In the wake of 9/11 how will we choose to be?

 In Embracing our connection, Reclaiming Democracy

I wrote this op-ed for the September 15, 2001 edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times.

As you read this my wife, Shonnie, will finally be home. That will never be said again for thousands of our fellow citizens.

I sit here by myself early Thursday morning. Over the past two days, I have moved from shock and numbness to a place of deep sadness and grief. I mourn for those who lost their lives or were injured in the suicide attacks. I mourn for those they left behind. I mourn for our nation. I mourn for those around the world who face the violence of terrorism on a daily basis.

I am lucky. Shonnie is en route from Denver to Asheville via Greyhound (a 36-hour journey) after having been stranded there because of the FAA’s no-fly order. But she is coming home.

What happened on Tuesday was impossible for me to fully comprehend at first. I watched the 767 crash into the World Trade Center, but it was more like a rerun of some action flick than reality. Yet every time I heard a siren outside my Biltmore Avenue office, I was startled, thinking an attack might be underway in Asheville. Shonnie called from her dad’s in Denver. I called my mom in Tennessee. She had talked to my daughter who lives outside Washington, D.C. and reported that she and her family were OK. I couldn’t get through to any of my friends or relatives in the D.C. or New York City areas. I prayed they were safe. Folks in my office suite gathered to watch the tragic events unfold. Not much work got done that day.

On television I watch those who call for vengeance, an eye for an eye. And, yes, I’ll admit, there is that part of me that wants a full measure of revenge right now. On the radio I hear those who call for stringent security measures in order to create a safer nation. And while I don’t relish a three-hour wait each time I fly somewhere, I understand the desire for greater safety. I see leaders who believe we must increase our military might in order to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. And I recognize the need for us to be prepared.

Yet, I wonder: Will further violence bring an end to violence? Is any security measure going to bring us the safety we long for? Will a missile defense system keep a small band of committed militants from their dastardly work?

One thing has been accomplished by the appalling actions of the terrorists: We have come together as a nation in support of those in need. We have opened our hearts. The best in us is evident in full measure. Heroic deeds; open-hearted prayers; evocative words; an outpouring of blood, money, and supplies. I feel pride in being an American, and I resolve to do more than simply writing these words and sending them out.

We have been dealt a horrendous blow. Our lives have been changed in ways yet to be fully revealed. Yet in the midst of all this turmoil, out of the darkness of these deeds, we are presented with a crucial choice. How will we ultimately respond to this egregious tragedy? What kind of world will we seek to create? I pray we choose wisely. I pray we choose well.

May God help us all.

If we practice and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless. ~Mahatma Gandhi

Postscript—September 11, 2016

9/11 presented us with an immense opportunity. A few days after that horrendous event I wrote that one thing had been accomplished by the appalling actions of the terrorists: We had come together as a nation in support of those in need. And not only that; the world community joined in mourning our loss. Many nations pledged their cooperation in confronting the challenge of terrorism, and we had considerable solidarity in this effort . . . for a while.

In the months following 9/11, however, President George W. Bush hijacked our interval of unity. Intent on retribution, Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and others told us that that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They were not. These same men told us that Iraq posed a grave threat to our nation. It did not. We were told our troops would be welcomed by the Iraqi people with open arms. They were not. We were told that weapons of mass destruction would be discovered in Iraq. They were not. We were told that the conflict would end quickly. It did not. We were told that selling Iraqi oil would pay for rebuilding that nation. It did not even come close, and the tab is still running.

The vast majority of the members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, bought into the propaganda put forth by the Bush Administration immediately after 9/11 and voted overwhelmingly to give President Bush a virtual blank check to go to war whenever, wherever and however he saw fit. Of course, there are also the actions by Congress curtailing our civil liberties right here in the United States, such as the Patriot Act and the growing surveillance society, among others, but I’ll save this discussion for another time.

The nation’s mainstream media became the Administration’s stenographers, merely repeating their pre-Iraq War propaganda and feeding it to us devoid of opposing views. I spoke out against the Iraq War before it began in my op ed “A few illogical arguments for the elimination of Saddam Hussein,” that was published on October 12, 2002 in The Asheville Citizen-Times and on a number of progressive news websites.

If the media giants, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Newsweek and numerous others, had done more critical analysis, or if the citizens of the U.S. had been discerning enough to recognize the misinformation for what it was, perhaps the war in Iraq could have been avoided. Rick Mercier, then a columnist for The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA) issued a rare mea culpa on March 28, 2004 after the Iraq War was underway:

Sorry we let unsubstantiated claims drive our coverage. Sorry we were dismissive of experts who disputed White House charges against Iraq. Sorry we let a band of self-serving Iraqi defectors make fools of us. Sorry we fell for Colin Powell’s performance at the United Nations. Sorry we couldn’t bring ourselves to hold the administration’s feet to the fire before the war, when it really mattered. Maybe we’ll do a better job next war.

The total financial cost of the Iraq War is estimated by some to eventually balloon to $4.8 trillion. The human cost? More than 4,000 Americans killed and approximately 32,000 wounded. While we may never know the full extent of Iraqi civilian casualties, no matter who’s doing the counting, the toll is in the hundreds of thousands. Of course, these statistics don’t include the loss of life nor the financial cost of the conflict in Afghanistan, a war which some believe was justified since that nation harbored the Al Qaeda militants believed responsible for the 9/11 attacks. One thing perhaps on which we can all agree: the Middle East is in much greater turmoil now than it was before we began our ill-advised misadventure(s).

“The first casualty when war comes is truth.” ~Hiram Johnson

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