On This Day: 11 September 2021, a commemoration in three chapters

Spectres & Souls

This chapter in China Heritage Annual 2021, the theme of which is ‘Specters & Souls — Vignettes, moments and meditations on China and America, 1861-2021’, is reprinted from ‘Max’, Unf*cking the Republic Newsletter, 9/11 2021.

For more about ‘Unf*cking the Republic’, see here. For the podcast recording of this episode, click here.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
11 September 2021

‘Let us not become the evil that we deplore.’

— Barbara Lee, Statement in Opposition to H.J. Res. 64, delivered 14 September 2001


The view from a friend’s apartment. Tribeca, Manhattan, NYC, 11 September 2021



A Story in Three Parts

SUMMARY: Today’s episode is a departure from our normal format. We were tempted to let the 20th anniversary of 9/11 pass given it will be oversaturated with remembrances and armchair punditry as well as the usual tragedy porn imagery. But the impact of 9/11 remains so widespread that it’s impossible to ignore. So, we wanted to add something honest, critical and ultimately hopeful to the mix. This episode contains none of our typical irreverence or profanity, nor do we traffic in speculation or conspiracy. Rather, this is a story of a consequential date in history told in three parts and beginning nearly 50 years ago.

According to Pew Research, 9/11 sits alone atop the list of the most significant moments in American history for Millennials, Gen Xers, Boomers and the Silent Generation. It’s a dubious ranking, of course. But you’re talking about four generations. Two that witnessed the assassinations of JFK and MLK, the moon landing and World War Two. Three that witnessed the tech revolution, fall of the Berlin Wall and the massacre at Columbine. The only other event that reaches across each one of these generations is the election of Barack Obama, a stunning achievement.

But again, alone at the top is 9/11. It changed us all, of this there can be no doubt. How it changed us is up for debate. The causes behind the event, our response to it, the failures and the overwhelming retribution we wrought upon the world at large turned an otherwise isolated moment in time into the most significant world event of our lifetime and there’s another argument to be made that it was the most significant event in the world.

The what ifs are almost unimaginable. What if Bill Clinton had assassinated Osama bin Laden when presented with the opportunity? What if our intelligence community warded off the threat in time? What if Al Gore was president and responded with fervor as he undoubtedly would have done, but not turned it into a multi decade effort to engage in conflict throughout the world? What if, after exacting our revenge, the multi-trillion dollar budget under a self-proclaimed environmentalist president was poured into climate change initiatives instead of the American war machine? These hypotheticals and suppositions are likely to haunt us beyond our lifetimes.

Today we’ll attempt to determine what this date and this event means for us along a spectrum and what it portends for the United States and the world today, on 9/11/2021 – 20 years from when the world stopped turning and 48 years from when our story begins.

Chapter One: September 11th, 1973. 

Weaponizing Espionage

Our story begins not in America but in Chile, far from the purported interests of our national defense in a country separated from its neighbors by the Andes mountains and the Atacama desert. The nation of Chile hugs the western coastline of South America from Peru to Cape Horn. Like every country on the continent, it battled for independence at times from the Spanish colonial superpower and at times from its own neighbors. While a trading partner of the United States with its mineral interests, in particular its copper deposits, it previously enjoyed a position of relative isolation from North American power struggles.

All of that changed with the election of a moderate socialist named Salvador Allende in 1970. Ever fearful of the encroaching influence of communism, Allende’s election came as a surprise to the Nixon administration and would set Chile on a collision course with a new form of American imperialism.

Salvador Allende was born to a middle class family, studied medicine, served in the volunteer army and voraciously consumed the works of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky during his youth. As an activist later in life, he would be imprisoned, help form coalitions between moderate and leftist political groups and eventually enter politics as a moderate socialist. He was a rather popular figure in the country though the elites suspected he harbored radical ideas, especially given his connection and admiration for the revolution in Cuba. But Allende was indeed a true moderate, preferring always to guide his country towards socialism via a constitutional and electoral path rather than revolution.

Allende was a fixture in politics for decades but it wasn’t until the election in 1970 that he was awarded the presidency by a thin margin over more established candidates. Rumors swirled that Allende’s campaign was financed by the Cubans and Russian communist party, though evidence showed that while money did funnel in from these sources, Allende’s party was not the beneficiary.

