Reflecting on September 11: a call to our better angels

In the entry hallway at our house we have a framed picture of the night skyline of Lower Manhattan as seen from New Jersey, the twinkling twin towers of the World Trade Center the focal point.  The caption under the photo reads, “We’ll never forget.”  Not forget what happened that day?  That’s the easy part.

That morning I was at my desk at work with the television tuned to CNN, trying to concentrate on the newspaper, when I became barely conscious of talk about a plane hitting one of the towers.  They got my attention when I saw the video of smoke coming from the north tower and heard the anchor talking to someone who said he saw a passenger jet hit the building.  That’s ridiculous, I thought: those planes would never accidentally hit a downtown building, and you could see on TV that the sky was a clear, brilliant blue…must have been a small private plane or something.  My office mate walked in and I brought him up to date on what they were saying, then we sat and watched…and saw a passenger plane come into the frame and slam into the other building!  My first thought: this is not an accident.  (Firm grasp of the obvious, eh?)

I didn’t move from the TV.  Another plane hit the Pentagon.  I watched the towers collapse, fascinated at how they seemed to accordion down on themselves, and not believing the size of the dust cloud they sent up.  Then we were all sent home from our government office in Houston because no one knew what might be the next target.  I sat in front of my television at home the rest of the day trying to get it all straight in my head—what do we know, as opposed to what we think we know—as I had done sitting at a microphone in a radio studio in Houston more than 15 years earlier, on the day space shuttle Challenger blew up.

In the next few weeks we learned that the hijackers who died along with almost 3,000 innocent victims on September 11 were connected to a global terrorist network called Al Qaeda, founded by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, and which was implicated in prior attacks on American targets around the world.  Apparently, Al Qaeda was attacking those it saw as enemies of its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.  Before the end of the year, President Bush sent American troops to Afghanistan to get bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders and their protectors within the Taliban.  We’ve been at war ever since.

Not just an impossible to quantify war on “terrorism,” which is really more a tactic than an enemy, but an actual boots-on-the-ground bullets-in-the-air war, and there’s still no end in sight.  One big reason, I believe, is that “we” aren’t at war.  Our armed forces are at war, and so are their loved ones, but when have the rest of us felt like we were at war?  There haven’t been any shortages of goods, damn few protests, and no tax increases to pay for a war.  Absent any kind of personal connection it’s not surprising that many Americans find it hard to remember that “we” have been fighting war constantly since late 2001—and for much of that time, two wars.  We have come to think of it, when we think of it at all, as a perfectly normal situation; for many of our soldiers, sailors and Marines, being in a shooting war is all they know professionally, and what their spouses and kids assume to be a normal life.

We went to war in Afghanistan to get the people who attacked us on September 11.  We finally killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan this year, but there’s no sign of an end to our presence in Afghanistan.  We went to war in Iraq to…go ahead, you fill in the blank, but we know it wasn’t to get Al Qaeda, since they weren’t there, or to stop Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction, which also weren’t there.  Ironically, the war we chose to fight in Iraq only strengthened our enemy there, if it didn’t actually create an enemy where he didn’t previously exist.  Last month, some eight and a half years after that war began, was the first month that there were no American casualties in Iraq.

The attacks of September 11 were a shot to the solar plexus of the American people.  In the immediate aftermath we did what Americans do after a surprise attack, whether from a mortal enemy or from Mother Nature: everyday men and women responded heroically in the face of the crisis, then we all took care of those who needed to be taken care of.  We opened our hearts and our purses without complaint or even a second thought, and helped each other through until the shock wore off, then turned our attention to those who attacked us.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see the second surprise attack, the one launched by cynical politicians and government functionaries who took advantage of our fear and anxiety.  The news media, shamefully fearful of even being accused of being less than loyal patriots, stood by and let officials get away with murder, in the figurative if not the literal sense.  We let our fear overpower “the better angels of our nature” and spent parts of the next ten years squandering our time, our treasure and our good karma.

We crawled all over each other with demonstrations of the trappings of patriotism as if that was all that was required to be a patriot, as if claiming allegiance to America’s ideals was just as good as living up to those ideals when it really matters.

