The most crucial lesson

Seated at my desk at work with CNN playing numbingly in the background, it was just another autumn Tuesday morning in Houston.  Finally, it soaked in that they were saying a commercial jetliner had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York—where we had been on a vacation weekend just 15 months earlier—and my reaction was to think, that’s crazy: those buildings are near the flight paths to the New York City-area airports, sure, but the pilots are too good at what they do to make that kind of mistake on a bright, cloudless morning.  Must have been a small private plane, with an amateur pilot who got confused.

It never occurred to me that someone would fly a plane into the building on purpose, until I saw what was clearly a passenger jet get lined up and plow right into the middle of the other tower.

We were sent home from work soon after that, so I sat in front of my TV for the rest of the day watching the history.  Riveted.  Fascinated.  Helpless.


We love anniversaries that come in numbers ending in zero and five, ascribe to them some extra significance, and today is just that way.  There’s no shortage of think pieces out there taking a stab at explaining what we’ve learned about ourselves in the last 20 years, or what we have failed to learn in that time.  There are the first-person memories of being in New York and seeing it happen…or of being inside the towers as they were struck, and shook, and caught fire, and what it was like to save your own life as you joined thousands of others trying to get outside before it was too late.   And then seeing what was out there.  And ultimately, seeing those buildings collapse on themselves.  NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson was the commander of the International Space Station on that day, and he took this picture as they flew above Lower Manhattan just about the time the second tower fell.

iss003e5387_full

Ironically, Culbertson was a Naval Academy classmate, and friend, of Chic Burlingame, who was the captain of the flight that was hijacked that day and crashed into the Pentagon.


America’s war in Afghanistan started as a direct response to the attacks that happened 20 years ago today.  We went after Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, and the whole world was on our side: no one questioned the righteousness of the U.S. decision to retaliate against the people behind these unprovoked attacks.  Hell, the rest of the world helped: it was the only time in its existence that NATO invoked the collective defense clause of the treaty.  It took nearly ten full years before Navy SEALs located the Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan and took him out, and ten more years after that before the last American military forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan.

We took our revenge, as we should.  But it still doesn’t feel like we made the best use of the 20 years to understand why the terrorists attacked us in the first place, or to learn how to treat the rest of the world in a way that would make the most dangerous people out there hate us less and be less inclined to attack us.  And meanwhile, America has become a more dangerous place.

Instead of a new order, 9/11…gave rise to the angry, aggrieved, self-proclaimed patriot, and heightened surveillance and suspicion in the name of common defense.

(snip)

In shock from the assault, a swath of American society embraced the us vs. them binary outlook articulated by [President George W.] Bush — “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” — and has never let go of it.

You could hear it in the country songs and talk radio, and during presidential campaigns, offering the balm of a bloodlust cry for revenge. “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way,” Toby Keith promised America’s enemies in one of the most popular of those songs in 2002.

Americans stuck flags in yards and on the back of trucks. Factionalism hardened inside America, in school board fights, on Facebook posts, and in national politics, so that opposing views were treated as propaganda from mortal enemies. The concept of enemy also evolved, from not simply the terrorist but also to the immigrant, or the conflation of the terrorist as immigrant trying to cross the border.

The patriot under threat became a personal and political identity in the United States. Fifteen years later, [Donald] Trump harnessed it to help him win the presidency.

In the week after the attacks, Bush demanded of Americans that they know “Islam is peace” and that the attacks were a perversion of that religion. He told the country that American Muslims are us, not them, even as mosques came under surveillance and Arabs coming to the U.S. to take their kids to Disneyland or go to school risked being detained for questioning.

For Trump, in contrast, everything was always about them, the outsiders.

In the birther lie Trump promoted before his presidency, Barack Obama was an outsider. In Trump’s campaigns and administration, Muslims and immigrants were outsiders. The “China virus” was a foreign interloper, too.

(snip)

The legacies of 9/11 ripple both in obvious and unusual ways.

Most directly, millions of people in the U.S. and Europe go about their public business under the constant gaze of security cameras while other surveillance tools scoop up private communications. The government layered post-9/11 bureaucracies on to law enforcement to support the expansive security apparatus.

Militarization is more evident now, from large cities to small towns that now own military vehicles and weapons that seem well out of proportion to any terrorist threat. Government offices have become fortifications and airports a security maze.

But as profound an event as 9/11 was, its immediate effect on how the world has been ordered was temporary and largely undone by domestic political forces, a global economic downturn and now a lethal pandemic.