President Richard Nixon, furious that domestic intelligence did not foresee this victory, established a secret mission, code name Project Track 1, to bribe Chilean cabinet members to not ratify the election, causing the sitting president to step down and forcing a new election, this time with the backing, money and influence of the Americans who weren’t about to allow another Castro scenario in their perceived sphere of influence.

When this effort failed, Nixon called in war criminal Henry Kissinger to create Project Track 2, designed to destabilize the nation and force a military coup. The U.S. plotted with right wing elements of Chile to kidnap the general loyal to Allende’s constitutional and free election, not the man himself. The attempted kidnapping failed when the general didn’t exactly go quietly along with the plot and engaged in a shootout with his would-be assailants.

With both soft plots foiled and no way to outwardly engage the U.S. in yet another quagmire, especially one that literally had no explanation other than we didn’t like the results of the free election in another country, Nixon turned up the economic heat and instigated a disinformation campaign to stoke communist fears and squeeze the Chilean people. The strategy was simple. Apply a tourniquet to the economy and blame communism.

Allende was far from a revolutionary or even a Marxist, for that matter. He was a committed socialist who sought to nationalize key elements of the economy, increase wages for all and lift the rural parts of the country out of poverty with robust social welfare programs. Even his friend and ally Fidel Castro believed that Allende was too peaceful and that force would be needed to institute all of the necessary changes to revolutionize the Chilean economy and society. But that was decidedly not Allende’s style. By all accounts he was a kind, loyal and patient man who sought to transform Chilean society peacefully.

At first, everything appeared to be going Allende’s way. But things would soon change for the worse in Chile and Allende’s grip would begin to loosen as social unrest spiraled out of control.

Despite clear gains in the first year of his administration, external factors along with the likelihood that Allende did too much too soon began to unravel the socialist’s plans. Remember from our Milton Friedman episode that the Nixon administration’s sudden maneuver to end the Bretton Woods agreement, unstable relations with OPEC and the end cycle of expansion post World War II was shaking up the global economic order. In Chile, Allende was partially the victim of terrible timing as a result of these circumstances combined with U.S. sanctions. And as his friend Fidel Castro said, Allende wasn’t the type to meet adversity with force.

Month after month the situation worsened in Chile and Allende found himself isolated with increasing debts, spiraling inflation and the United States holding a gun to the head of anyone who might offer assistance to the troubled Chilean economy. Throughout the summer of 1973, the situation deteriorated even further and the Chilean people were taking to the streets. The Nixon Administration, sensing its moment had arrived, helped coordinate a clandestine mission to aid a military coup to oust Allende and install a new regime under General Augusto Pinochet.

On September 11th, 1973, the moment of truth had finally arrived for Allende. The CIA, with foreign military support, orchestrated the final deadly blow to the Allende administration and changed the course of Chilean history forever.

As the presidential palace was bombed and Pinochet took control of the country, a new era of American imperialism had officially begun. Before he took his own life, with the palace crumbling and gunfire raining in, Salvador Allende uttered his final words to the people of Chile:

“Workers, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Go forward knowing that sooner rather than later avenues will be open along which free men will walk to build a better society. Long live Chile, the people and the workers!”

Apart from the historical coincidence of date, you might be wondering if there’s really a connection here and a reason to explore this moment in time. For me, the historical coincidence is just icing on the cake. I truly believe 9/11/1973 marks a seismic shift in U.S. foreign policy and how we would build a new kind of covert war machine; a war machine that needs to constantly feed.

So why this moment as opposed to the thousands of other aggressive actions perpetrated by the U.S. government? Because it marked the moment that we began to weaponize our clandestine affairs and engage in violent espionage and economic terror.

It was the end of Vietnam. Conscription was over. Americans knew we lost both Korea and Vietnam even if that wasn’t the official line. Economic trouble was brewing and Americans no longer had tolerance for war, let alone losing wars. (But the Cold War was still in full swing and our surveillance apparatus was taking root.)

There was still trust left in the government – remember Nixon was still somewhat popular at this time – but Watergate was gaining momentum and Nixon could ill afford to embroil us in another war.

To be clear, the coup that took Allende’s life and installed General Augusto Pinochet to power was less of a U.S.-backed and orchestrated affair and more of a U.S.-blessed affair. Declassified documents clearly demonstrate U.S. involvement in planning, support and intelligence, but we didn’t attack or directly commit murder. That was the tragically brilliant part of the equation that would inform every administration from Nixon forward.

