My tiny claim to Sept. 11 fame is that I shared the horror of the crime with Margaret Atwood (I hope you know who I mean). We both happened to be at Toronto airport for an early flight to New York when we saw the first tower hit and, as longtime acquaintances, we hung together glued to the TV until the second crash made clear we weren’t going anywhere that day. The day, as the cliché now insists, that changed everything. Maybe it’s really true.

Of the million stories that reflect the world since that moment, here’s the one I find most revealing. As a direct result of toiling in the ruins of the twin towers, many New York firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers became seriously ill, some terminally. These “first responders” have been lauded to the hills for their heroism, often in the most cringe-worthy manner by craven political opportunists. Saints, they were, saints, my dears, and we’ll never ever forget their sacrifices.

Late last year, the American government proposed a bill to provide funding to aid these damaged saints. A no-brainer, eh? Not in post-9/11 America. In fact the Republican members of Congress united to oppose such funding unless the tax cuts George Bush had gifted to the top 2 per cent of Americans were extended. Only when they were shamed publicly by Jon Stewart did the Republicans finally relent. But fear not. They of course won those continuing gifts to the filthy rich when President Barack Obama caved on raising America’s credit limit.

Writ small, this is the history of the post-9/11 world in the United States, in Canada, in Britain, and wherever else business interests and conservative politicians have been able to have their way with us — us being the vast majority of the world’s population.

In the aftermath of 9/11, George Bush liked to hear himself say that the terrorists were motivated by their hatred for America’s freedoms, for the American way of life, and not of course by brutal American policies in the Middle East. So how to retaliate? Easy peasy. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Shopping, Mr. Bush inspirationally declared, was exactly the best revenge. But if you’re laid off or can’t pay your mortgage or on minimum wage or your wages are being squeezed and your pension cut and your union broken and social services slashed — all goals American conservatives set decades ago, now ramped up after 9/11 — well, it kind of limits your purchasing power.

Yet at the same time, Mr. Bush told good guys everywhere that what we all needed to do after 9/11 was to accept “shared sacrifices” in the deadly battle to combat terrorism. Some sacrifices. Some sharing. In fact, what Mr. Bush and his allies did was to escalate a class war on both the economic and the culture front. Conveniently enough, the same cabal of extremist billionaires are funding both flanks of this two-front war. The upshot is that never before have so few sacrificed so little while so many have paid the price, led by those who died — both as fighters and as victims — of the wars that Bush and Co. launched or incited.

As it happens, when American and Canadian soldiers returned from these distant battlefields physically or psychologically maimed, despite their never-to-be-forgotten sacrifices their governments promptly forgot them. The result in both countries was a shocking scandal of neglect that hardly anyone ever heard of.

What was needed after 9/11, as all agreed, was unity of purpose against the evildoers. So conservatives intensified the culture wars, bitterly dividing people as rarely before. For them, gun laws are slavery, gays are sinners, same-sex marriage is the devil’s work, Jesus saves, Muslims are terrorists, abortion is immoral, immigrants are hounded, law ‘n order is the permanent priority, the United Nations is subversive, feminism is a menace, global warning is a delusion, evolution is sacrilegious, liberalism is anti-American, and Mr. Obama is an African Muslim Hitlerite commie.

As for the economic class war, it’s the universe exposed by Naomi Klein’s revelatory book, The Shock Doctrine — the story of how America’s “free market” policies have come to dominate much of the world through the exploitation of people and countries destabilized by recent disasters. What might have appeared to be isolated incidents, Ms. Klein showed to be a carefully calculated pattern:

“At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves. …. Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the ‘War on Terror’ to Halliburton and Blackwater. … After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts. … New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened.”

Let’s add Haiti, where last year’s earthquake led to an immediate push for more North American-owned factories paying the below-subsistence minimum wage the United States had forced on Haitian governments. Add too the catastrophic economic collapse engineered by the geniuses of Wall Street, enriching themselves beyond the dreams of avarice while crushing everyone else. Not to mention the shameless pressure for even more deregulation of the kind that enabled the meltdown.

Throw in the latest elite consensus, backed by most mainstream media, of the urgent need for austerity on the part of those already hurt most by the tough times, while the filthy rich don’t know what to do with their ludicrous fortunes. In France, Hermes, the luxury fashion house, can’t produce enough of their $800 scarves and $10,000 purses to meet demand. Maybe it’s because Posh Beckham has scooped up 100 Hermes Birkin bags that cost well over $2-million. The austerity! The austerity!

The objective of the economic class war has always been simplicity itself: inequality, the greater the better. And it’s working like a charm. In the United States, and to a growing extent in Canada, it is now politically impossible ever to discuss the need to raise taxes, even on the filthy rich, in order to sustain any kind of positive government.

As explained by the iconoclastic Warren Buffet, the third richest man in world: “Our leaders have asked for ‘shared sacrifice.’ But when they did the asking, they spared me. … While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks … [from] a billionaire-friendly Congress.” Last year Mr. Buffet’s taxes amounted to 17.4 per cent of his vast taxable income, a lower rate than any of his employees, including even his secretary, all of whom paid double that amount or more.

Ten years after the trauma of 9/11, the richest 1 per cent of American households earn as much as the bottom 60 per cent and have as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent. But you ain’t seen nothing yet. Combine low taxes with tax credits, tax havens and tax loopholes, and you’ll come upon a capitalist nirvana where many of the largest corporations pay no taxes at all and where, according to estimates by the Tax Justice Network, trillions of corporate dollars are hidden away, costing perhaps a quarter of a trillion dollars in foregone taxes. No prizes for guessing where it goes instead of to the public good.

There are more filthy rich folks now than at any other moment in history and they’re leveraging their astounding wealth to make sure they get filthier at the expense of the rest of us, still of course the vast majority. What is true of America is equally true of Britain and increasingly true of Canada. While the middle class shrinks, the working class slips backwards and social mobility erodes, the rich buy themselves politicians, lobbyists, legal beagles, slick accountants, “trained economists,” television networks, “think” tanks and whatever other apparatus is needed to make them even richer. Their success surpasses even the most piggish of expectations.

Osama bin Laden inflicted a terrible crime on the American people. America’s elites and their allies have done the rest.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...