I was in my car, driving to work in Dallas, with the local CBS affiliate on the radio. In a breaking story, we were told that a plane had crashed into the side of one of the World Trade Center buildings. At first, it sounded like a small plane, like a Cessna or something. It was news, but not big news (the same thing happened to the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945, when a B-25 bomber impacted with the famous structure due to high fog and low visibility).
I got to work, and mentioned the story to a friend, who hadn't heard about it. We promptly put it out of our minds and went about our business.
But it wasn't long after that that we found out the story was much bigger than anyone had at first thought. I remember, about an hour later, crowding around a small TV in a co-worker's office and watching the first tower burn, followed by the impact on the second tower, and finally the collapse of both. I remember thinking to myself that it all looked like a special effect, something you'd see in a Michael Bay film, and then reminding myself that it was all horribly real. I remember the sense of terror we all felt, wondering what would happen next... and where.
Now, I'm an expatriate New Yorker. I lived on Long Island and commuted into the city to work for years. Although I left New York in the early 1990s - primarily due to the increasingly high cost of living - the city never left me, and a piece of my heart will always be there. I love New York as a vibrant, living city, unlike virtually any other similar metropolis in the world. And so the events of September 11 were particularly poignant for me, as I watched the towers fall surrounded by a bunch of native Texans.
My father-in-law, a volunteer EMT from Mohegan Lake - a community about an hour north of Manhattan - responded and rushed to the scene, in order to help with what was sure to be a staggering number of wounded. Shockingly,when he got there, he realized that there was little or nothing for him to do. People were either dead or they were uninjured, with almost no one in-between. He is still haunted by the events of that day, however, and will never forget that, by being at Ground Zero on that day, he breathed in the ashes of unfortunate souls who had been incinerated in the conflagration, a gruesome but sobering thought.
Two weeks after that horrific event, I was in Manhattan for my brother's wedding. He was getting married in an uptown loft, and from the balcony, where the service was held, looking over the shoulder of the rabbi who performed the ceremony, we could see the smoke rising from Ground Zero. It was an image I will never forget.
That was one of the first times I had been back to New York following my exodus nearly ten years earlier, and the city I flew into was changed. Previously a brash, constantly energized city, there was a definite sense of nervous calm about it now. Everywhere I went, I saw countless signs with pictures pleading, "Have you seen my...?" from desperate family members seeking news of a missing father or mother or son or daughter or niece or nephew or grandparent or friend. Those signs stayed with me, as they represented the fear that comes from not knowing, the fear that you may never know what happened to someone who occupied such an important place in your life. Even more than the images of the towers falling, those signs will remain, for me, the real, lasting image of 9/11.
So here we are, nine years after that tragic day, and I think it's appropriate to take a moment and reflect, not on what we lost, but on what we've learned in the intervening years. We live in a different world now than we did nine years ago, and whether it's a better world or a worse one remains to be seen.
We learned, first and foremost, that we, as a nation, are vulnerable. We've lived a rather sheltered existence for the past 200-odd years, bounded by friendly neighbors to the north and south, and major bodies of water to the east and west. The only attacks on mainland soil have been by such homegrown nutcases as Timothy McVeigh, attacks that we accept as the actions of lone, deranged individuals. But the September 11 attacks showed us that devastating incursions can come at us, from anywhere and at any time. Seeing the Towers fall rocked us out of our complacency, and upset our sense of innate safety. All of a sudden, it became crystal clear to all of us that the protections afforded to us by a benevolent nature meant nothing, and that we were as vulnerable as "those people" that we read about in the newspapers, but paid little actual attention to. Suddenly, we were confronted with the fear that many victims of violent crime feel, the fear that anything can happen at any time.
Along with that, we learned there are certain situations before which we are absolutely helpless. No matter what anyone says, there's little that could have been done to stop the attacks, and little we can do to prevent future occurrences just like it. The sad reality is that if someone is willing to die for their cause, there's almost nothing that they can't do, no goal they cannot attain. All of our military might and our grand posturing around the world can do little to combat such obsessive ideology. And, short of turning this nation into a police state, how do you reliably combat future instances of terrorism? Unless you're willing to treat every American citizen as a potential terrorist, by constant monitoring and surveillance, unwarranted searches and seizures, random stops, unprecedented information gathering, torture, and more - steps, I hope, we are unwilling to take, as they contravene everything this country stands for - the bad guys will always have the advantage. That's one of the prices we have to be prepared to pay for the freedoms we enjoy, proving once again that nothing is truly free, nothing comes without cost.
We learned, in a very real and concrete way, that there are people out there that hate us, and who are willing to lay down their lives to harm us. We had known this intellectually for years, but this vicious attack brought that lesson home in a brutally visceral way. As most of us live our lives divorced from international affairs and geopolitical realities, the confirmation of this fact came as a blinding shock to us, one that, I fear, we still haven't entirely processed.
Sadly, however, although we've learned that there are people who hate us, many of us have failed to learn just who those people are. As the terrorists who flew planes into our buildings all claimed to adhere to the faith of Islam, an ignorant minority in this country want to believe that we are now "at war with Islam," a stupid and thoughtless conclusion. Those terrorists could also have been, to a man, avid golfers or professional chefs. If that came out, would we then declare war on golfers and chefs? Of course not. Unfortunately, the attacks came as America was seeking out a new enemy, someone - or something - that we could demonize in order to make ourselves feel better.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of the Communist regime, who had served as our erstwhile opponents since the end of World War II. We were comfortable having the Reds as our foes, because we understood them, and we could identify with them. They were a convenient enemy, content to posture and bluster - just like us - without ever really doing anything. One of us would step over a line somewhere, the other would pontificate and object, maybe rattle a few sabers for good measure or slam a shoe on a U.N. podium, and then we'd all back down and get back to business. As much as the threat of nuclear war loomed over us all during that time - remember Duck and Cover drills, kids? - we were pretty well assured that neither side was going to "push the button," as it were, as both sides realized the result would be mutually assured destruction, an outcome that no one wanted.
But in 1989, we lost our cozy enemy, and were desperate to find a new one. George Bush Sr. did his best to give us a new embodiment of evil, in the person of Saddam Hussein, but that never really caught on, and the combat portion of Operation Desert Storm was over quickly, with little fanfare. Without an enemy to confront, America seemed rudderless, a vast ship of state drifting without purpose among stormy international waters.
And then came the attack on September 11, and America once again had an enemy upon whom they could expend all their pent-up hatred and bile, largely unused since the fall of the Wall. In spite of the second President Bush's repeated emphasis of the fact that America was not at war with Islam (sentiments echoed and reinforced by President Obama), a certain segment of the American population never seemed to get the message, preferring a simplistic and ignorant view of world affairs in which every Muslim is a secret terrorist, out to kill our men, rape our women, and rustle our cattle. Tragically, this view is being trumpeted and reinforced by such slimy politicos as Newt Gingrich, whose latest video project explicitly supports this heinous lie.
The problem is that a "war on terror," like a "war on drugs," is far too amorphous for most people to understand. What is a "war on terror" and how do we fight it? Is it just Middle Eastern terrorists that we're supposed to hate, or are we also "at war" with Christians who bomb abortion clinics and Irish republicans who bomb police stations? Should we be against lone nuts like the Uni-bomber because they're murderers or because they're terrorists, and do the rules of engagement change depending on how we define them? Do we consider the Republican Party terrorists for opposing things like an extension of unemployment benefits (if you're depending on that money, playing politics with it may very much seem like an act of terrorism to you), or are they simply standing up for America's best interests, and making hard, but sincere, choices? In short, where is the line, and who gets to draw it?
It's clear that we have no real idea with whom we're "at war." We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan (and there are plenty of people who'd like us to go for the hat trick and add Iran to the list), and overthrew the legitimate government in Iraq, colonially replacing it with one of our own devising.
But are we "at war" with these nations? If so, what's our goal in fighting them? When we fought the Nazis in WWII, our goal was to battle them into submission, prosecute their leaders, and wipe out their ideology. Pretty clear, but what's our goal here? I don't know, and I suspect no one else does either, including the people whose job it is to know.
All this being said, we've also largely failed to learn that our actions, as a nation, have serious and direct results all over the world. The ugly truth is that the 9/11 attacks didn't happen in a vacuum or without a reason. I'm not saying that America was responsible for the attacks - clearly, the people who hijacked the planes bear the ultimate responsibility for that vile act - only that perhaps it's time to review the way we present ourselves to the world with an eye to improving international relationships. As I've written before, America has a tendency to turn pride into arrogance, especially when dealing with other countries we perceive as smaller or weaker than us, and that arrogance has far-reaching - and potentially deadly - consequences.
So let's all take a step back today and reflect on the lessons we learned nine years ago, and think about where we want to be nine years from today. Do we want to live in a world where hatred and fear rule the day, where nutcases with a yen for publicity fan the flames by threatening to burn Korans, where one of the world's largest and most influential faiths is demonized by an ignorant mass of uneducated simpletons, all because they don't have the intellectual capacity to understand a world in which international relations are complex and ever-shifting?
Or do we want to live in a world in which we, as a country, are dedicated to standing for something, rather than against something? Do we want to live in a country that is defined by its belief in a better life for all, or a country that is defined by the quality of its enemies? Do we want to create a legacy for our children of hatred and destruction, or a path on which people can come together and build an even stronger society for the future?
For those that favor book burnings, criminalizing the Muslim faith, and spreading a culture of hatred, bigotry, fear, and paranoia, a culture in which secret terrorists lurk around every corner, and one in which the circle of "real Americans" grows smaller and smaller, I have just one question: How's that working out for you? Is your life better for your hatred? Is the world better? Is the culture and society you're handing down to your children better? Do you really want to bring back the days of lynching and domestic terrorism spread by hate groups like the KKK and the American Nazi Party, in which a small group runs rampant over the civil rights of fellow human beings? Did we learn nothing from the mistakes and abuses of the pre-Civil Rights Era? And how far does your hate go? How long will it be before you are one of "them," on the outside of the core group, subject to beatings, burnings, and repression? Is that your vision of America?
It's not mine, and that's perhaps the greatest lesson I've learned in the wake of the September 11 attacks: that America is strongest when it clings firmly to its core beliefs of tolerance, individual liberty, and freedom for all, no matter how hard that is at times. When we show the world our best face, when we show them an America that truly believes in the core values it loudly trumpets and acts in concert with those values, that's when we best protect our citizens.
As President Obama so eloquently put it in a press conference held yesterday,
"I've got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan, in the uniform of the United States armed services. They're out there putting their lives on the line for us, and we've got to make sure that we are crystal clear for our sakes and their sakes: They are Americans. And we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don't differentiate between 'them' and 'us.' It's just 'us.'"I think that should be our mantra going forward: It's not "them" versus "us;" it's just "us." That's the essence of America right there.
America is a great nation, have no doubt about it. But we're not great because we have the biggest army or the most cutting-edge weapons. We're not great because we can yell the loudest or exercise the muscle to beat our enemies into submission. We're great because we not only stand for individual freedom and liberty, we fight for those freedoms, for those whose views we abhor as fervently as for those whose views we support. We're great because we are not a monolithic culture, one that is built on conformity of thought, idea, or identity, but one that welcomes and embraces all types of people, no matter where they come from. The result is a nation that is strengthened by its diversity, not weakened.
So, on this ninth anniversary of an event that changed America forever, spend some time reflecting on what America is, and what it should be. Remember the people that died in the Towers, and those that lost their lives trying to save as many as possible. Remember the sacrifices of so many that went before them, sacrifices that were made to preserve the liberties enshrined in our founding documents. And then think about the nation you want to see tomorrow, next week, next year, and far into the future. Is it a nation of hatred and paranoia, a nation in which each and every American is forced to walk through life with a target on his or her back, thanks to a people who preach arrogance and divisiveness, or is it a strong, healthy nation, a nation that American people can rightly be proud of due to its commitment to justice and fairness?
I know which one I choose.