Under Kissinger, the United States had devised a new model, a cleaner one. Less blood, more money. More brains than brawn. A mixture of classic propaganda, economic sanctions, and tacit military planning and support. Mix them together, keep blowing on the embers, and eventually things will go up in flames.

Despite running a ruthless regime, Pinochet was eventually sidelined by his own democratic reforms and new governments were elected in the 1980s. Of course, he was able to orchestrate his own security by retaining a military role and then eventually moving to the Senate. Despite being brought up on international charges and being tried at home as an old man, Pinochet died in his 90s without ever being fully convicted of brutal crimes against humanity.

The orchestrated murder of government officials during the coup, the disappearance and torture of dissidents, the construction of concentration camps for his enemies. Despite all of it, Pinochet would live a full life unmolested by authority and his past. And some in Chile still view him in a favorable light, something we might have had difficulty understanding prior to electing our own orange strongman. One of the reasons for his popularity is another inflection point that we have covered on UNFTR and that’s the legacy of Milton Friedman.

As I pointed out in the Friedman episode, his personal involvement in Chilean economics has been oversold over the years. Milton Friedman encouraged Chile to establish a free market economy and pursue vigorous deregulation to encourage domestic and foreign investment. And several Chicago School graduates referred to as ‘The Chicago Boys’ did indeed hold meetings with the newly formed Chilean government to guide them in this direction. But Friedman preached this gospel anywhere and everywhere and never professed to be a fan of the dictator or any dictator for that matter. He had one agenda and one agenda only. Free markets.

Remember, as I took great pains to point out, Milton Friedman wasn’t a liar or even a monster. If anything, he was a purist and a nerd. Our point has been that there is an inherent danger in this purity that fails to consider real world issues and realities that derail the free market dogma that he promoted his entire career. Pinochet, under the guidance of the so-called ‘Chicago Boys,’ did implement a number of free market changes that made Chile a viable trading partner of the U.S. and other countries and opened up the capital markets to outside investment.

Of course, the dark side of the free market and other deregulatory efforts led to the inevitable creation of rampant inequality and class struggles. Like most Chicago School experiments, this was the conclusion.

Free markets, deregulation and expansive trade make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It’s always the same. Unemployment and inequality are higher today in Chile than the majority of OECD nations, billionaire wealth is equal to 25 percent of the country’s GDP, and social welfare programs are severely underfunded.

Uncle Milton’s most famous line is, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” With decades of his free market experiments in the rear view, a more appropriate line would now be, “There’s no such thing as a free market.” Greed always wins and perverts the system.

But the lesson for our purposes is that 9/11/1973 paved the way for a new type of economic and covert warfare that helped shape U.S. policy for decades to come. Subsequent U.S. administrations would learn from this example and usher in a new era of Dirty Wars, propaganda campaigns and economic warfare that would upend countries all over the world without having to declare conventional war.

But as our influence grew, the mechanisms of economic warfare matured and the theories of the Chicago School infiltrated the nations of the world, our military didn’t exactly stand idle. The U.S. military would slowly build over the coming decades, constantly in search of the next threat, clearing the way for the economic policy wonks to exert their influence, and waiting for its moment in the sun. 28 years to the day, this time would come in the most unimaginable way.

Chapter Two. September 11th, 2001.

The Crescendo.

It’s true when they say that 9/11/2001 was picture perfect in New York City. As one of the local newscasters infamously said, it’s almost too quiet.

And then it happened. 9/11 happened.

If not for the abundance of footage from that day, it would be a blur. Instead, every second of every minute is now emblazoned in our minds. First, one tower. Then the other one. The Pentagon and other missing flights. The sudden realization that this was not a fluke. It was coordinated. It was war. We were under attack.

Few Americans had ever heard of al-Qaeda. Most would have struggled to identify Afghanistan on a map or refer to the Taliban by name. We were sucked in. Glued to the television and ready to consume whatever we were told as gospel. And we were ready to fight.

For centuries, wars were affairs of nations. Governments waged war on one another in the name of nationalism, religion or unrestrained imperialism. Borders were established and re-established. Conflicts and enmity could last centuries, but every war had a beginning and an end. And there were rules.

In September 2001, America’s understanding of war was forever changed. Our foe was now amorphous. Osama bin Laden had no standing army, no country, no borders to protect and no assets to be taken. There were no sanctions to levy, or threats that mattered.

