Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11 Reflections

Ten years ago started as a typical day at work. About the same time that I started to overhear some colleagues talking about what seemed like unbelievable news, Anna called me on the phone with all the details she knew. It was the start of a crazy day, and a crazy decade.

I’ve been to Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and just recently to Shanksville, PA (see A girl from my hometown of Parkersburg was killed that day, as well as a former quarterback for my beloved WVU Mountaineers. As I reflect on the tragic events of ten years ago, the emotion I feel is anger towards the 19 hijackers and the leadership of Al-Qaeda. However, mine is a different and more subtle form of anger.

I’m mad that approximately 3000 innocent lives were lost that day. But I’m also disappointed that this terrible attack has resulted in suspicions against Muslims in general (or anyone with dark complexion, dark hair, etc.—lots of Sikhs, Hindus, and others are often looked upon with suspicion or even disdain despite the fact that their people had nothing to do with the attack). During the ‘60s, the civil rights movement tried to get us to look beyond the color of one’s skin to the content of their character. Having grown up during that era, I have tried to live that credo, but too many others prefer the perceived safety of their biases.

At one point during my college years, I dated a girl from Pakistan. She was thoroughly Westernized, and we didn’t really talk about her family origins. She was just a regular girl who happened to have a dark complexion and black hair. We didn’t have a lengthy relationship, but she even came to dinner at my parents’ house once while she was in Parkersburg. At that time, there was no real bias against Pakistanis. Unfortunately, I know it is not that way for folks of Middle Eastern descent today. This is a sad result of 9/11, and contributes to my anger.

I’m mad at the aftermath of this day on our federal government. It has been a major drain on our treasury. At the same time we were cutting taxes, we started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and still are there today. Thousands more lives have been lost in these military activities, not to mention the countless lives disrupted by deployments to the war zones. The brother of one of my former students lost both his legs in Iraq. Others I know made it back in one piece physically, but are still affected to this day by the experience. I’m mad that the 9/11 terrorists succeeded in sucking us into these endless wars.

The government leaders also decided we had to create a Directorate of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security (without a compensating plan to fund this new bureaucracy). This included the Transportation Security Agency, and all their arcane rules and regulations. The cost/benefit ratio of these expenditures on “security theater” is likely very low. Indeed, when Anna and I flew from Cancun to the U.S., we could have easily brought on board implements of mayhem or destruction, given the lax screening by Mexican airport workers. Anyone who has flown since then should be mad at what we now must tolerate.

I’m concerned about the Patriot Act and the emphasis on internal security that we have moved towards in the wake of these terrorist acts. I recognize the need to avoid future tragedies, but I also feel that Americans have lost some of our precious freedoms in the process, which we will never be able to get back. The future implications of these “Big Brother” developments may have greater impact on our descendants than American citizens today realize. This makes me mad, because I don’t want my country (or the world) to devolve into the dystopian societies described in “Brave New World” or “1984.”

I feel fortunate to have attended the University of Charleston, and had the chance to talk to and learn from several international students. My knowledge of the Middle East increased exponentially through discussions in the dorm and Coffee Tavern with them. Most Americans don’t even know the history of Palestine and Israel, or the impact that Western decision (to make up for the Holocaust) had on the Middle East. It is something that is well known throughout the Arab world. With America’s thirst for oil and the behavior exhibited by our government through activities like installing the Shah of Iran (and his secret police), it is no wonder that our reputation over there is so bad. I’m not saying that our actions justified retaliation by terrorism, but I do think Americans need to be more cognizant of how we ended up where we are today. Too often we are only concerned with our own lives (which for many means materialistic consumption) for us to contemplate world history and cultures.

I find it incomprehensible that men would fly jets into skyscrapers and landmarks—but it is important that we try to understand all the implications before reacting. What they did was terrible, but we need to make sure they don’t succeed in the long run because our reaction was too short-sighted, poorly aimed, and over-the-top. Will our over-extended military actions and underfunded government treasury lead to the decline and fall of the American empire? That would make me very angry.

Don’t try to simplify today’s world into a simple black and white, “you’re either with us or against us” paradigm. The truth is much more complicated than that, and we should always strive to seek the truth. There has been very little effort to understand the “why” of 9/11. Patriotism is good, but blind patriotism can lead to problems. The motto of my undergraduate alma mater is “Vos Veritas Liberabit” (the truth shall set you free)—another credo that I have internalized. It is important to “never forget”—a popular catchphrase on this anniversary—but we should also try to understand and take intelligent, measured steps, as well as never forget the lives that were lost, or the valiant courage displayed by those first responders seeking to help others.

Jesus left such an indelible impression on the world because his message was so unique. Indeed, Jesus was a radical in his days. Forgive thine enemies was one of his admonitions. That is very hard to do, and I’m not sure that I am truly there yet when it comes to those Al-Qaeda hijackers and their leaders. Trying to understand may be the closest thing I can do at this point. I have a sense of why they did it, but I can never agree with their actions. Ten years may be too short a marker to measure 9/11. I am curious as to how this event will be looked at a century from now. And I say a prayer for the victims.

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