Greatness. Apparently some nations are born to it, others achieve it, while others thrust it away from themselves at the first opportunity.
So far as I can determine, the second category is a fair enough description of the United States in 1941. The third is a not inapt description of its weak, vainglorious grandchild 60 years later. Indeed, as I do my poor best to recall the America of 2001, what comes to mind is a country (or was it rather a wholly new, POST-Western civilization?) zealous to embrace every challenge except those involving its own real security. For one thing, and try as I may, I'm simply unable to grasp just how one manages the defense of an entire country chiefly upon the good faith and sound character of its cronies and capitalists. Surely national security, in its widest and most permanent meaning, has always been an affair not just of the well-connected - or even of "experts" and professionalized elites - but of the whole Nation?
Then again, just what sort of security challenges did America face at the turn of the millennium? Certainly our most immediately deadly enemies were elusive, insidious, infectious enough. That societal disease which I think we now most accurately call jihadism was nothing to trifle with; at very least it was determined to speed the collapse of what it presumed to be the hollow, rotten edifice of American and Western life. But note how small in scale these challenges might have appeared, how slice-and-diceable, how utterly manageable - perhaps even containable? - had we but tried to approach them with the right sort of national resoluteness and cohesion. After all, in one very practical sense an attack on everybody is also everybody's fight. And seldom, it seems to me, in the history of any country had there been one occasion so richly capable of bringing out the best in every kind, level and class of citizen. That is, had we but cared to educate and motivate our people even half as well for citizenship as we'd been doing for entrepreneurship. (Then again we had an entire globe to compete with. And apparently repeated studies had shown how weak and futile, as sentiments go, was American love of country when matched against Chinese pride of civilization. Just kidding.)
It should also be remembered that in 2001, despite the shame of Enron and kindred debacles, we Americans were near the peak of a kind of economic high. One that, admittedly, carried far more weight in the realms of emotion and ideology than on the scale of any really hard, verifiable numbers. At the same time any pinnacle, real or imagined, from which a nation feels itself on top of the world can be an awkward perch to come down from. And I suspect the sad truth is that America c. 2000 was so busy choking on its own self-infatuation (remember how we and China were going to rewrite economic history? - or at least so ran the subtext) that it was in no good place to meet existential challenges of any kind. As distinct, I mean, from the all-important economic ones.
So let's take some inventory. On the face of it we had, in the wake of 9/11, an unparalleled opportunity to be Americans; we chose instead to be ever more vindictive Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and collectivists, sham liberals and pseudo-conservatives, phony socialists and crony capitalists. Most urgently we all, for one reason or another, in one degree or another, chose to be corporatists. In the face of a uniquely savage assault on the very bedrock of human dignity everywhere, one might think we had an unprecedented opportunity to cherish, conserve, develop and maximize the potential of our Deity's most precious creaturely gift: ourselves and each other. Instead we chose to deify the organizational works of our heads and hands. We had a rare chance to remind some of our most productive, enterprising countrymen and -women that they too were Americans and citizens, and not just global producers and distributors; that they actually had families and neighborhoods, and not just colleagues and clients; that they themselves had bodies and souls - even their own! - to manage, and not just capital and overhead. Instead we encouraged how many of our employers, both corporate and non-corporate, both profiting and not-for-profit, to become a Thing so far removed from the root meaning of corporation, it was, if anything, more like an anti-body, an anti-Church, in which not only was eye telling ear, but head was constantly reminding just about every member, faculty, organ and cell: "I do not NEED you." (And no doubt there is something highly exhilarating - at least to our nasty, hardened, shriveled flesh - in having the "freedom" to say that.)
Lastly, considering we faced an enemy on the one hand so utterly new, antithetical and total, and on the other so non-expert, so wholly civilian and amateur and makeshift, you'd think an imaginative response might have found scope for every sort of talent, and a place for just about every hand on deck. Whereas instead what did we do? We told the overwhelming bulk of the ship's crew to go shopping.
And boy did we ever.