Like everyone, I remember where I was. “Wake up, we’ve been attacked.” We ran to the television and stared in disbelief. I remember saying slowly, “My God, we’re going to war.”
Those who are old enough to remember, as well as those who are not, revisit today the horror of September 11, 2001. It’s etched into our collective memory whether we remember it or not. My daughter was the exact same age, in number of years as well as months, as I was when JFK was killed. I remember my annoyance at her school for telling the children what happened before the parents had a chance to pick them up. I wanted to be the one to tell her, to hold her, to explain to her what had happened. I knew that from that day forward, my precious 11 year old would never again be able to assume that life was necessarily safe.
The days that followed, much like the days after Kennedy’s assassination, were days of communal grief and processing. Let it be noted - it is important that this be noted - that in those first days after the attack, unlike the ugliness of the military misadventures that have come to mark America’s official response to that day over the last twenty years, the people of the United States were beautiful. In our heartbreak and horror people were vulnerable, actually, and open.
More than anything else, people were shocked.
For years, mainstream media had been withdrawing their commitment to foreign correspondents, leaving the average American little more than drivel to digest in the way of news about what was really going on in the world. Now people were asking each other, “But why do they hate us? I didn’t know people hated us! Did you know people hated us?” We were glued to the TV for more information. Network news was filled with correspondents and historians and scholars actually telling us the truth, explaining a larger picture, educating Americans about political realities that had been simply hidden from our view. And people were eating it up. Americans were open-minded in our suffering. Hungry for information. Seeking wisdom in our grief.
And then it happened.
You could actually feel it, when several days later someone clamped down hard on all that truth-telling. Such exposure was not to be countenanced. “No, we won’t have any of that,” seemed to be a voice that came down from on high. What could have been such a teachable moment, the intelligence and decency of the American people having an opportunity to rise to the occasion, turned into political gaslighting of the highest order. You could feel a curtain come down across sunlight, the room filled with weird artificial light. The official explanation was this: “People hate us because they’re jealous of us. We’re good, and they’re bad. But your government will handle this. What you can do to help is to go shopping, so the economy doesn’t suffer.”
And that was that.
As with so many things, the American people were not the problem. The American people could have been led differently. The tragedy of history is not just what happened twenty years ago; the tragedy of history is also what has happened over the twenty years since.
I too lost a friend that day. I was driving on a freeway in Detroit when my friend David called to tell me, “Berry was on one of those planes.” If you were to ask me, “Name five people who are the kindest souls you’ve ever known, who you would want everyone in the world to meet so they could think that this is who Americans are,” I would have included Berry. She was one of those people who would watch a documentary about endangered animals, babies, anyone, and start crying. Berry was flying to Los Angeles to hear her son’s band perform that night. She never made it, though she remains forever in the hearts of those who loved her. Including me.
Today’s remembrances, deeply personal and touching, are important. The tears we cry watching the ceremony on television, hearing the names read, reaching out to friends who shared the moment with us, are rituals that matter. They memorialize an extraordinarily tragic event. But neither should they be cover for a sober and serious realization of how this nation has so bungled our response.
Some might say, “This is not the day to discuss that.” But this is absolutely the day to discuss it. Our hearts are opened again today; let our minds be opened too. The simple truth is, we did not respond to evil with wisdom. We responded to evil with stupidity, negligence, and - if the truth be told - some evil of our own.
We were at a crossroads, and the road we took made all the difference. 9/11 was a day of evil perpetrated against the United States, and it was our responsibility to seek justice on behalf of those we lost. But America’s response to 9/11 has not turned out to be about justice; it has turned out to be about military madness, even military imperialism. Every American was prepared that day to do whatever necessary to protect our country, and do right by those who died in the attacks. But we have done right by no one. On 9/11, we lost 2,977 souls. Since then, due to our wars of retribution, more thousands of Americans than that, and hundreds of thousands of others have died. Yet we are no more safe today than we were then.
The 9/11 attack should have been treated like what it was: a high international crime. The perpetrators, when found, could and should have been tried in New York City, as many tried to argue at the time. It did not have to be - nor is it in any way to the betterment of our national security that it was - turned into an excuse for massive military misadventures by which so many have died, so many have gotten rich, and so much of America’s reputation and very soul have suffered immeasurably over the last twenty years.
Unfortunately, the tragedy of 9/11 is past but it isn’t over.
September 11 can still be an inspiration for our collective growth. But it will never be that as long as we continue to farm out our thinking to an establishment elite whose only notion of problem-solving is an obsolete, bang bang shoot ‘em up, childishly barbaric notion of brute force as ultimate strength.
Today, twenty years after one of the saddest days in all our lives, let us again begin to seek what Americans were seeking those first days after 9/11: an understanding and strength that lies in far more expanded ideas than the mere application of ferocious brute force. The military industrial complex, as well as its bought off minions in the US government, have no plans to allow the end of the Afghanistan War to be an end to the get rich scheme of industrial strength war profiteering by which they turned the memory of 9/11 into their obscene and immoral cash cow. This time, we must stand up to them.
I remember one TV panel hosted during the aftermath of 9/11, in which the people sharing had each lost an immediate family member on that awful day. The moderator asked each one at the end of the panel, “Do you want vengeance?” And not one of them responded “Yes.” I remember one man specifically - I believe he had lost his son at the Pentagon - saying the last thing he wanted was for some other parent to ever feel the pain that he was feeling then.
If only we had listened to people such as that.
I hope we come to understand more deeply, and commit more fully, to a new direction for our country as we face the challenges that remain. I think the souls of those who died on 9/11 will rest more deeply if we do. May those who mourn them still, and for whom this must be such a difficult day, feel the comfort of God’s hand upon them. May our prayers be a source of blessing on them all.
We place in Your hands
the souls we lost on that day, September 11, 2001.
May they rest in eternal peace
and may those who loved them find comfort.
May we, as a nation, arise to the Light of Your guidance.
Flood our hearts with love, dear God,
and the wisdom that it brings.
Turn us away from war
and guide us to the ways of peace.