Journalist, author and filmmaker Chris Tomlinson is an Army veteran and former AP reporter and editor.  In his column in the Houston Chronicle today he provides a background based on what he’s seen and learned fighting and covering wars from back into the 1980s, including the post-September 11 conflicts in the Middle East and Asia, and offers a thoughtful summary of where we ought to turn our attention to prevent another September 11, and probably improve our lives.

In debating the last 20 years, we can talk about the limits of military power, the futility of nation-building, and the inevitable failure of occupations. We can chatter about politics, diplomacy and negotiation. But the most crucial and ignored lesson is one taught to all the children of Abraham.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Respect is the foundation of peace. We must treat all people with fairness and justice. We must recognize that other nations are not failed attempts to become the United States. Most foreigners do not want to be us; they are proud of the cultures and traditions they spent millennia creating.

We can exchange insights. We should support each other’s progress. We may learn from one another. But we must limit ourselves to setting an example, lending a hand, and sharing knowledge. We must defend ourselves but cannot rely on invading armies, economic sanctions, and cultural imperialism to change the world to look more like us.

Such coercion has triggered a global rise in nationalism and authoritarianism. Tolerance is ebbing. Justifications for injustice are everywhere. Hate is overpowering love in the quest for power. We are not any safer.

Despite the last 20 years, we still value competition over cooperation and war over peace. Some day we may become a nation of philosopher-kings rather than warrior-kings, but for now, we still choose to live by the sword.

A U.S. sailor’s bullet silenced Bin Laden’s voice, but millions more bullets did not bring peace or justice to the world. I no longer report from war zones, instead I write about commerce because the surest path to peace is prosperity for all. Perhaps we can give that a try.

Wheels up

Twenty years fighting a war in Afghanistan, and what did we come away with?  The head of Osama bin Laden…and we threw that in the ocean.

The start of this war was clear cut.  America was attacked by Al Qaeda and we went to Afghanistan to get the people who were responsible.  Twenty years and four presidents ago.  It took almost ten years to finally kill bin Laden (Mission Accomplished!) but we did it.  And then…we didn’t come home.  We had pushed out the Taliban and installed a new government, and we tried to train the people to govern themselves and to defend themselves.  But the killing never stopped, the government never worked, and the Afghan army was a sad joke.  Twenty years later the Taliban is back in charge, and look what we’ve left behind in weapons they now control, even after all the deaths we’ve sustained and the trillions of dollars we spent.

“Tonight’s withdrawal signifies both the end of the military component of the evacuation, but also the end of the nearly 20-year mission that began in Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11, 2001,” said Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command. “No words from me could possibly capture the full measure of sacrifices and accomplishments of those who served.”

More than 2,400 U.S. military personnel and nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians died in the 20-year war, in addition to tens of thousands of casualties among U.S. contractors, the Afghan military and national police, insurgents and others, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

The U.S. military succeeded in evacuating more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan in recent weeks, American citizens and others who feared staying under Taliban rule.  Quite an achievement, really; unfortunately, there are another few hundred they couldn’t get out before the deadline.  Let’s wish them all luck in finally escaping.

I’ve got no issue with why we went to war in Afghanistan, nor with the decision to end the war despite the messy nature of things.  I give President Biden credit for closing this down, despite the complaints.

He is under heavy criticism, particularly from Republicans, for his handling of the evacuation. But he said it was inevitable that the final departure from two decades of war, first negotiated with the Taliban for May 1 by former President Donald Trump, would have been difficult with likely violence, no matter when it was planned and conducted.

“To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask, ‘What is the vital national interest?’” Biden said. He added, “I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan.”

If only our government had learned that lesson ten years ago, after we made good on the real reason we went there in the first place.

The truth shall set you free

Republicans in Congress refused to create an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol last January 6.  (You draw your own conclusions as to why.)  Fine; but the minority does not get to refuse to participate and then sensibly criticize the majority for not behaving as they would have had they been there themselves.  Had the Republicans been there themselves when the Select Committee heard from its first witnesses yesterday, this is what they would have heard.

“This is how I’m going to die, defending this entrance,” Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell recalled thinking, testifying Tuesday at the emotional opening hearing of the congressional panel investigating the violent Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.”

(snip)

He and three other officers gave their accounts of the attack, sometimes wiping away tears, sometimes angrily rebuking Republicans who have resisted the probe and embraced Trump’s downplaying of the day’s violence.

