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.

Towers 002

The thin line between prudence and paranoia, and how the Post Office is really to blame

I’m ashamed of myself for something I did this afternoon…except that I’m not, not really, and that bothers me, too.  Clear?

I was flying X-wing fighters (on the computer, not for real) when the phone rang, and I was peeved because that meant I was going to have to look away from the screen to find the two-key combination for “pause” and I hoped I wouldn’t get killed in the meantime.  Just don’t answer the phone, you say—yeah, but it might be my wife.

It wasn’t.  It was a man’s voice asking if this was the Ryan residence, and immediately I’m thinking, jeez, some knucklehead selling something or asking for a donation is taking me away from what I want to be doing; the nerve of this maroon.  He launches into what immediately felt to me like the opening of a sob story that had the skeptic in me—OK, the cynic in me—thinking that someone was trying to con me.  So I became very restrained, tried to concentrate and not stupidly reveal that one crucial detail that would let this guy get away with it (whatever it was).

He explained that he was calling because of misdelivered mail: he’d opened an envelope and found a check that wasn’t for him, so he looked more closely and saw it was from an out of state bank –“Do you have an account in Boston?”—addressed to a woman at my address—“Is your wife’s name Florence?”—and that he got in his car and brought it to our house but no one was home except the dogs (who aren’t allowed to open the door to strangers), so he left it hidden inside the Christmas wreath on the front door so it wouldn’t blow away, and he wanted to let us know it was there—“Is it there?”

Of course, I’m way too smart for this: I’m not going to rush over and open the front door, eight entire feet away, to see if there’s an envelope hidden in the Christmas wreath (puh-leeze!) because I think this guy—or better yet, a confederate!—is strategically positioned so he can see me open the door, and then he’ll…well I don’t know what, but something, I’m sure of that!

Since I was in a good mood I didn’t go off on the guy; I asked his name, learned that his street address is not the same as mine (not even close), thanked him for his efforts and ended the call, all with the quiet confidence of a man who knows he has skillfully avoided danger and is eager to get back to fighting the Empire.  A few minutes later I casually opened the front door, and…there’s an envelope stuffed into the Christmas wreath; it’s addressed to my wife, from a bank in Boston, and inside is a check for more than $22,000!

One reason I was suspicious of the call was we weren’t supposed to receive a large check from any bank in Boston, or anywhere else.  My wife’s employer is liquidating its old pension plan, though, and neglected to explain that when she elected to roll it into the company’s existing 401(k) that she would still receive a check that had to be delivered to the mutual fund.

Time to review: a man we don’t know opens his mail and finds a check for $22,000 that doesn’t belong to him; rather than just send the check back to the Post Office, he gets in his car and drives the few miles to our house to put it in our hands; when we’re not home to accept delivery he secures the envelope so it won’t become lost; and when he calls us to make sure we found the envelope, he gets mistrust and skepticism rather than the thanks he deserves.

A couple of months ago during the frenzy over a Muslim group’s plan to build a community center a few blocks from the hole in the ground where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood, Houston’s Leading Information Source reported on the local Muslims who were introducing themselves to neighbors and assuring them that they were not terrorists; I thought, have we really become so fearful now that the whole world is guilty until proven innocent?

Today, I’m wondering where I should be drawing the line between prudence and paranoia.

Go Army! (Navy, Air Force and Marines, too!)

If you can hear me over the complaining about the “insensitivity” of the plan to build a Muslim community center—including room for religious observance—two and a half blocks from the hallowed ground of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, listen to this: one way the Defense Department responded to the attack on the Pentagon that same day was to build a chapel for religious observance by all faiths—including Muslims, every single day—at the exact spot on that hallowed ground where the hijacked airliner smashed into the building!

Army spokesman George Wright said he is unaware of any complaints about the Muslim services from either 9/11 families or anyone in the building.

(That’s all…talk amongst yourselves.)

Political opportunists exploit Ground Zero, and not in a good way

September 11 is right around the corner, and this year it is likely to spike the hysteria over the planned construction of a community center two and a half blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Doesn’t that sound a lot less creepy and threatening than “a mosque at ground zero”?  That’s the gist of the problem.

A Muslim group in New York City wants to build a community center, including space for religious observance, at 45-51 Park Place in lower Manhattan, a site near the hole in the ground where the Twin Towers stood.  Google the address to see the distance between it and the pit.  There have been complaints from people who find the idea of a mosque at ground zero appalling and insensitive, and in some cases a symbolic victory for the people who carried out the September 11 attacks (and who are, it is true, still at war with the United States and plotting our destruction).  It’s not been made clear (to me) if there are objections to the swimming pool and meeting rooms in the plan, or just that there would be areas for Muslim religious activity.

I don’t follow how building a community center shows insensitivity to the victims of a terrorist or criminal act, unless you blame the builders of the center for the attack.  The man behind the Cordoba House has some questionable beliefs, but no associations with Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda.  If the people behind this proposal aren’t directly connected to the 9/11 hijackers, is the objection some sort of guilt by association?  I’d like to believe that association with Islam is not the cause of the opposition, since Islam didn’t attack us—that was done by some people with a perverted interpretation of Islam.  They’re no more representative of Islam than the (insert name of your favorite religious fringe group here) are of Christianity.

People who commandeer passenger jets and use them as missiles deserve our attention.  The last president let his administration turn that attention into fear, and enough of the fear became irrational enough to be exploited as a wedge to grab power and start a war that had nothing to do with finding the people who attacked us, merrily ignoring civil liberties along the way.  It’s not too big a leap to say that irrational fear, and political opportunism, are pumping up the volume in this case.

Charles Krauthammer makes a compelling point about preserving sacred ground, although he doesn’t say how far away would be far enough, and Ross Douthat has an interesting column about how the constitutional America and the cultural America are in conflict on this issue, and I see his point.  But I’m no culture warrior: no one’s made an argument that the proposed construction is illegal, the necessary governmental authorities have approved the plan, neighborhood and business groups approve, we’re not religious bigots…and it’s two blocks down and around the corner, for crying out loud.  Let’s move on.

Want more?  William Saletan does a skillful job taking down the anti-mosque arguments on their face, and their proponents with them.

How about a joke?  This is ridiculously close to a real news item:

The Statue of Liberty was briefly evacuated today after a faulty sensor in an elevator shaft falsely indicated smoke. While there were no immediate reports of injuries, the very idea that someone might build a Muslim community center just across the water from the site of that undamaged sacred ground was compared to a stab in the heart by a bunch of racist yahoos.

more truth, more free

Who knew—now I can’t open a Web page without seeing something new on the topic of trying terrorists.

First, an opinion piece arguing, among other things, that the families of September 11 victims would benefit emotionally from seeing Khalid Sheik Mohammed brought to justice at the site of the crime…an interesting perspective.

And then, who but Ben Sargent, one of my all-time favorite skewerers of fatuousness editorial cartoonists, should offer a thought: