Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11: Miscellaneous Thoughts

During my morning commute today, I found myself listening to NPR, CNN, and (gasp) Fox News (via Sirius) as they covered the commemorations of 9/11. As I listened, I found myself both sad (for obvious reasons) and angry (I'll get to that in a minute) and I started asking myself several questions. So, in no particular order, here are a few thoughts about 9/11, eight years later.

First, I tried to remember what, if anything, I said about 9/11 last year. When I looked back at my posts, I was (somewhat) surprised to see that I had not posted any kind of remembrance on 9/11/2008. Instead, that day was one of the relatively few days on which I did not post anything as the 2008 election season began to heat up. Apparently, my focus was on Sarah Palin, lies, and push polling and, somehow, I allowed 9/11 to pass without comment. For that, I'm a bit angry with myself.

Then again, though, I wonder why 9/11 continues to have the impact upon us that it does when other horrific events do not. The whole nation does not keep 4/19 in its collective conscience, yet on that day in 1995, 168 people were killed by an American terrorist in Oklahoma City. Nor does 4/20 have a great deal of resonance, yet on that day in 1999, 12 students and a teacher were killed in Columbine. Many people certainly remember 12/7 (/41, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), but I wonder how many stop and think about that event. I'm not suggesting that 9/11 should not have a special place in our collective memory; I'm just curious to understand why it does when these other events (or other similar events) do not.

I've often thought that 9/11 should be a national memorial day focused on the victims of terror. We celebrate our war veterans (Veterans Day), we celebrate working Americans (Labor Day), we celebrate the birthdays of our country and certain prominent Americans, and of course we commemorate those who died in the service of the country (Memorial Day). Perhaps we should have a single day to commemorate those who have fallen, not in the service to America, but rather, simply because they were American (whether on 9/11, in Oklahoma City, in the embassies in Kenya or Tanzania, or on a flight over Lockerbie, Scotland). 9/11 seems like the perfect day for such memorial. Perhaps that day could be set aside for Americans to come together to do good works in the name of those who were the victims of terror, whether it be to clean our streets and parks, plant some trees, feed the poor, or any of a myriad of other activities, with the aim of using our remembrance as an opportunity to show the world why America is great and why terror will never defeat us or break our communal spirit.

Whew. OK, enough of that misty-eyed, idealistic stuff.

As I mentioned, I also got angry listening to the coverage this morning. Out of NPR, CNN, and Fox News, can you guess which station caused by blood to boil? If you've read much of what I've written in the past, you should have no trouble guessing that it was Fox News (or as I've taken to calling them Faux News). While I was (ever so briefly) listening to Faux News, several reporters-analysts-entertainers (I don't know who they were, although I thought I heard Geraldo Rivera's name mentioned) were discussing the horrific videos we all remember from 9/11. The discussion turned to the vision of people jumping from the Twin Towers to escape the inferno. I'm sure those images are seared into our collective memory.

But then Faux News went off the rails. One of commentators -- I don't know who -- suggested that the next time we hear someone complaining about a prisoner at Guantanamo being waterboarded, we should remember those people leaping to their deaths. The suggestion was then verbally applauded by the other commentators. In that suggestion, the folks at Faux News have demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding (or lack of concern) for how our system is supposed to work and what makes America different from your average petty dictatorship. You see, in America, we don't torture people for revenge (and, yes, waterboarding is torture); nor do we torture people because they have knowledge that we want. If we did, then shouldn't we have tortured Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to learn more about right-wing domestic terrorism? Shouldn't we be torturing the accused murderer of Dr. George Tiller or the man who shot a guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum? Maybe we should have allowed Valerie Plame to torture Scooter Libby to learn whether Vice President Cheney authorized the leak. Should we allow the police to torture anyone that they arrest? Should we torture felons upon their convictions? Oh, and how do we know that those whom we are torturing actually deserved to be tortured and aren't, in fact, innocent?

We expect the police and armies of dictatorships and tyrannies to use torture as a weapon; we expect terrorists to use torture as a component of their terror, and we expect primitive cultures and barbarous regimes to use torture because, well because they are primitive and barbarous. But the United States stands above all that and, I think, that is one of the things about our country for which we are rightfully proud. Sure it's fun to watch Jack Bauer torture a terrorist, but that is fiction; it isn't real.

Just like you and presumably most everyone else, I feel little other than contempt or even hatred toward those responsible for 9/11 and I don't ever want them to try something like that again, let alone succeed in doing so. But that doesn't mean that the answer is to round up people and torture them in the hope that they might know something.

When I watch video of people jumping to their deaths, I am absolutely horrified and my blood boils. I want to go out and hurt those responsible. But that is the reptilian, animistic part of my brain speaking. The human part of my brain, the American part of my brain, tells me that it is the ability to control those violent retributive instincts that makes me different -- and, yes, better -- than those who would allow their baser instincts to control them or who seek to use violence, terror, and torture as means to their ends.

I don't mean to suggest that we should forgive those responsible allow future terrorists to target us again. The perpetrators and planners should be apprehended, tried, and punished (I'll leave for another day the discussion of what form that punishment should take). And we should do (almost) everything that we can to prevent another attack. But we shouldn't torture the perpetrators just to make us feel better or torture those we fear might try to attack us out of a misguide notion that the use of torture will prevent further attacks (in fact, I would contend that the use of torture only makes us more vulnerable as it serves to radicalize more and more people against us).

So I would answer the commentators of Faux News by saying that, no I don't think about the people jumping from the Twin Towers to make me feel better about torture. Instead, I think about what will happen to an American who falls into enemy hands and I think about what makes America the proverbial shining city on the hill. I reflect upon the fact that we are governed by the rule of law and not the law of the jungle. Knowing that we are better, more civilized? That makes me feel better.

Let us honor the victims of terror by erecting monuments, by engaging in acts of kindness and generosity in their names, and by building a civil society of which they would be proud, not by using torture or violence to stoke the fires of retribution.

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