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.

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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.

The next time someone says space travel isn’t dangerous…

…suggest that they read this: Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano’s first person account of his most recent spacewalk, during which he nearly drowned inside his helmet.

…just as I’m thinking about how to uncoil the cable neatly (it is moving around like a thing possessed in the weightlessness), I ‘feel’ that something is wrong. The unexpected sensation of water at the back of my neck surprises me – and I’m in a place where I’d rather not be surprised. I move my head from side to side, confirming my first impression, and with superhuman effort I force myself to inform Houston of what I can feel, knowing that it could signal the end of this EVA.Luca-smiling-ESA

(snip)

At first, we’re both convinced that it must be drinking water from my flask that has leaked out through the straw, or else it’s sweat. But I think the liquid is too cold to be sweat, and more importantly, I can feel it increasing. I can’t see any liquid coming out of the drinking water valve either. When I inform Chris and Shane of this, we immediately receive the order to ‘terminate’ the sortie.

(snip)

As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision. I realise that to get over one of the antennae on my route I will have to move my body into a vertical position, also in order for my safety cable to rewind normally. At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose…

(snip)

I try to contact Chris and Shane: I listen as they talk to each other, but their voices are very faint now: I can hardly hear them and they can’t hear me. I’m alone. I frantically think of a plan. It’s vital that I get inside as quickly as possible. I know that if I stay where I am, Chris will come and get me, but how much time do I have? It’s impossible to know.

(snip)

Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonisers. The skills of our engineers and the technology surrounding us make things appear simple when they are not, and perhaps we forget this sometimes.

Better not to forget.

“We are better than this; we must do better”

I knew it:  I knew right away that whether or not there was any evidence that the person who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was motivated by the loudmouths on radio and TV, that some of those loudmouths would be blaming the others for inciting political violence.  And I was right…I also predicted the sun would rise in the east this morning.

405992-giffordsMore than two days after the fact and there is no evidence (of which I’m aware) that the man who shot Giffords and 19 [1/12, authorities have revised the figure to] 18 others was persuaded to lethal levels of violence by radio and TV stars; short of his declaration that “so-and-so said it was the right thing to do,” I don’t see that there ever will be.  So let’s leave that alone.

Starting with Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at Saturday’s news conference, there has been a lot of ink spilled calling for restraint, for throttling back the vitriol that fuels so much of the political discussion in our halls of government and our radio and television studios.  It is worth considering to what extent the personal viciousness—and the attendant self-satisfied smugness—of the professional politicians and the paid-to-be-controversial “opinion hosts” has created an environment where consideration of physical violence becomes less theoretical.

I’ve written about the tone of modern political discussion, which is clearly not intended to appeal to the intellect but to rouse the emotions and appeal to paranoia.  And I’m troubled by how successful those messengers and their messages are.

Sure, I’d like to see more restraint and less accusation in political speech, but I know that real world politics isn’t an academic debate.  And I agree with Jack Shafer’s insistence that there be no government-imposed restriction on political speech—the First Amendment makes clear that is not allowed.  (Check my We the People page for a collection of quotations on free expression.)

But I wish there was more self-control when it comes to speech intended to demonize political opponents: to say not just that someone’s position or opinion is wrong, but that those people are evil, or hostile to American ideals and virtues, because of what they believe.  Disagree with me?  Fine; argue my conclusion, dispute my facts, prove me wrong, ridicule my reasoning, do so with vigor; but to respond that my disagreement with your point of view is evidence of imbecility or treason is not a rebuttal.  It’s a sign of the weakness of your position; it’s a sign that you have nothing to say.

One of the more touching observances of a moment of silence for the victims of the shootings in Tucson came this morning from Giffords’ brother-in-law: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, the current commander of the International Space Station.  (Full disclosure—I work at NASA Johnson Space Center and am acquainted with both Scott Kelly and his brother Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband.)  The good stuff starts 1:27 into the clip–

We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station.  As I look out the window I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful; unfortunately, it is not.  These days we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions but also with our irresponsible words.  We are better than this; we must do better.  The crew of ISS Expedition 26 and the flight control centers around the world would like to observe a moment of silence in honor of all the victims, which include my sister-in-law Gabrielle Giffords, a caring and dedicated public servant.  Please join me and the rest of the Expedition 26 crew in a moment of silence.