America was at war with an idea.

The Bush administration – unfit on so many levels to direct the social and economic aspects of governance – was somehow uniquely suited to administer a punishing response to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and all those who would defy America in our pursuit of justice. Judgment Day would be leveled upon our enemies with a medieval ferocity married with modern precision. Of this, we were sure. And not only were we kept abreast of our military response with clarity and immediacy, but we were told how to feel. It was OK to be angry, for ours was a shared tragedy. Our sadness was collective and our resolve singular.

One nation, under God.

In the days immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress gave the Bush administration unprecedented authority to wage full-scale war on terror. On September 14th, 2001 Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), allowing the executive branch to leverage all available military assets to bring to justice combatants deemed responsible or materially supportive of forces associated with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Recall that only Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) voted against the measure in Congress.

AUMF (a) IN GENERAL: That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

It was under this authority that the United States government declared war first in Afghanistan and then Iraq shortly thereafter. It is under this authority as well that the executive branch has carried out everything from covert assassinations to drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It’s under this authority that we continued to bomb countries throughout the world without permission or hesitation. A self-granted authority, illegal in the eyes of any and every international body, though few developed nations would dare question us.

In many ways this authorization simply brought our actions out from behind the curtain. Subsequent updates to this authority changed in seemingly subtle, yet powerful ways. Gradually the language related to 9/11 disappeared and the authorization broadened to anyone suspected of aiding terrorism period. Reprint a portion of a terrorist manifesto? You’re fair game. Inspire terrorist actions by preaching on a street corner somewhere thousands of miles from the homeland and you’re fair game. American citizen joining a movement abroad? Fair game.

The year following the coup in Chile, a Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities – known as the Church Committee after Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho – offered a look inside the inner workings of our clandestine world.

Among the findings: The CIA had varying roles in coups and assassination plots in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Vietnam. And of course, Chile. In the case of the Congo, the committee discovered the agency had plotted to kill its newly elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and although didn’t ultimately do the deed (the Belgians did), had supplied weapons and money to help it along, originally planning to poison the leader.

The committee also shed light on just how high up the chain of command these orders came, revealing a concept called “plausible deniability,” meaning the president and other officials with authority to pull the trigger on such activities could know without knowing about them and escape blame.

The Church Committee also discovered widespread domestic surveillance operations by the CIA, including the mass photographing and/or opening and resealing of citizens’ mail without even the U.S. Postal Service’s knowledge.

Our intelligence agencies would meddle in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, South and Central America, anywhere we saw fit to frustrate a nation state that didn’t play by our rules. Reagan carried out covert affairs all throughout his term, particularly in the southern hemisphere. George H.W. Bush brought us into the Gulf War. Clinton went into Bosnia and Somalia.

All of this occurred before 9/11. This behavior was already the way of the U.S. but it was done in secret. The Church Committee exposed our clandestine ways and yet nothing changed. Post-9/11 we didn’t just invent widespread surveillance and begin overthrowing nations. We just brought these programs into the light and gave them all the necessary funding to grow into an autonomous being. A war machine the likes of which the world has never seen.

Intercept co-founder, investigative reporter, author and host of Intercepted, Jeremy Scahill, produced two incredibly detailed and horrifying books on the post-9/11 buildup of private mercenary armies and the massive, coordinated surveillance state. In Blackwater and Dirty Wars, Scahill details the crucial building blocks of secret authority, backroom deals with shady figures like Erik Prince, covert ops and cover ups in more countries than one could count. The loss of civil liberties at home combined with a war on whistleblowers and journalists during the Obama years chilled speech to a terrifying degree, and created a dearth of credible foreign affairs reporting.

Our 9/11 didn’t just usher in the War on Terror. It ushered in a wave of domestic surveillance and crushing violations of our civil liberties. The AUMF, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and all subsequent iterations of it, The Patriot Act. The war on whistleblowers and journalists. This growing distrust in our nation’s media was state sanctioned.

The Obama administration in particular attacked the most credible of news sources and chilled speech in a way even Nixon wouldn’t have imagined possible. But he got away with it because he was the darling of the center. After all, his election was the second most important event to every living generation, right? This provided a unique cover to the most coordinated attack on American journalism. It’s little wonder Donald Trump was able to build upon this distrust of the media. The news might not be “fake,” but it’s certainly watered down.

