Thursday, September 11, 2014

Where were you on 9/11/2001?

Hi Katalusis friends, I first published this piece in 2007. On today's anniversary of September 11, 2001, I’m sure many of us will once again be reminded of where we were when terrorists struck the Twin Towers in NYC. 

Two Men and a Truck, assisted by my son, helped me move into my new apartment that Labor Day weekend.

A few days later, rushing around to get ready for work, I paused at my second floor east window to watch the breaking of a bright new day in suburban St. Paul.

On the way to my car, I heard the ominous sound of propellers overhead and looked up to see helicopters circling the area. I pulled out of our parking lot and within minutes, I was stuck in a massive traffic jam ― a big tanker had overturned on the nearby interstate.
It took forever to get to work and by the time I parked and walked to my cube in the Communication team’s office, the place was eerily deserted. My co-workers were across the hall staring at a conference room TV. I caught up with them just in time to see the plane slam into the second tower on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. 

Life as we knew it, both locally and globally, changed instantly. Formerly reasonable and presumably peace-loving acquaintances became angry and defiant. Still numb with shock, I stood in the corridor as a regional vice-president strode toward me and said, “We’ve got to hunt these people down and kill them.” 

Hunt them down and kill them. 

I heard that phrase often in the days that followed. The media echoed the refrain and soon the drumbeat began for an all out war on terror that called first for bombing to smithereens already shell-shocked Afghanistan, still struggling to recover from a previous war.

Barely pausing for breath and with unlimited hubris, the Administration geared up to send the people of Iraq into “shock and awe” with a targeted, high tech, pre-emptive strike against their country.
It’s rumored that he who appeared in a video recently with beard trimmed and dyed black is still hanging out somewhere along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the meantime, the insurgency, once referred to by Donald Rumsfeld as a few dead-enders, demonstrated decisively that an I.E.D. concealed in a strategically placed goat cart on a back street in Baghdad, could effectively checkmate the world’s greatest superpower with all of its technological superiority.

Six years later, it bears repeating until we’re blue in the face: Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

There were in the beginning occasional voices of dissent. The late Susan Sontag published an essay in the New Yorker shortly after 9/11 guaranteed to provoke the wrath of a good number of liberals, conservatives, and those in between. Six years later, her remarks would seem prophetic to any semi-conscious American. Here are a few excerpts:

“The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing…

“A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration, apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush…

“A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere – about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense…

‘"Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be.”

Those days I found refuge and sanity at my church where we gathered, not so much to rail at our “enemies,” but to get centered again in the midst of a national mood combining a volatile mix of nationalism, hyped up patriotism, and evangelical fervor rapidly approaching hysteria.

Ignoring the hype, members of our congregation stood fast and for whatever it was worth, a majority of us signed a resolution opposing the invasion of Iraq.

When it was too late to matter, the NY Times, the daily paper that sets the news agenda in the United States, published a front-page apology for its inadequate investigative reporting in the run-up to that ill-fated invasion, including the farce about weapons of mass destruction.

Let it be noted here that from day one, my son insisted: “The war with Iraq is about oil, Mom.”
But even at our most cynical, small incidents occur that nurture our spirituality and keep us going. I was browsing in the local Barnes and Noble one evening, when another customer hesitantly asked my help. Identifying himself as Muslim, he said he was looking for a book on comparative religion; he wanted to learn more about other faith traditions.

As we scanned the shelves in B & N’s skimpy section on religion, another gentleman joined us. Turned out he graduated from a Catholic seminary in my home state of Ohio. He referred our Muslim seeker to a nearby used bookstore that he often frequented.

It occurred to me later that our theologically diverse threesome, representing Unitarian-Universalism, Roman Catholicism, and Islam, had bonded immediately in a common quest. And I found myself wondering just how a Muslim in search of greater religious understanding happened to run into not one, but two seminary graduates at a neighborhood bookstore.

In the spirit of process theology that advocates bridges instead of barriers, religious leaders as disparate as Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh and evangelical Christian Jim Wallis, editor of “Sojourners Magazine,” began pleading for sanity and calling for peace.

In his book, Calming the Fearful Mind: a Zen Response to Terrorism, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “Many of us claim to be disciples of the Buddha, of Jesus Christ, of Mohammed, but we don’t listen to their teachings. Hatred cannot overcome hatred. Violence cannot overcome violence. The bible, the Koran, the Torah, and the Sutras teach us that. But we don’t always believe in our spiritual path. We must think that our spiritual teachings are not realistic, because we have put so much faith in military and financial power. We think that money and weapons can make us strong. But our country has a lot of weapons and a lot of money and we are still very afraid and insecure.” 

