Monday, September 11, 2006

The world 5 years later...

5 years ago I lived in Washington DC. On a beautiful autumn morning I was listening to Dennis Ross speak. After his and the other panel members' remarks they were supposed to have a Q&A. Instead they informed us about the attacks on New York and Washington and asked us to leave calmly.

My immediate reactions? Concern of course, worry that everyone in the family was ok. I joined the masses of folks who clogged the cell phone networks to make sure their loved ones were fine. But I had another one as well. I could not escape the irony of having been listening to Dennis Ross, the man who through his personal biases both subtle and blatant had helped destroy the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He was not alone of course in that, but he was a key player. So I remember looking up at Dennis Ross, recognizing very early on that this probably was Osama Bin Laden's attacks, and thinking about Dennis and all the other extremist politicians and policy wonks who value American lives more than Arab, African, Latino, and Asian lives: "You are half to blame for this".

A few minutes later I found myself in the basement of the school I had just finished my MA at watching New York. One tower had already fallen. I watched in horror along with probably a hundred other students as the second tower fell. I presumed tens of thousands had died, I was filled with a horrendous sadness. There were rumors that the State Department had been bombed along with the hit the Pentagon had taken. I tried all day to reach a good friend at State to make sure she was ok. It was only later that night after I'd made my way home and made certain the family was ok that I finally reached her on the phone. She spoke words that echo to this day and will for many years to come: "This is not going to bring out the best in us."

Blasphemous words those would have seemed to most Americans in those first days. But what most regard as blasphemy sometimes turns out to be prophecy. Her statement echoed my own fears that day and have sadly proven all too true. I knew America did not understand that this did not come out of the blue, I knew it because the politicians, the right-wing anti-Arab thinktanks, and our own blindness had been actively working to deceive us for years. Nobody understood that even among the masses of the world who loved us and ached for us that day, they all understood what we still have yet to understand: that 9/11 was a horrendous re-action, not a blind action. Not a justified re-action, but a re-action nonetheless. One that we could have avoided, and one that we needed then and now more than ever to learn from to prevent again. But we haven't learned. Like a gambing addict, instead of stepping back from the brink, we have doubled down. Like an alcoholic, we have turned to the bottle for comfort instead of to the difficult path of AA sobriety. Ten-step programs are for losers, patience is for the weak we said, and so we have gone on to drown ourselves in our own miseries. Like the abusive drunken man, our brothers and sisters throughout the world have been made to pay the terrible price ten times beyond our own suffering, even as we have complained that no one understands us and who needs them anyways?

So here we stand five years later. Tonight I live in New York. I have a view of the wondrous Manhattan skyline with it's gaping, aching hole in the middle. Even as I write these words I am staring at the twin beams of light punctuating the heavens from where the towers once stood. My children noticed the light before bedtime as it hit the clouds and thought it was the moon. They are perhaps still too young to understand that things are not always what they seem.

To most Americans in the days after 9/11 the world seemed crystal clear. The President with the stumbling speech suddenly seemed the down-to-earth decisive leader so many wanted. Blunt talk and blunt action were the order of the day. Laws were passed, a war was launched, quotes about stoicism and fortitude and unity caught most peoples' hearts and imagination. But I worried, and I feared. Most spoke of their lack of fear, their willingness to sacrifice. But I saw that most did not know what it was they wanted to defend, what it was they found precious enough to sacrifice for. And worse yet, with the exception of those actually in the military and their families, most in fact only spoke of sacrifice but sacrificed no more than slogans. They thought it was about the very survival of the nation. But they did not understand, and they did not have leaders who understood, and we all began to stray into dark paths.

It is not too late to change, it rarely is, but we have to understand first. We have to understand that it is the principles contained in our Constitution and Bill of Rights that make us free, not the bombs and bullets we fire. Destroying the freedom of others and calling death "liberation" does not make us free. It kills others, it destroys lives in the very ways that we were destroyed on 9/11, and it binds us in chains of our own making. Our freedom did not die on September 11, but a few days later a piece of it died in the halls of Congress when the patriot act passed. A bigger piece yet died when a deliberate set of lies turned into the war on Iraq. Yet another piece died as we backed more and more Israeli oppression in Palestine and Lebanon. Big pieces have died in the torture chambers of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, CIA "black sites" and the other prisons of our shame.

No one but ourselves believes any more that we stand for freedom in the world abroad, and many are coming to believe we don't even believe in it at home as we once did. We have deceived ourselves travelling as not-so-innocent innocents abroad. We are deceiving ourselves at home as we willingly turn our freedoms over to an increasingly abusive and incompetent set of leaders. Do we value our freedom or not? Freedom does not die with the bang of a gunshot after all, but with the whimper of cowed and confused creature feebly handing away that which he would not nurture himself...

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