I don't remember what time the email came. It was from Buzzflash, and the subject line said something like "Breaking News: Plane Hits World Trade Center".
I knew watching that the world had changed. Not in the sense that people who say 9/11 Changed Everything mean it. In the sense that there were now going to be people--a lot of people, at first, as the shock wore off--going around saying "9/11 Changed everything". And that what that would engender was not going to be good unless you were a defense contractor.
I also knew that some day we'd revisit what we'd done, and when we did it wouldn't be on a timetable we dictated. That's just common sense. I had no idea it would come around so soon.
There was no use arguing the manichean reaction. Our enemies see the world exactly as we do just reversed. Our enemies understand that free enterprise and representative government are the best possible systems, but they desire the worst. They hate us for our freedoms, after all.
Such an attitude can't be pulled off without insisting that those Americans who believe that the worst excesses of capitalism are something civilized people should be protected from, or who imagine that being buried under tons of crappy disposable merchandise is not the next thing to Paradise are in fact not real Americans at all. Andrew Sullivan was hunting fifth columnists before the fires were out. And he's from the rationalist wing. It was clear that we meant to have our revenge, that revenge meant people were going to die, and that we weren't too particular about who.
There's no use being a voice of moderation in the middle of an angry mob. The only place that'll work is out in front. In this we were doubly cursed, and not just because we had no idea whether that position was being fillied by a twisted psychopathic liar or the pee-puppy titular Commander so far out of his league they had to design standing ovations into his first address to Congress like he was a second-grade violinist butchering "Greensleeves" at a school recital. Any US President, however deep his understanding, would have been hard-pressed to resist the cries of War! In the era of modern (that is, post-Napoleonic) warfare the United States has been blessed by two of the greatest political leaders, and they both made serious blunders while playing to public bellicosity. And this time the Law of Averages had returned, looking to settle the score in spades. The a) Bush b) Cheney administration wasted no time in proclaiming the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks "an act of War!" Well, a small amount of time was wasted physically extracting George W. Bush from the well of his desk, but otherwise...
We have no idea whether the dire warnings of an imminent Taliban offensive are accurate. This is, after all, military intelligence, what the noted philosopher Rocket J. Squirrel once referred to as a Contradiction in Terms. But if not this Spring, then the next, or the next. What is plain now is that, had we been able to act like rational people then, we wouldn't be in these straits now. Is there anyone left to argue that the Hell-for-Leather attack on Afghanistan achieved something that wouldn't have been achieved otherwise? Remember, we didn't accuse the Taliban of complicity in 9/11, only of harboring al-Qaeda, and our response was to demand that they cede their sovereignty to us and hand over people we said were guilty, and all Before Sundown, Pardner. We wouldn't have done so ourselves, mutatis mutandis, to the Israelis, let alone the Afghans.
The point of all this, which was conveniently ignored if not actively disputed, was not that one should observe all the niceties of international diplomacy out of some sense of propriety. It was that five seconds after the first-round bell is too soon to start swinging from the heels, regardless of how much you outweigh the other guy. No one can say whether international pressure could have caused the Taliban to turn over bin Laden. All we can say at this point is that the opposite approach sure didn't get the job done. Haste caused us to grant far too much for Musharraf's cooperation, which, not surprisingly, did not seem to extend to committing political suicide in order to serve us up a heaping bowlful of al-Qaeda. We stuck our noses into the most dangerous potential conventional nuclear confrontation on the planet (on China's doorstep, no less), which we had to resolve (if that) by rewarding India for failing to sign the Non-Proliferation treaty.
I guess we should all be thankful that the government of Pakistan is so stable.
Every month's "delay" in 2001-02 would be one more month's rest for what's now left of US ground forces, one less month's worth of junked equipment, one less month's worth of disabled GIs being strongarmed for reporting appalling hospital conditions to the press. (Throw in, if you wish, that after four years of horseshit about the Clinton administration and North Korea we eventually forced ourselves to make essentially the same deal but from a position of weakness.) But we were the aggrieved party, and we were going to show the world who the superpower was.
Honestly, I have no idea whether or how long a President could have been held off the demand for action, for A Military Response. But it should be remembered, every now and then (like whenever further disaster looms). that it's not just the Bush administration or the neocon cabal which is responsible for the false sense of invincibility and the smug perpetual rightness of our every act, and the mess that landed us in.