Don't believe T.S. Eliot. Bloody September is the cruelest month, not deceitful April.
It should come as no particular surprise that it was in September that American fatalities in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark, terrorists shot down fleeing schoolchildren in Russia and Americans prepared to memorialize for the third time their greatest single day of national horror. The calendar reserves supremely dark moments for its ninth month.
September 1939 wrenched the globe from its hinges with a world war. A bitter internal fight between Jordanians and Palestinians 34 years ago this month gave birth to the "Black September" movement, which launched the media-centered techniques of mass terrorism perfected by al Qaeda and its allies. This year Fallujah and Beslan have joined the World Trade Center as sites of eternal infamy and instant death.
Calendars no more than poets obey or study geopolitics and the grand strategies of the State Department and Pentagon. Stalin would no doubt want to know how many divisions Eliot commanded, before unsentimentally reminding Americans that when one man dies it is a tragedy, but when thousands die it is a statistic.
The 1948 Nobel laureate nonetheless created a useful framework for thinking differently about this somber moment, when menace and abiding sorrow stalk Americans gathered around their emotional Ground Zero. Eliot saw through April's falseness. Our task is to see through -- and overcome -- September's cumulative gloom and anguish.
In poetic terms, September delivers the vengeance and human suffering that April conceals in Eliot's "The Wasteland," where spring rains stir dull roots and inspire hope as false as lilacs springing from dead land, as unreliable as memory mixing with desire.
April, 17 months ago, was a moment of such illusion. Quick combat victories in Baghdad set the stage for the 1,000 and more American fatalities to come, many of them at the hands of Baathist fighters who went underground with funds and weapons rather than resist the American war machine out in the open.
Not even America's well-funded intelligence agencies could see this September from the vantage point of that April. They did not predict the insurgency that has taken over towns throughout the Sunni heartland for use as bases to spread terror. The mistakes of April have brought greater-than-needed sacrifices and suffering in September in a liberation that has gone awry.
It is especially hard for spies, generals and policymakers to reexamine, recognize and correct mistakes and assumptions as the U.S. presidential campaign roars into full fury: The incumbent is unable to allow himself to consider -- much less admit -- error. The challenger is unable to see anything but error on his foe's part. September's final small cruelty is to lock the candidates and those who work for them into imaginary omniscience until Nov. 2.
The third anniversary of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, provides Americans a moment not only to mourn but also to reflect on the strengths the nation has shown since that day of horror and to see beyond September's hard challenges. The words not of a poet or a politician but of the nation's most powerful and distinguished economist help do that.
Testifying before the House Budget Committee last week, Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, was asked about the economic effect of Sept. 11 and what could be done to minimize damage from future attacks. We have already done much of it, Greenspan replied.
"What helped us during that period and immediately thereafter was an extraordinary amount of flexibility in both our financial and product and labor markets. We had the ability to absorb shocks and rebound," Greenspan said.
"I think we did that inadvertently; we didn't do it as a part of an antiterrorism economic policy," he continued. Over two decades "we lowered our tariffs, we increased globalization, we deregulated the airlines," as technology changed the workplace and markets. The specific actions he listed, whatever their relative merits, are far less important than his analysis of the U.S. economy and the way cohesive societies respond to crisis from the bottom up.
"All of those things, while not directed at the issue of terrorism per se," brought a flexibility to the American economy, which "is based on voluntary actions of people acting largely on bilateral trust." Terrorism "induces fear and withdrawal" from economic activity, Greenspan added. He cited protectionism and the "calcification" of the international economy as potential damaging consequences of terrorist acts.
Terrorists aim to extinguish the hope and the trust of the citizens and nations they attack. How and why they failed in America three years ago shines through Greenspan's words, which are a wise guide through the September sorrows.