Six months after the insurrection, with no action yet taken to bolster Capitol security or provide a full accounting of what went wrong, the new panel launched its investigation by starting with the law enforcement officers who protected them. Along with graphic video of the hand-to-hand fighting, the officers described being beaten as they held off the mob that broke through windows and doors and interrupted the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential win.

Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone, who rushed to the scene, told the committee — and millions watching news coverage — that he was “grabbed, beaten, tased, all while being called a traitor to my country.” That assault on him, which stopped only when he said he had children, caused him to have a heart attack.

Daniel Hodges, also a D.C. police officer, said he remembered foaming at the mouth and screaming for help as rioters crushed him between two doors and bashed him in the head with his own weapon. He said there was “no doubt in my mind” that the rioters were there to kill members of Congress.

Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn said one group of rioters, perhaps 20 people, screamed the n-word at him as he was trying to keep them from breaching the House chamber — racial insults he said he had never experienced while in uniform. At the end of that day, he sat down in the Capitol Rotunda and sobbed.

(snip)

Tensions on Capitol Hill have only worsened since the insurrection, with many Republicans playing down, or outright denying, the violence that occurred and denouncing the Democratic-led investigation as politically motivated. Democrats are reminding that officers sworn to protect the Capitol suffered serious injuries at the hands of the rioters.

All of the officers expressed feelings of betrayal at the Republicans who have dismissed the violence.

“I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room,” Fanone testified, pounding his fist on the table in front of him. “Too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist or that hell actually wasn’t that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful.”

(snip)

Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the panel, shed tears during his questioning. He said he hadn’t expected to become so emotional.

“You guys all talk about the effects you have to deal with, and you talk about the impact of that day,” Kinzinger told the officers. “But you guys won. You guys held.”

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the panel’s other Republican, expressed “deep gratitude for what you did to save us” and defended her decision to accept an appointment by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“The question for every one of us who serves in Congress, for every elected official across this great nation, indeed, for every American is this: Will we adhere to the rule of law, respect the rulings of our courts, and preserve the peaceful transition of power?”

“Or will we be so blinded by partisanship that we throw away the miracle of America?”

(snip)

Shortly after the insurrection, most Republicans denounced the violent mob — and many criticized Trump himself, who told his supporters to “fight like hell” to overturn his defeat. But many have softened their tone in recent months and weeks.

And some have gone further, with Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde saying video of the rioters looked like “a normal tourist visit,” and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar repeatedly saying that a woman who was shot and killed by police as she was trying to break into the House chamber was “executed.”

Thanks to NBC News and YouTube, have a look for yourself:

“You carried out your duties at tremendous risk. Now we on this committee have a duty. However, a far less dangerous one, but an essential one – to get to the bottom of what happened that day.  We cannot allow what happened on Jan. 6 to happen again. We owe it to you and your colleagues and we will not fail, I assure you, in that responsibility.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D) Mississippi

Dear Founding Fathers,

The public discourse here in America in the 21st Century has become so bizarre that I’m having trouble keeping it sorted…having trouble understanding what’s going on.  Not that it’s your responsibility to help, but I thought that trying to explain some of it to you might help me clear my head, so here goes.

Republican members of the House and Senate in Washington have blocked plans for a Congressional investigation of the attack on the Capitol back in January, on the day that Congress was certifying the results of last year’s election for president and vice president.  They did so with an explanation that defies facts and logic, something they have become very practiced at offering.  The plan approved by the House had been negotiated by members of both parties, with the Republicans asking for changes to the original idea to make sure it would not be a partisan witch hunt aimed at damaging their party before next year’s Congressional elections.  The Democrats accepted all the changes the Republicans asked for, yet just 35 House Republicans voted for it, and then it failed in a Senate vote with only six Republican senators voting in favor.  Why?  The Senate Republican leaders said the plan would be a “partisan kangaroo court” intended to damage Republicans and the recent former president of their party.  Some of these same Republicans—who were physically present in the Capitol that day and saw what happened; who hid from the mob with their colleagues—are now asking us to believe that the whole thing was either just a bunch of tourists visiting, or was actually orchestrated by liberals.

This came two weeks after the Republicans threw out their own #3 leader in the House.  Liz Cheney of Wyoming, daughter of the former vice president and as hard-line a conservative Republican as they come, was tossed for being insufficiently servile to the former president, for insisting on accepting the evidence of her own senses and denouncing his behavior in continuing to claim that the election was stolen from him, despite there being no evidence of any voter fraud significant enough to have made a difference.

