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.

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…

Five weeks

The job of president of the United States was meant to be a manager who would lead the executive branch to efficiently carry out the business of the nation’s government.  It still is that, but it’s also become a symbol of the battle between competing claims to exercise a moral imperative: on one side, those who want government to enforce upon the rest of us their idea of the one right way Americans should live their lives, and on the other those who have a broader view of the meaning of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  The situation is tedious, and divisive, and destructive of our ability to get along with those of our fellow citizens who have different opinions of the proper role of government in our lives.  What’s worse is, the campaign for the job never stops—thank you, sir, may I have another!

Right now, five weeks before the election, is when we should be starting the campaign.  That’s time enough to review information about the candidates, time for reflection…and after election day it would be time to go back to regular life, where if you choose to you could escape the obsession with the daily minutiae of politics.  Time enough to make a reasoned decision, and move on.

The two major party candidates for president have their first side-by-side appearance tomorrow night (I’ll be surprised if they actually engage in debate), to talk about issues and make the case why we should give him the responsibility of managing—just for starters—our national defense; our response to global pandemics and natural disasters; our relationships with our allies and with our enemies; the delivery of our mail!  Someone we can trust to look out for our country’s best interests, and to obey its laws.

So, I’ll watch the debate tomorrow and I’ll think, which of these guys do I want representing us…me…for the next four years?  Will it be the guy who

(There are plenty more where those came from.)

No, it will not be that guy.

You get to make your own choice, and you’re pretty smart, and there are five weeks left to think it over…before you get to make a secret choice, and no one will ever know who you voted for unless you tell them.  Just sayin’…

I’ve never been prouder

It should be exquisitely clear to all of us by now that our president will never understand.  He thinks he was elected king of America, and that we owe him fealty.  We do not.  We owe respect to the office and to the person who holds it, when that person’s actions show he or she is deserving of that respect (just ask any of the Obama haters!), but we are allowed to disagree with the opinions and positions held or expressed by that person without fear of government retribution.  In fact, as free people we have a duty and responsibility to stand up for our rights, and for what’s right.

Most people understand that the athletes who have knelt or otherwise protested during the national anthem at their games have NOT been protesting the national anthem; they have chosen a high-visibility opportunity to express their opinion on other issues, and done so with the understanding that they could suffer adverse opinion of some of their fellow citizens, which many have.  But that’s the deal: the First Amendment gives each of us the right to speak our minds, and to react and respond to the opinions of others as we choose.  The government doesn’t have to like what we say, but it cannot take action to stop us from speaking our piece.

Most people understand this…not all.

So, from this…fertilizer…spread by the president this weekend–

…arose these blooms, among many:

https://twitter.com/Robert_K_Kraft/status/911940868944343040

Thank you, my fellow Americans, for speaking up.

Goodbye, President Bannon

There’s precious little to laugh about when considering the current occupant of the  White House, but today I found two things I want to share.  First, he just fired Steve Bannon!

After all we’ve witnessed in the week since Nazis and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and left counter-protesters dead and injured, and the hole the president dug for himself when he couldn’t not share his shining insights on the matter with us, now he’s (finally) cut loose his senior advisor in charge of pandering to the ignorant as if that’s going to make everything all better.

And second, Tina Fey went on TV on topic!