We let natural wariness in unusual circumstances turn into fear of The Other.  We treated Americans who are Muslim, and those who came here from the Middle East and southern Asia, as though they were in the cockpits of those planes in spirit that day.  People whose only sin was that they practice a particular religion—including those in the peaceful mainstream of that religion, not in the violent, radical extreme—or trace their heritage to a particular part of the world weren’t given the benefit of any doubt but that they were enemies of America.  How much time have we wasted on things like trying to ban shariah law, or trying to stop Muslims from building mosques where some loudmouth decided it’s not appropriate?

How is it that we really spent breath fighting with each other over whether it’s all right to torture prisoners, or just OK to secretly send them to friendly countries where they do the torturing for us?  Were we napping when the government enacted Patriot Acts at the expense of our own civil liberties?  Why did we devote our time and energy to a blue ribbon investigation into ways we could better protect ourselves in the future, and then not implement the recommendations?

How did we sit still for the manipulators who used this attack on our country to whip up sympathy for a war against a country (and its people) that had nothing to do with that attack, with the result that a larger number of Americans have died in that needless war—Americans who bravely, selflessly volunteered to protect the rest of us—than died in the original attack?  And that’s to say nothing of the cost in dollars, and the resulting impact that has had on our national economy and well being.

Back then, I thought that a few months after the attacks, when the shock subsided, we’d regain our perspective, but it seems that I was thinking about a different America, one which perhaps only ever existed in dreams: one where we followed the rules we set for ourselves, even when we were frightened; where people who hijack our airplanes and use them to kill thousands of our fellow Americans have the right to a fair and public trial; where, when crazy people who claim to adhere to the tenets of one of the world’s great religions but are in fact an extremist group led by a delusional maniac with a messiah complex attack our cities and our government institutions, we don’t ignore facts and logic to leap to the conclusion that every person in the world who practices that religion is part of a plot to get us.

Today we have the chance to do better, and I believe we can.  We can work to put aside our fear and get over the juvenile impulse to attack anyone different from ourselves.  Let’s choose to deal with people based on who they really are and what they really do, rather than relying on our fevered imaginations to do our thinking for us.  Let’s start, for example, by recognizing the difference between Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera, or the difference between a community center and a terrorist training camp.

Not forgetting the events of September 11, 2001—that’s the easy part.  If we don’t do the hard part, and act like the people we pride ourselves on being, then the terrorists have already won.

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The war is not over

Surprise.  My first and strongest reaction was surprise when I saw on TV last night that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan: after all this time—almost ten years since the September 11 attacks—I was surprised that the leader of Al Qaeda had been caught and disposed of.  Pleased at the news, yes, but a little startled: oh yeah, that’s still going on.

It’s not that I wasn’t confident that the American military and intelligence machine could do it, but like many (if not most) Americans I don’t give much regular or serious thought to the pursuit of terrorists, and that’s a shame because there are still thousands of American soldiers, sailors and Marines deployed on the other side of the world doing exactly that every single day and night.  Finding Bin Laden and defeating Al Qaeda was the reason we went to war in Afghanistan in the first place, remember?  But apart from changes in airport security, most Americans aren’t still impacted in their daily lives.  Plenty of people are—those troops, military families, survivors of victims of terrorism—but most of us are not.

Although we could be any time now: the experts on these terrorists expect the killing of Bin Laden to spark new attacks on the U.S. or on American targets around the world out of vengeance, and our government has raised the alert level at military bases and issued travel advisories for Americans around the world.  That makes sense: crazy religious zealots aren’t likely to just shrug off the death of their inspirational leader at the hands of the Great Satan and go on about their misdirected lives.  We shall see what happens.

Meanwhile, I’m not feeling the euphoria and glee I’m seeing in the video of the crowds in Lower Manhattan and outside the White House and elsewhere.  Punishing Bin Laden—with extreme prejudice—can’t help but be a good thing, but it’s not a happy ending, or even an ending at all, like VE Day or the surrender at Appomattox.  President Obama was right when he said “Today we are reminded that as a nation there’s nothing we can’t do when we put our shoulders to the wheel, when we remember the sense of unity that defines us as Americans.”  But so was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Even as we mark this milestone, we should not forget that the battle to stop Al Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of Bin Laden.”

Or maybe ever.  And as people with short attention spans, who usually demonstrate a severe lack of patience for all but the quick and simple answer to every question, we’d do ourselves a favor by being realistic about what this news means for our future.  We won a battle, but the war goes on.