…at the end of the day, the problem isn’t that Cheney is making controversial statements; the problem is that Republicans consider her obviously true statements to be controversial.

In a recent tweet that sent the move to ditch her into overdrive, Cheney wrote in response to a Trump statement calling his election defeat THE BIG LIE: “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.” This should not be considered provocative.

That’s the National Review talking there!

The Big Lie is leading Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country to pass new laws that will make it harder for some people to vote, and easier for state officials to manipulate election results…for their own benefit and that of their party.  And it’s all being done right in front of our faces.

Republican legislators claim they’re tightening up election procedures to address (unfounded) concerns about fraud in the 2020 election. But what’s really behind this effort is a group of conservative Washington insiders who have been pushing these same kinds of voting restrictions for decades, with the explicit aim of helping Republicans win elections. The difference now is that Trump’s baseless claims about 2020 have given them the ammunition to get the bills passed, and the conservative movement, led by Heritage, is making an unprecedented investment to get them over the finish line.

“We’re working with these state legislators to make sure they have all of the information they need to draft the bills,” Anderson told the Heritage Foundation donors. In addition to drafting the bills in some cases, “we’ve also hired state lobbyists to make sure that in these targeted states we’re meeting with the right people.”

Democrats in the Texas Legislature found a temporary way to fight back on Sunday night: they walked out just before a procedural deadline, denying the state House a quorum, and killed the “bad ol’ bill” that Republican leadership was pushing.  The Republican governor says he will call a special session to start the process over again (absolutely his prerogative) and cut funding for the legislative branch (absolutely his predictable, childish response).

There’s been good news lately on the fight against COVID-19.  Thanks to so many people finally wearing a mask, and to so many getting vaccinated, the number of deaths is at its lowest level in ten months, the positive rate among those being tested is below five percent, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently loosened its guidelines on who should wear masks and when—as it should when conditions call for it.  More places are beginning to open up.  (The chief government administrator for the county that includes Houston, who has been among the most strident anywhere for telling people to wear masks and keep their distance, downgraded the threat level—twice!—in the past week!)  What we’ve been doing is finally showing signs of working.  If you think that has people finally conceding the efficacy of those actions, you’re thinking wrong: here’s the news of Houston hospital employees (most are not health care providers) suing their employer over its requirement that they get vaccinated if they want to keep their jobs.  They claim that since the vaccines have only ever been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use, any requirement to take the vaccine amounts to “nonconsensual human experimentation” under a code of medical ethics adopted in response to Nazi atrocities during World War II.  Their lawyer is “a former chairman of the Harris County GOP who has launched numerous legal challenges related to the pandemic, including a ban on in-person worship services last year.”

These people are…well, choose your own word for what it is when a member of Congress compares a COVID-fighting mask requirement from the speaker of the House to the Nazi extermination of Jews–

(Please note, the Christian Broadcasting Network “journalist” conducting the interview nods along as if she’s saying nothing more controversial than that the sun rises in the east.)

Holding different political beliefs is one thing, but it’s becoming damn near impossible to discuss anything when some of our “leaders” appear to have lost their minds.  This Democrat (no relation) is barely containing his disgust:

Why…the big question has to be, why are so many Republicans now the way they are.  On the specific question of the January 6 investigation, I think S.E. Cupp has it absolutely right—they are complicit in the crime, and are trying to protect themselves!

CNN conservative commentator S.E. Cupp on Friday pondered the purpose of her party ― the GOP ― after Senate Republicans blocked a bipartisan probe into the deadly Capitol riot.

“My question to the Republican party would be, what are you here for? What is your function if not to preserve the republic and protect American democracy?” Cupp told “The Lead” anchor Jake Tapper.

“If you have no curiosity about what happened on Jan. 6, first of all, I think it’s just because you believe it will implicate you … But also, I’m not sure what you stand for as a party,” she said.

(snip)

“The point of having two strong parties is to bring a competition of ideas to the table,” she said. But while Cupp admitted to not agreeing with many Democratic proposals, at least it wasn’t the “gibberish” and “nonsense” coming from across the aisle.

“Talking about Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head and conspiracy theories and lies,” she said of Republican focus in recent months. “Making inane, absurd comparisons between the Nazis and mask mandates.”

(snip)

It’s “incredibly embarrassing to watch an American political party cower just to fetishize and service the emotional narcissism of one guy, the guy who, by the way, lost it all for you,” she said, calling it “maddening,” “infuriating” and “a disgrace.”

That’s coming from a confirmed Republican.

