It’s been a year since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The memories are permanent. Reflection and remembrance are both inevitable and inescapable. My six degrees of separation from the tragedy included a friend of my sister’s, who sang in the choir with her in their suburban Maryland church. This woman was a schoolteacher in D.C., chaperoning several of her best and brightest students on an ill-fated field trip to Los Angeles that ended in flames at the Pentagon. Several months after 9-11, I found out that a friend of mine from college had been one of the firefighters who perished on that day, trying to rescue those trapped in the towers.
As is required of archetypical American moments, frozen in the amber of history, I can clearly recall where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. Aware that history was being written in real time, I binged on CNN and 24-hour broadcast news coverage for over a week, hoping, in vain, to glean some understanding, some significance from it all. The screen flickered through the wee hours of the morning with incessant scenes of the towers ablaze, collapsing, macabre tableaus of people desperate beyond human comprehension, leaping from certain death within the twin tombs to certain death in the streets below, accompanied by an infinite loop of talking heads.
Still, there were hopeful glimmers amid the ash and the wreckage. In the face of uncertainty, faith re-entered our national lexicon. Many of us took hard looks at our priorities, and found them to be out of place. Our status and power-obsessed culture rediscovered civil servants, taking time to thank them profusely for their largely unrequited feats of everyday heroism. Sure, it wasn’t long thereafter before we’d commercialized and fetishized firemen and the police, but we had a moment there. As we reeled from the collective shock, our global media brought us vivid images from around the world, moving footage of throngs of empathetic “foreigners” expressing impromptu solidarity with us in our time of need and grief. I remember seeing Canadians and Germans, tears streaming down their faces, singing our national anthem and “America The Beautiful.” Perhaps, in those moments, they felt a kinship with us, a fleeting feeling that despite our national hubris, our studied indifference to their struggles, that our shared pain would bring us closer to them and the rest of the world. Not.
Even as other countries expressed their sympathy and pledged support, our “elected” leaders quickly made clear that, despite the black eye, Uncle Sam had lost neither his trademark swagger, nor contempt for anything resembling an international community. In the awful aftermath of 9-11, President Bush and his administration soon affirmed that we remained the same country that had, in August, thumbed its nose at the World Conference Against Racism. The same country that scorned the Kyoto Treaty, and sneered at the proposed International Criminal Court as insufferable assaults on our sovereignty and profitability.
Allies and enemies
That a war would happen was a foregone conclusion. Osama bin Laden soon emerged as national enemy No. 1, and the Taliban were, correctly, vilified for harboring him and his al-Qaeda organization. Of course, in the rush to solidarity following the tragedy, most mainstream news outlets failed to mention that the al-Qaeda/Taliban connection was well-known to us prior to the terrorist attacks, and that despite the fact that bin Laden was held responsible by our “intelligence” community for the bombing and killings of 224 people in our Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies in 1998, our government still felt highly enough of the draconian Taliban regime to provide them millions of new dollars in aid and commendations for fighting the opium poppy trade just months prior to 9-11. Nor were most Americans privy to the fact that Afghanistan’s evolution as a nexus for heavily armed and guerilla-trained Islamic fundamentalists, including bin Laden, was courtesy of our tax dollars, provided to assist the mujahideen, or as then-president Ronald Reagan preferred to call them, “freedom fighters,” in their protracted and bloody struggle against an invasion by the Soviet Union. The CIA even thought it a good idea at the time to encourage the notion of the Afghanistan war as a jihad to increase the zeal with which their tenacious proxies would combat the spread of communism. Thanks, guys.
What was astounding following the 9-11 tragedy, however, was this amorphous, open-ended, War On Terrorism launched by the Bush administration–or as I like to call it, WOT. With this master stroke, we basically took that unprecedented outpouring of global goodwill and used it to extort from these sympathetic nations an endorsed blank check, to be tendered at our timing and discretion for any military or police action we deemed included within WOT’s ill-defined parameters. By the way, as befitting this proudly corporate presidential administration, WOT is not the actual war, but a holding company, which includes the War On Civil Liberties, the War On Separation Of Powers, the War On Government Accountability and the ever-profitable War On Dissent. WOT is also onomatopoetic–it’s the sound made by other gasping world leaders when our president makes foreign policy announcements, such as sweeping indictments of disparate nations as “evil,” or the incredibly dangerous assertion of our ability to strike, pre-emptively, at any state we think capable of threatening us.
