Soccer, Syria, strength and 9/11


For a time, it looked bleak for America -- just a shot or two away from going down. But then the United States dusted itself off and got to work. For extended periods of time, an entire nation -- a polyglot bunch of call-ups, heavy on immigrants and second-generation citizens -- battled together as a team. They showed resourcefulness and creativity, punctuated by superior speed and strength. When it was all over and darkness had descended on the heartland, America was victorious.

What I just wrote had nothing to do with the 12th anniversary of 9/11 -- and maybe everything to do with it. What it actually describes was Tuesday night's riveting and emotional 2-0 (Dos a Cero!) win over Mexico by the U.S. men's national soccer team, clinching a 7tth consecutive appearance for the Yanks in civilization's premier sporting event, the World Cup. The world of what the rest of the world calls football was once a lost planet for us. It was just a generation ago that the U.S, could not beat tiny Caribbean islands to qualify for the Cup finals. But the Americans were smart to focus on the areas of soccer where they could do well -- speed and conditioning, for example -- and to look outside for help when needed it, reaching new highs this year with a German legend of the sport, Jurgen Klinsmann, as their coach.

The U.S. soccer team isn't the best on earth, not yet, and it would truly be a Miracle on Grass if they came home from Brazil with the trophy. But they went from nothing to become a competitor on the world stage. I would not call that a metaphor for American greatness -- because it's more than a metaphor. In an era when the likes of Sarah Palin have created a false idol of "American exceptionalism" -- that God granted the United States most favored nation status simply for showing up -- it is one more example of Americans working together to do an exceptional thing. That's a matter of things like hard work -- and patience.

It's hard to talk about America in the post-9/11 era without breaking it down. First, there was what happened on the this date 12 years ago, which was beyond horrific, and beyond evil. Osama bin Laden and his minions committed the greatest sin known to mankind; they killed innocent people -- secretaries and firefighters, cops and stockbrokers -- in a shallow bid for power masked by fanaticism. But then there is the response to 9/11, and things get more complicated. Here, too, there was so much good, not just the bravery of the first responders but the everyday patriotism of citizens, even our warm embrace from much of the rest of the world. But a lot of the response to 9/11 was flubbed, mainly by our leaders...but not solely by them.

I have written frequently, because it haunts me so, of my dismay at the way that my own newspaper, the Philadelphia Daily News, responded to 9/11, with a front page that screamed "Blood For Blood" and with an editorial that stated: "Revenge. Hold that thought." It's a perfectly normal reaction -- and one that a nation striving to be exceptional puts aside in a box. Instead, we had leaders who milked it. There were a lot of thoughts to hold onto on the morning of September 12, 2001. Justice...which is not at all the same thing as revenge. And making sure it never happened again.

But holding onto "revenge" persuaded America to ultimately invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 -- even as U.S. soldiers in Iraq claimed they were there to avenge what went down at the World Trade Center. It wasn't the only flubbing of the 9/11 response, not by a longshot. Unprecedented spying on Americans, the militarization of domestic police forces, and other assaults on civil liberties, all justified by that one strike on U.S. soil. The small-mindedness of so much of this was all too reminiscent of how other great nations have fallen in the past. In other words, not exceptional at all.

So it was kind of a weird lining-up of the cosmos (soccer pun mildly intended) when President Obama announced right in the middle of the big soccer match that -- at least for now -- the U.S. would pursue a diplomatic solution rather than a military strike as the preferred strategy to end the crisis of chemical weapons in Syria. It would be easy to focus -- as so many in the always clueless Beltway punditocracy have done -- on the blundering way that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry got to this point, and, yeah, sure, it might have been better if the U.S. had been out front on the smarter, saner diplomatic approach from Day One.

But America still has too many politicians and pundits who haven't learned the lessons of 9/11. That what matters is the outcome, not your cowboy swagger or lack of swagger in reaching it. Think how much better the world would be if we had just focused on removing bin Laden and the active members of al-Qaeda, without all the petty baloney like Iraq or the Patriot Act. Lobbing cruise missiles at Syria would have been just as dumb. Diplomacy takes a lot more strength than pushing the joystick of a flying death robot. And knowing that revenge is a dish best thrown in the dumpster out back -- now that is exceptional, America.

September 11, 2001 was one of the most terrible days in American history, but September 10, 2013 was one of the  better ones -- partly because we won a soccer game, but mainly because we had a free and open national debate over going to war, and war lost, for now, on the merits. Don't call it a comeback, but it felt like America was definitely on the right track.

Patience and strength 2, Small-mindedness, 0. Dos a Cero.