I’ve got to keep in mind that not all Republicans have hopped on the crazy train.  But there are enough off them out there—and I mean, way out there—that it’s frightening.  What is driving this?  Not admiration for the last Republican president, I think…it’s clear that very many national party leaders are disgusted by him.  Always were, still are.  But, I think they see the advantage he brings to their side in the culture war, lining up a not-insignificant segment of Americans who see themselves inevitably losing their privileged place in society, and who appear willing to “do what it takes” to hold onto it.  As Amber Ruffin puts it, “resisting change means maintaining power.  And that’s why they’re fighting to keep racist children’s books and Confederate statues, and that’s why they’d rather talk about cancel culture than domestic terrorism.”  Worth your time to watch this clip…

Thanks for the sympathetic ear…thanks for the terrific country, too. We’ll keep doing our best…

Donald the Dog Whistler

It’s not the fact that there are throwbacks like the people who marched in support of a Robert E. Lee statue in a park in Charlottesville, Virginia, yesterday that surprises me.  Saddens me, yes, but doesn’t surprise.  The only part about all that happened yesterday that did surprise was the response to it all from the president of the United States: I don’t know if he was excrutiatingly selective about his words, or just tone deaf, but he couldn’t find the words, or even the Tweets, to condemn white supremacists.

He didn’t/wouldn’t take sides in a fight over basic human rights, or even pretend to take sides and be seen as part of the mainstream.

What he did do yesterday was dog-whistle a message to some of his supporters, the people who knew he was an ignorant, truth-impaired, narcissistic megalomaniac with the attention span of a two year old but voted for him anyway, because when he promised to “make America great again” they heard “take our country back.”  If we didn’t realize a long time ago what that means to those people, we know now:

The turmoil in Charlottesville began with a march Friday night by white nationalists on the campus of the University of Virginia and escalated Saturday morning as demonstrators from both sides gathered in and around the park. Waving Confederate flags, chanting Nazi-era slogans, wearing helmets and carrying shields, the white nationalists converged on the Lee statue inside the park and began chanting phrases like “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”

(snip)

“We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back,” said Mr. [David] Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Many of the white nationalist protesters carried campaign signs for Mr. Trump.

The White House is trying to cover his ass about it today, but what the president said yesterday—when it happened; when it mattered—was “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence.  On many sides; on many sides.”

Meaning what, exactly?

Yesterday in Slate, Josh Levin had a great answer to that question:

He then said those three words again—“On many sides”—as if to emphasize that this throwaway phrase was in fact the only bit of his short speech that he truly believed in. He did not talk about white supremacy, and he did not note the prevalence of racist chants. The troubles in Charlottesville, the president said, were everyone’s fault. Or, to put it another way, nobody in particular was more responsible than anyone else for what happened in Virginia this weekend. Not the president. Not the party that enabled him. Not even those who idolize Adolf Hitler.

Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist violence, coming on the heels of his silence in the aftermath of last week’s mosque bombing in Minnesota, is just the latest affirmation of his fundamental immorality. The president’s racist, anti-Semitic, Muslim-hating acolytes heard the words Trump didn’t say on Saturday. They know they have an ally in the White House, a man who will abet anyone who abets his own hold on power.

Don’t think that it’s only the liberal mainstream media that thinks Trump is favoring the white supremacists—the white supremacists noticed, and cheered, the fact that he did not attack them and their ideology!

Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.

He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides!

So he implied the antifa are haters.

There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all.

He said he loves us all.

Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him.

No condemnation at all.

When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.

Really, really good.

God bless him.

He’s had another 24 hours to think about it, to articulate his beliefs, to try to make clear to people how he feels on the subject.  As of post time, he has not.  [UPDATE 8/14: Here‘s what he had to say today; it does not seem to me that his heart was in it.] [ANOTHER UPDATE 8/15: Never mind, he took it back.]

Josh Levin:

On a day that called for the president to take a stand, he instead made a perverse call for unity. “I love the people of our country,” Trump said at the end of his Bedminster Address. “I love all of the people of our country. We’re going to make America great again. But we’re going to make it great for all of the people of the United States of America.”

The neo-Nazis in Charlottesville heard that call, and so did the posters on the Daily Stormer. “On many sides,” Trump said. These are not anodyne words. They are dangerous ones. On Saturday, the president had the chance to tell the nation what it is he does and doesn’t believe in. That’s exactly what he did.

You could also check out this fine Twitter thread from yesterday, if you want to have a think about the gist of the protest from the white supremacists: