Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What We Did Not Learn from 911

Well, the 911 remembrances are over for another year. The day was filled with television images and Facebook posts - heroic police and firemen, crying bald eagles, lots of American flags, memories of where we were when we saw the towers come down. I could hardly stand to watch it. It all seemed so horribly sad. Yes, it was sad for all the reasons usually cited like the tragic loss of so many lives and the loss of our innocence as a nation.

But what compounds the sadness, eleven years later, is what we didn't learn from our national tragedy. For instance, we lauded ourselves for coming together as Americans after 911. America is better off, we affirmed, when we all respect one another. Yes, we may disagree on politics. We may be different colors and religions and genders but we're all Americans. For that short moment in time, maybe we actually believed it.

Over a decade later, we are back to business as usual in the hate department. In fact, I'm 66 and I never remember it being this bad in my lifetime. Maybe it is Facebook; maybe it is virulently vicious blogs, maybe it is internet newspapers allowing comments. But, whatever, we seem no longer to consider the other side "worthy opponents" but rather, evil traitors who don't even deserve to be Americans. A president not of your preferred party is no longer simply wrong-headed on policy, he literally wants to destroy the nation. It is possible that he is even the anti-Christ.

We encourage our political representatives to echo our ugliness. "Obstruct him at every opportunity, " we tell them, "whatever it takes don't let him succeed." We seem to believe that the other side is so awful that taking America down is better than allowing them to remain in power. Democracy? Forget that! If my side doesn't win, it's because the voters are freakin' idiots and I have a perfect right to try to undo their choice...out of love for my country, of course.

What else did we learn from 911? We learned that many of us were gutless in a way that made the "home of the brave" clause sound a little hollow. Unlike the British who rise to the occasion of a terrorist attack by refusing to allow fear to alter their behavior, we cancelled flights and bought duct tape and huddled in our homes. Not just in New York or Washington, places where a residual anxiety might be justified but even here in my little town, where the odds of a terrorist attack were probably about a kazillion to one. Friends of mine gave up their long-looked-forward-to vacations because well, you know, it would just be too dangerous. Al Qaida could strike at any moment to take down a planeload of elderly Midwestern gamblers on their way to Las Vegas. (Gamblers? ha!)

We learned that we would spend how ever many trillions of dollars it took on the remotest possibility of a terrorist attack. Instead of streamlining the intelligence and law enforcement agencies into a focused strike force against terrorism, we created a gigantic and gigantically expensive new government bureaucracy so gigantic in fact, that's is right hand couldn't even see it's left hand, much less know what it was doing. We made it responsible, not just for terrorist attacks, but even unrelated events like weather-related catastrophes, ensuring that it would be a big muddle.

Of course, now we're in a bit of an economic bind nationally but we don't attribute that to any of the spending decisions we made back then when we were being driven by near-hysteria. During the few years after 911, in my small rural county (total population: approximately 35,000), the Department of Homeland Security paid our deputies overtime to guard our water supply, though I doubt if an Islamic terrorist could have even found us on a map. They shipped us a semi-trailer full of gloves....enough for every citizen in the county to claim a pair (assuming we'd be in a position to distribute them). They sent us haz mat suits and paid for all our law enforcement officers and first responders to receive special terrorism training.  I suppose the gloves are still in cartons in the jail basement or maybe they ended up in the land fill. The haz mat suits have never been worn so far as I know. Many of the cops who received the special training have retired.

And we went to war....twice. The first time it was to Afghanistan. Perhaps that was justified. We went after Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden, who promptly fled to Pakistan. Eleven years, thousands of lives and billions of dollars later we're still at war in Afghanistan though no one from the president on down seems to know why. For some reason, we have to stay until 2014 but at least there is an end in sight.

The second war was with Iraq which had nothing to do with 911 and apparently, nothing to do with anything else either except some Neo-con vision that the rest of us didn't understand and saw more as a Neo-con nightmare. Iraq cost us even more lives and even more desperately wounded veterans and even more money - we literally shipped skids of it to Iraq, most of it wasted (although I suppose it made Halliburton even richer). We only just ended that war....long after we got Saddam Hussein and didn't find weapons of mass destruction.

And now the Republicans are quibbling with President Obama over that terrible deficit that he obviously doesn't care a thing about! But mention Homeland Security and the two wars they foisted on us and they're like - "move along, nothing to see here. It is all that damnable Obama's fault".

Last, and worst than all the rest, is that we did not learn that America is an idea, more than just a country. It is an idea in which freedom and principle are inextricably entwined. Those two elements have made us who and what we are.

And we gave both of them up without a whimper. We told our big Daddy government - "listen in on our phone calls if you must; track our purchases and our relationships; give the executive office and law enforcement and courts wider powers to search and seize and arrest, that's fine, whatever you have to do to protect us because we're so scared, don't you know." (Which is exactly what terrorism exists to accomplish).

The principles we've held so dear since our inception? Right to know the charges against you? Right to counsel? Habeas corpus? Take them, please, we doan need no steenken' civil rights.

Our country was instrumental in writing the Geneva Conventions and the ban on torture. Well, justice and integrity were fine when we demanded them from other countries but it is us now, so grab people on the strength of a neighbor's willingness to turn on them for a monetary reward. Throw them into a vile prison. Encourage our people to smear them with feces, , lead them around with leashes like animals, electrify their genitals, terrify them with dogs, waterboard them? Hey, we gotta' do what we gotta' do. And if we can't do it, by God, we'll send them to countries that can! Disappearing people into the hellholes of nations that have perfected torture techniques by means of extraordinary rendition? Sure thing. Build ourselves a monster prison at Guantanamo to hold people forever without proof or trial of their guilt, some of them children when they arrived? No problemo? Even as our own people, who faced torture under other brutal regimes, like John McCain, were begging us not to give up our hearts and our souls by doing the same, we did it anyway.

September 11, 2001 could have been a cataclysmic event that we turned into a long-term positive by strengthening our resolve to remain the home of the brave and the land of the free and a force for justice. We could have emerged more united as Americans than ever. We didn't do any of that and that's what makes the 911 remembrances so sad.