Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven Years After

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." 
(Sinclair Lewis, 1935)

Those in my age bracket have been made fun of for scrupulously remembering where we were and what we were doing the day John F. Kennedy was shot. But we have since been joined by succeeding generations who recall what they were doing the morning of September 11, 2001.

In my case I was at work when I heard about the impact of the first plane. At first it seemed remotely possible it was just an accident. After all, the skies around our largest city were crowded, and the towers were so tall. And at least in the first minutes, no one was taking credit for it.

With the second impact that delusion vanished, along with many others. But still the buildings were standing. It seemed only a matter of time before the fires would be put out and expensive renovations would begin. I remember I even joked that they would have to lower the rent for office space.

I watched the news reports from my desk on a tiny black and white portable TV/radio with a 5-inch screen. Reduced to this scale the giant towers were the size of magic markers scribbling smoke against the sky. I had no idea they were going to collapse until it happened. Nor, apparently, did the police and firefighters who were actively trying to evacuate the buildings. But I was watching when the first roof gave way and I followed it with open mouth all the way down, trying to imagine the calamity that this fuzzy remote image represented.

After that I knew it was only a matter of time until the second building would follow. Conspiracy theorists are having a lot of fun now spinning stories about how the jet fuel was not enough to account for the collapse, how bombs must have been on board, and so on. But according to one of the engineers who designed the structure, the failure was inevitable. There are limits to what even steel can do in the face of extreme heat and crushing weight. The miracle really is that the towers did as little damage to their surroundings as they did when they fell.

By this time my shock had given way to a grim resignation to what was sure to follow. I didn't know the exact form it would take, but I could foresee many years of turmoil and retribution. The peace that had followed the Cold War was over. Whatever cost had been exacted by the destruction of these twin buildings, eventually it would be dwarfed by the expense of what we were bound to inflict on ourselves.

I didn't have to wait very long or look very far to see the first results. Incredibly, some of the young men who worked at my company started bringing their guns to work with them and showing them off to each other, while engaging in bravado about how they would deal with any terrorists they found. They seemed to think we were surrounded, or at least infiltrated, on all sides. One of them told me that "all those people" should be sent back where they came from. When I pointed out that there were over seven million followers of Islam in the country, most of them evidently peaceable, the idea seemed to give him pause.

If I had been able to think faster on my feet I might have added something else. The young man was a Cuban-American, one of our many hyphenated citizens. I could have reminded him about the time when our own city of Miami was plagued with a rash of bombings and assassinations by members of Alpha 66, a militant group devoted to the overthrow of Castro. How would he have felt then if all the Hispanics in the whole country had been rounded up for deportation?

But such arguments have been falling mostly on deaf ears. Confronted by fear there appears to be no limit to our collective stupidity.

The argument could be made that the best reaction to this calamity would have been no reaction at all, or at least no more than paying greater attention to airline security. The number of deaths, fewer than 4,000 in all, was about the same as the number of us that drown each year in the US, and there is no retaliation for that.

By comparison, we kill ourselves or one another with firearms at the rate of 28,000 per year -- and 750 of those are accidental, like the incident that nearly involved Dick Cheney in manslaughter. On the highways we die at the rate of 43,000 per year, ten times the 9/11 figure, a number that dwarfs our military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

But of course it's not about the numbers. The terrorists understood clearly that they were engaged in a struggle that is mostly symbolic. And the administration in Washington reacted in kind. "9/11" was suddenly Pearl Harbor and "Remember the Maine" rolled into one. They immediately cast the incident into military terms. The event was an "attack," something a country or army would do, rather than a crime. It was not mere terrorism, it was "war." (George W. Bush's first reaction was, "that's the first war of the 21st century," sounding like he was pleased to be on deck for it.) And accordingly the military was soon attacking in return, first in Afghanistan, which made some sense, and then Iraq, which made very little sense. Bush claimed it was a slip when he called it, aptly enough, a "crusade."

The military victories were rapid, but the subsequent occupations have not gone so well. Imagine how we would have felt if by 1952, seven years after the end of World War II, our soldiers were still being shot and blown up in Japan, or certain German towns were still in the hands of Nazi holdouts. Such is the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan, yet we are assured that things are going well. Meanwhile the staggering cost has exceeded even the wildest speculations of critics, and our domestic economy has gone into a tailspin.

Worse yet, we have collectively acquiesced to the dismantling of our civil rights on a scale never before imagined. Habeas corpus, one of the cornerstones of our freedom, has been suspended before, during the Civil War and World War II, but it was soon reinstated. This time it may be gone for good, at least in any case where the magic word "terrorist" has been uttered.

There is hope, of course, as there always is. A new administration, the result of our own "regime change," will have its work cut out trying to extricate itself from the Middle East tarbaby and to heal the many wounds at home and around the world. But the possibility of success is still there. Not this year, or next, but maybe before another seven years have gone by, we may be able to look back on what we learned. Let's just hope we can afford the price of the lesson.

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