According to the latest press releases, the next hot product to come from WOT (makers of such enduring novelties as the USA PATRIOT Act) will be the War On Iraq, Part 2, sequel to the hottest selling policy item of the early 1990s. Like all WOT products, you’ll be able to recognize it instantly by its red, white and blue wrapper. Despite the fact that there are no facts linking Iraq to Sept. 11 (early reports intimating a link between an Iraqi intelligence official and al-Qaeda operatives were subsequently discredited by the media and U.S. intelligence sources), this war is sticking firmly to production schedules and should be available in time for the Christmas rush.
What’s truly alarming is that the alleged mastermind behind 9-11 is still at large, and presumably, unscathed. After a frantic few, early weeks of “we almost have him,” and “we have him where we want him,” it’s been months since I’ve heard any White House official even mention Osama bin Laden. Yet, our leaders are fully prepared to face overwhelming opposition from our allies and the rest of the world in order to prosecute a vindictive distraction of a war against a country, which, while a dictatorship, does not espouse the Islamic extremism that we’ve so closely associated with the War On Terrorism. Iraq is a secular Arab state. That is why, prior to the Gulf War, it was our proxy of choice, receiving millions of overt and covert U.S. dollars to fight a long, brutal, destabilizing war against our old enemy, Iran. Like the “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, and other luminaries cum nemeses like our Panamanian pal Manuel Noriega (remember when we test drove stealth bombers through Managua?), Saddam Hussein was once on the CIA payroll, and a member in good standing of the “friendly dictators” club.
If terrorism was really our target, it would be much more plausible for the United States to attack Saudi Arabia or Yemen (from whence the hijackers came) or even Germany, where many of them lived and trained. The distinguishing thing about Iraq is that we’ve already waged an unnecessary war against them and won. But we had to liberate Kuwait, you say? Contrary to the popular hysteria, which envisioned Hussein taking Kuwait, then Saudi Arabia, then Czechoslovakia, Iraq invaded Kuwait after alleging that that the tiny petroleum-soaked monarchy had been persistently slant drilling, stealing Iraqi oil from the Ramallah oil fields underneath their shared border (coincidentally, with U.S.-made equipment). After diplomatic contacts with Kuwait were rebuffed, the Iraqis took the extraordinary step of consulting April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador, who told them in July 1990 that the United States regarded this as an “internal” dispute.
Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, however, it was the United States that rode in almost immediately and drew a unilateral line in the sand, to the consternation of the United Nations, which one would presume should get first crack at international mediation and conflict resolution. None of which is to assert that Hussein is somehow a good guy or an innocent. On the contrary, he has committed atrocities, including the use of chemical weapons on Iraq’s ethnic Kurdish population and the Iranians he was fighting on our behalf. It’s important to point out, though, that while the gassing of the Kurds is now being floated as justification for the toppling of Hussein, this activity occurred while he was still on “our” side, and, per a recent article in The New York Times, the United States went so far as to provide military operational intelligence, a nice way of saying that we told him where to aim his poison gas in order to kill the most Iranians.
Why would I so rudely bring these unpleasantries up, during what is surely to become a time of national mourning and solemn remembrance? (I know–it’s so counter-cathartic.) The point is, “why” has been glaringly absent from our national discourse on war and terrorism for too long. In quintessential soundbite fashion, we were told shortly after the tragedy that we were attacked “because of our freedom.” If, by that, Bush meant your typical hedonistic, permissive, “Western” mores, then perhaps Amsterdam would have been a more suitable terrorist target. There’s simply more to it than that. Certainly one of the primary affronts to al-Qaeda’s fanatics was the presence of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia, where the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina are. Now, if the Gulf War was truly fought for a “Just Cause,” as one of its code names so inaptly asserted, then the provocation of the unjust in the process was a necessary evil. Of course, for consistency’s sake, if our motives were pure, we should be just as willing to intervene in Indonesia, Sierra Leone, the Sudan, Israel/Palestine, and the dozens of other places in the world where similar problems and injustices exist. If, however, that war was not necessary (and it wasn’t, unless justice is on the side of oil), then at this time of somber remembrance, Americans are challenged to ensure that our leaders do not needlessly and foolishly perpetuate pain and suffering throughout the world, and invite retaliation, however monstrous and unjustified.