Sept. 11. Where were you? What were you doing that morning?
There probably aren’t too many Americans who don’t know. Sept. 11 is the Nov. 22 of a new generation. (And there are probably too many young Americans who don’t know what that means.)
I was sitting at my open kitchen window, sipping a mug of hot coffee, looking up at a cloudless cobalt sky, feeling peaceful and content. I remember inhaling the sweet morning air deeply, relishing it, feeling relaxed and being slightly annoyed by the ringing telephone that jarred me out of my reverie shortly before 9 a.m.
Much of that Tuesday is, quite honestly, a blurry memory, haunting images jumbled in my mind. But the emotion comes back clearly, as clear as the blue sky that morning: in a word, fear. All hell was breaking loose. Thousands of people surely had perished. Nobody seemed to know what was really going on. Who wasn’t terrified that day? That was, after all, the objective of the people who attacked us and they achieved it. They robbed our sense of security.
Sept. 11 is a turning point in our nation’s history. It is a pivotal date not only for what happened that day but for how our response to the events of that day shaped America’s — and the world’s — future.
Our response included heroism: police officers and firefighters rushed into the burning buildings immediately following the attack; volunteers from outlying nearby areas, such as ours, rushing to the scene to help with the grim recovery effort, remaining there for weeks on end; men and women in the military, and those who signed up in answer to what happened that day, shipping off to Afghanistan, and later, to Iraq, to fight the enemy that brought terror to American soil. The way Americans, New Yorkers in particular, came together after the attacks — to search for survivors, recover remains, mourn our dead, comfort the grieving, clear the rubble, pick ourselves up and move on — inspired awe and respect throughout the world.
But our response also included deceit and manipulation, which, from the vantage point of five years down the road, we can now see with clarity, if we are willing to look. We dishonor the memory of those who perished in the attacks and those killed fighting in the war that followed, if we refuse to see it for what it is and speak out.
Our government lied to us.
When the federal EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman reassured us that the air near Ground Zero was safe to breathe, she was not mistaken. She was lying.
When the president told us that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were perpetrated by people linked to Saddam Hussein, he was lying. When he told us that Hussein was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, he was lying.
When the Bush administration, just a month and a half after the attacks, pushed the so-called Patriot Act through a panic-stricken Congress, it was manipulating us, capitalizing on our fear to wrought fundamental change in our 225-year-old democracy. In the name of “homeland security” and “patriotism,” we have sacrificed many of the basic rights that made the United States of America a free nation. The Soviets would be proud of what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft have accomplished: warrantless wiretaps, searches and seizures, supported by no more than the mere suspicion of relevance to a terrorist investigation; the imposition of gag orders that criminalise revealing that a search has occurred; the right to detain a suspect indefinitely without even a hearing of the charges against him. That’s just a sampling of the wounds inflicted on American democracy by the current government as America lay injured, grieving and terrified in the weeks following the attacks.
And then there’s the war waged not to bring to justice the “evildoers” who attacked us, as the president told us, but for some other reason: a personal vendetta against the man who plotted the assassination of the first President Bush, perhaps, or to secure a strategic presence in an oil-rich region, which just happened to benefit, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, the financial interests of key decision-makers in our government.
Whatever the real motives for the decision to invade Iraq, one thing is clear: Saddam Hussein, who sits in a jail cell today, was not responsible for or connected to the Sept. 11 attacks, nor was he manufacturing weapons of mass destruction to use against us in future acts of terror. Those were lies mouthed by the president to rally the support of — to manipulate — a frightened nation. The man who is responsible for those attacks remains free and still directs a global terror network organized specifically to destroy America. Americans, meanwhile, continue to die in a war that is woefully lacking in political or moral justification. And our government says there is no way out.
And the manipulation continues, as evidenced by the president’s recent rhetoric shamelessly invoking the specter of terrorism to rally support for the GOP in November’s congressional elections.
Five years after Sept. 11, I continue to feel terror and outrage — not only about the attacks but also about what the United States government has done to the world, to its own people and to our future in the wake of the attacks.
I also feel shame. When the president lied, I believed him. I wanted desperately to believe him, to believe that America had in no way provoked what had happened, when I knew full well that failed American foreign policy had set the disaster in motion decades before and continued to fuel the anger and hatred of terrorists like bin Laden. Our failed policy continues to fan the flames — the invasion and occupation of Iraq has done more for the resolve of Islamic fundamentalists than even the “victory” of Sept. 11.
Surely we haven’t seen the last of terror on our shores. But are we willing to see the blood on our own hands for what happened on Sept. 11, what’s happened in years since and for the horrors yet to come? Maybe it’s still too soon. But by the time we gain clarity and perspective, it may be too late.