The next time I spoke to my son about the prospects for peace, he looked me steadily in the eye and said: “It’s about oil, Mom.”
Jim Wallis reports in "God's Politics," which offers a challenge to both the Left and the Right, that President Bush, who once publicly named Jesus his favorite philosopher, refused to meet with a delegation of U.S. church leaders before leading the nation to war. However, on Feb. 18, 2003, the U.S group was joined by international church leaders in a fifty-minute meeting with Tony Blair. Wallis said they testified in moving personal statements to their conviction that war was not the answer to the real threats posed by Saddam Hussein.

Wallis adds, “We told the prime minister that the answer to a brutal, threatening dictator must not be the bombing of Baghdad’s children.”

Today, the nearly 3,800 American troops who have died in Iraq since the invasion exceeds the number of Americans who died in the attacks on the Twin Towers.

And a recent poll in the Los Angeles Times estimates the death toll of Iraqi civilians at 1.2 million.
As for the children, large numbers of those who have survived the war so far are orphaned, homeless, and malnourished. 

UNICEF reports: “Many children are separated from their families or on the streets, where they are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Most children have experienced trauma but few receive the care and support they need to help them cope with so much chaos, anxiety and loss.”
9/11, we remember, dawned golden bright. Six years later, the skies over Ground Zero were gray, as raindrops mingled with the tears of survivors gathered nearby.

I wasn’t the only one reminded of where I was and what I was doing on 9/11: Roger Cohen wrote in the NY Times:

“My daughter’s fourth birthday was that morning, and we looked at the billowing smoke from the water’s edge in Brooklyn Heights and she cried. I took the subway to work, one of the last to run, and a woman beside me was sobbing. When, that night, I emerged into Times Square, nobody. I walked for miles through a ghost city.” 

Cohen recalls:

“The United States was not previously a homeland, it was just our land, and that unhappy neologism with its Orwellian echoes, its sense of exclusion rather than inclusion, its faint fatherland-like echoes, seems to capture the closing and the menace and the terror-terror refrain with which we have all learned to live.”

Prompted by that refrain, we continue to ask the question that Sen. John Warner asked Gen. David Petraeus in last week’s hearings on Capitol Hill: “Are we safer now?”

And if you were watching, you saw the general, with his chest full of medals, struggle mightily before finally acknowledging, “I actually don’t know.”

Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker offered only a glimmer of optimism in their recommendations for further military engagement in war-torn Iraq based on small signs of success, overshadowed lately by several credible reports of numerous failed benchmarks.

Instead of listening to our president’s speech this Thursday night, I went out to dinner at Culver’s with my son, who had also been following the week’s developments. Pausing between bites of his butter burger, he said, “Mom, it’s about oil.”
The Petraeus report, appended by Bush’s speech, was best described by one commentator as a calculated attempt to kick the can down the road another six months.

According to the transcripts, Bush boasted, “Our troops in Iraq are performing brilliantly. Along with Iraqi forces, they have captured or killed an average of more than 1,500 enemy fighters per month since January.”
And so we continue as we began, determined to hunt down and kill every last one of those whom we fear and label as our enemies.

A brief digression here: In his just released 531-page memoir, Alan Greenspan, a widely respected conservative Republican and former chairman of the Federal Reserve, writes without elaboration:

"I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

I knew that.

In words compatible with process theology, Thich Nhat Hanh says:

“We have looked for strength and security in military might. “We have attempted to defend ourselves with weapons of war. We have brought great suffering and destruction upon ourselves and others. Our way of dealing with terrorism is taking us down a dangerous path of distrust and fear. It is time to stop. Let us pause. It is time to seek true strength and true security. We cannot escape our interdependence with other people, with other nations of the world. Let us take this moment to look deeply and find a path of liberation. It is possible to look at each other again with the eyes of trust, camaraderie, and love.” 

May it be so.

Note to readers: Today's post is an edited, condensed version of the presentation I gave yesterday at my church fellowship. As always, your comments are welcome.



  1. "Our way of dealing with terrorism is taking us down a dangerous path of distrust and fear. It is time to stop." If only our leaders were as wise as Thich Nhat Hahn. Excellent column, Virginia. Hard to believe, with all that's happened, that it's only been 13 years.

  2. Thanks, Marsha. I didn't listen to Obama's speech last night, but I've been scanning the coverage this morning. Same old, same old? I keep remembering the refrain from that old Peter, Paul, and Mary tune, "Where have all the flowers gone ,,,"When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn..."