The only information we seemed able to trust as a nation was anything related to the War on Terror. On this there was consensus. Chris Hedges was fired from the Times for questioning the war in Iraq. Phil Donahue was excommunicated from television for doing the same. If a newscaster refused to wear a flag pin, they were shunned and demoted. Only one narrative related to terrorism was allowed to persist even though since 9/11, the largest known group of terrorists in the United States that have committed more acts of aggression, lone wolf and coordinated attacks on U.S. soil are white nationalists.

I’m confident there are cells of terrorist groups around the world that, given the opportunity, funding and wherewithal, would do everything in their power to crush the United States. So the point is not to infer that we live in a world without discernible threats. To the contrary, our behavior has been so awful that I’m confident these threats are ever-present and growing.

The point is to demonstrate that we gave the military industrial complex an inch and they took the world. What started as an assault on our homeland has turned into a license to print money and defense contracts, run roughshod over all international norms and laws and silence critics of such behavior domestically.

The War on Terror turned the United States into the biggest terrorism organization on the planet.

Chapter Three. September 11th, 2021.

What happens now?

This is being released on 9/11/2021. 20 years from the event that four generations list at the most important event of their lifetimes. 48 years from the moment we figured out how to coalesce our economic, military and covert strengths into a formula that would change the balance of power in the world forever. And it’s the first 9/11 in my lifetime that we have not – technically – been engaged in a defined conflict.

Oh, I know there are covert operations happening abroad. I know the government surveillance apparatus is hard at work as always. And that the military stands at the ready to provide air support in Syria, launch targeted drone strikes in Somalia and we’re still strangling the economies of several nations around the world. But for practical purposes, right now, this moment is the first moment in decades that we are technically and by our own warped standards, in peacetime.


It’s an almost impossible concept. Peace. What does that even mean? Since World War II we have been the most belligerent and bellicose nation on Earth. But since Biden clumsily ripped off the bandaid from our longest engagement, in the final surge of a global pandemic and on the heels of the turbulent and chaotic Trump years, we find ourselves in a moment of silence.

In this silence, perhaps now we can contemplate our future and our place in the world. The Tony Blinkens of the administration will try to divert our attention to China and the neocons in D.C. will attempt to manufacture crises somewhere, anywhere to remind us of our precious freedoms. Will we see it coming? Will our media take this time to reflect on their role in our aggression for the past 70 years? Will we have an honest dialogue about how these past chapters have defined us as a nation for longer than anyone can remember? I don’t know.

But there’s one actor who hasn’t been silent of late. A force bigger than us all that is sending loud and violent messages with increasing frequency. And that’s Mother Nature. Not to get too hippie dippy on everyone, but there’s a larger battle that must be waged and it’s one that we’re wholly unprepared for.

As you know from our most recent episodes, I’m obsessed with the fact that no one seems to be addressing that fact that 20 years ago on this day, the military budget was $300 billion and today it’s $750 billion a year and projected to steadily grow for the next 10 years.

What exactly are we prepared for? Where will this money go? One theory is that we are indeed preparing for climate change but not in the way one might hope or expect.

In the coming months we’re going to look at the impact and economics of climate change. We’re going to talk about our colonialist tendencies, the future of the global economy and what mass migration will mean.

We’ll address how the Pentagon has literally been modeling all of these factors since the early ‘90s and how, long ago, it made the bet that much of the planet is beyond saving. And we’ll posit the theory that perhaps this is what we’re saving for. That this is the war they’ve been preparing for all along; a war of survival against the elements and one that is, as usual, of our own doing and by our own hands.

This is the next chapter. The aftermath. What comes next depends upon you, me, all of us if we can only focus on what matters in this ever so brief moment of silence.

“Go forward knowing that sooner rather than later avenues will be open along which free men will walk to build a better society.”

These final words uttered by Salvador Allende who refused to yield to the coup and instead determined he would die for the plight of the poor and working class of Chile still resonate today, 48 years later. What remains to be answered is whether we as a nation are prepared to honestly reflect in this brief silence and chart a path forward to a more equitable future that honors the dead, protects the living and preserves our mother.

As we leave one another right now, and before we come back together in a week, take the next few minutes in silence to get centered and reflect because there’s a great deal of work ahead as we co-author the next chapter.

Here endeth the lesson. Here we begin again.


Book Love

Pod Love