Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On a final observance

Okay, so this is going to be my last post on 9/11. It's sort of become a requirement among even the most vaguely political bloggers to post on September 11 and remember where we were when we heard about the attacks, whether or not we knew or thought we knew someone in the towers or the Pentagon, what happened in the immediate aftermath, what's happened since, what's happened with the families of the victims, why those attacks are such a vital (if you're blogging from the right) or ridiculous (blogging from the left) justification for our current war, and why everyone on the other side of the argument obviously hates America. And then it's pointed out that 9/11 changed everything.

Except the more I thought about it today, the more I realized: 9/11 changed nothing.

Now, don't get me wrong; there are people whose lives are deeply and irreconcilably different since those attacks. The families of these people, for instance. They had to deal with the fear to begin with, and then the pain of losing a loved one, and have since been bombarded with constant images of the attacks and been dragged around and used - by both sides - as political tools and pawns. And the workers who helped to treat survivors and clean up and rebuild, the ones who are now sick after being assured by the government that they were in absolutely no danger, many of whom are being denied affordable treatment for those same illnesses because God forbid we should have anything approaching universal health care. Those people who were directly and immediately touched by the attacks have their own unique experiential set resulting from that day, a set with which I sympathize and which I hope never to be able to fully understand. I begrudge those people no amount of grief or anger, and however they choose to mourn, publicly or privately, I offer no argument.

But for the vast majority of Americans, 9/11 changed nothing. And not just because so many of us were merely riding the grief train in the months following the attacks, manufacturing grief and fear beyond what we sincerely felt so that we could feel like a part of this national outpouring of emotion. And not because nothing changed. Our world right now is, in fact, quite different from the way it was before the attacks.

Since the attacks, Americans have become more jingoistic. We've lashed out at well-meaning allies. We've alienated just about every other country in the entire world with our foreign policy. In the co-opted name of the victims of the attacks, we've sent the men and women who've vowed to keep us safe to invade another, un-9/11-adjacent country without provocation. We're embroiled in a war seemingly without end. We've renamed "French fries" "Freedom fries" and then changed the name back. We've held up the families of 9/11 victims as justification for war, and then we've chastised them when they protested such exploitation or grieved in a government-nonapproved fashion. We've attacked Arabs for possibly being Muslims, and we've attacked Sikhs for looking like Arabs. We've decried the abuses of women in Arab countries, and then we've spat on women on our own city streets for daring to wear the hijab. We've convinced ourselves that the Iraqi people are innocent and worthy of our help and simultaneously ungrateful wretches who deserve anything that comes to them. We've made it okay, even admirable, to be xenophobic and hateful. We've normalized racial profiling. We've criminalized dissent. We've submitted to unconstitutional government invasions of our privacy. We've consented to torture. We've reduced the American flag to an item of apparel and the attacks of September 11 to a smoking-tower logo and "We'll Never Forget" suitable for t-shirt, bumper sticker, snow globe, or Commemorative Coin Forged From Genuine Ground Zero Salvaged Steel. Between American casualties in Iraq and lives lost in the attacks themselves, we're nearly 7,000 fewer than we were six years and a day ago.

But those changes aren't because of 9/11. Correlation vs. causation; those changes happened after the September 11 attacks, but not because of them. Those changes happened because someone - lots of someones - saw an opportunity to turn a tragedy into a campaign.

The 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, but we're not at war with Saudi Arabia. The attacks were coordinated by Osama bin Laden, but we're no closer to capturing him than we've ever been. Our airport security is and has been weak as water, but the best efforts made for our safety involve putting our travel-sized shampoo bottles in Ziploc bags. The terrorist cells that constantly threaten our safety are holed up on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but our troops are too bogged down in Iraq and our global diplomacy cred is so shot that we can't get into other countries to punish those responsible for the attacks. We're told that the terrorists hate us for our freedoms, and all the while the government is systematically stripping those freedoms away unquestioned. We've given complete control of our lives to a man who takes vacations during natural disasters and hasn't mastered the pronunciation of "nuclear" yet and has fed us one untruth after another to justify his war, because he looks convincing in a cowboy hat, and because anyone preaching reason and moderation is far too removed from the "boot in the ass" misguided-revenge-seekers who appeal to the lesser angels of our nature.

But 9/11 didn't do any of that. We did that. We just used 9/11 as an excuse.

You know what would be awesome? If 9/11 really did change everything. If we took that feeling of global unity - "We are all Americans" - that immediately followed the attacks and ran with it. If, instead of alienating our allies and neighbors by lashing our randomly, we worked together to rout out the true causes of global terrorism. If we made it a priority to understand other cultures instead of demonizing them. If we reached out to grieving families instead of using them for our own purposes. If we stepped outside of our own personal bubbles and looked to happiness other than our own. If we reacted with compassion instead of fear. If, instead of playing directly from the terrorists' script and letting our lives turn into a reactionary chaos of fear and mistrust and hatred, we resolved to make our country, and our place in the world, stronger, safer, more welcoming, more understanding, more open. If we realized that life is precious and can be gone in an instant, and that the only way to honor that is to live life, with others, rather than cowering in fear.

We've been there. I've seen it. Right after the attacks, back before those in power set to really cultivating the fear that the attacks seeded, blood banks were overflowing with donors and state troopers were running bucket-brigade relays to get that blood where it needed to go. Anyone grieving or afraid had a set of available arms nearby. Some churches and synagogues and mosques were hosting seminars and gatherings to promote understanding and correct misconceptions between faiths. Firefighters held out boots at traffic lights, and those boots were always full to overflowing with donations. During that first flush, when news coverage showed nothing but disaster footage, for whatever reason we turned to each other in the US and in the rest of the world, and the sheer potential of it all was amazing. Back before it all got really dirty, it was the one shining hope that could arise from the rubble like the clich├ęd flower poking out of a crack in a sidewalk.

We can be that potential. We can choose, even at this late and seemingly immutable point, to go back and find that place where we could make a good thing out of something that seemed completely devoid of any goodness. And when we do that, you'll get another September post for me saying that I knew all along how 9/11 changed everything.

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