version of market fundamentalism that nearly destroyed the global economy.

We’re a diminished brand with a potential growth rate deeply compromised by our own insularity, short-term thinking and arrogance. So yeah, ten years later, I’m still pretty pissed.


One Response to “August, 2001”