For anyone old enough to have turned on a TV nine years ago, there's no denying that seeing September 11 on the calendar takes you back to a very scary day. I saw a photo of a woman in New York today holding a sign, that indicated that the remembrance gathering at the WTC site was "only" about the innocent people who died that day, including one of her own family members. I was really glad to see that, as it demands appropriate focus.
The strange thing about that day, and coming to grips with it, is that very little focus was ever given to the actual people who carried out the attacks, and it was just something that kind of happened. The stories told have been about survival and people helping people. If you can find one thing good that came out of the tragedy, it was a desire from people to look out for each other.
Things are different this year, as the economy continues to struggle, no politicians on either side of the aisle are favored, unemployment is still high, and people are just generally fearful. Whether or not the fear is rational probably doesn't matter, but a lot of people are scared anyway. While it's important to remember this day, tomorrow I think we're long overdue to start understanding what's going on, and why, in terms of what seems like a meltdown of American culture.
The "how" of 9/11 is well documented, but the frustrating thing since that day is that so few people ask the "why." A band of radicals coordinated to hijack and crash planes because they felt that our government was a tyrant against Middle Eastern, primarily Islamic nations. Decades of one-sided support for Israel, and the refusal to lift sanctions on Iraq were ultimately the things that pushed the desire to organize the attacks. It certainly does not justify killing thousands of innocent people, but it's important to understand where it comes from.
Did the US government or its people (which by our own definition are the same thing) declare war on an entire religion? Of course not. But can reasonable people believe that we have? I would say absolutely. You can debate whether or not we should be proud of the actions we take, but I would warn that pride unchecked by humility puts you at great risk. Our selectivity about where we get involved (i.e., non-involvement in the conflicts and genocide in Africa) don't paint a great picture either. Whether or not we believe that our own foreign policy has brewed radicalism isn't relevant, because perception is reality.
So what does the United States do with that perception? The reaction of our elected officials after 9/11 would have a huge impact, but it was not considered carefully. The first actions were absolutely right: Find the terrorists hiding in caves in Afghanistan. Politically, this was unsatisfying to the public, unfortunately. The George Bush solution to the lack of political satisfaction was apparently to "liberate" Iraq, which had zero connection to the attacks, and zero capability to produce "weapons of mass destruction." One could make a case for genocide that had taken place there years before under Saddam's reign, but again, the US has had selective hearing on those issues, so why now?
So we rolled into Iraq and took out a dictator who was more of a threat to himself than anyone else by that time, and in the process, sacrificed thousands of our own people, tens of thousands of Iraqis, and plunged the development of that country back 50 years. At home, the was cost pushed our GDP lower and lower, likely contributing to the fear and uncertainty of the current recession. When we heard "mission accomplished," the perception in much of the Muslim world was, "Look, the Americans are now occupying a Muslim nation." When kids get blown to bits and people can't find food, they're generally not feeling very liberated. The west is viewed even more negatively as this went on. The London train bombings in 2005, in retrospect, seemed inevitable.
(And by the way, we put our soldiers in harms way over there to defend Muslims from a dictator... a point I'll get back to.)
So that gets us back to the present. As I said, times are tough, people are scared. People want to blame someone for what they perceive is the decline and destruction of our country. We have a long history of doing this, whether it's black folks, Jews, gay people, Mexicans, Canadians and their damn hockey, or whatever. Muslims seem like the easiest target I suppose, since many of the deadliest acts of terrorism are done in the name of Islam.
That this sentiment had risen in the United States of all places is tragic in its ignorance. First of all, as I mentioned, we've been in a war in Iraq for seven years, defending a population that is 99% Muslim. It strikes me as extraordinarily disrespectful to write off the Iraqi people given the high cost in American lives we've endured to defend them. The politics of the war were bullshit from the start, but the cost of our own people is very real. I can't see dishonoring that loss like this.
Furthermore, making the leap from "terrorists were radical Muslims" to "all Muslims are terrorists" is completely irrational. I can understand that people fear what they're not exposed to. For example, I grew up going to primarily black schools, so the likelihood that I have racial biases is going to be lower just considering my environment. A kid growing up in the rural Midwest on a farm will not have that opportunity. But there comes a point where you're old enough to either choose to be an unapologetic product of your environment, or make your own decisions.
And that leads me to the biggest problem we as a nation have: We just don't do the fucking work. Despite having thousands of times the information at our fingertips compared to even ten years ago, people don't use it. A frightening number of people will take what they hear from an entertainer like Glenn Beck and consider it the holy truth. In the Islam issue, no one ever bothers to talk to other actual humans who practice the religion. That's a scary world to live in.
So where are we, nine years later? It's hard to say. That crazy fucker in Florida seems to have had a late-breaking and surprisingly positive effect, in that his own radicalism has shown Christians what not to be, that being radical. It's also caused a number of moderate (read: majority) Muslim leaders (as well as Jewish and Christian leaders of various denominations) to step up and reach out to people in their respective faiths to chill people out and encourage them to learn.
As much as I fear for our culture and the hate that flows through it, I'm often optimistic, because I can't be anything else. I've struggled with my faith for a lot of different reasons, which is one of the reasons I've found great comfort in getting to know many Muslims, Jews and Hindus. I'm fascinated by people who grew up with different religions, and particularly surprised at the overlap in the Abrahamic religions in particular.
9/11 taught us how to work together to solve problems. We saw it again after Katrina. We see it yearly during tornado season and during harsh winters. I don't think we're doomed. When it matters, issues of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation matter little. It will, however, take a great deal of effort by moderates in politics, religion and the fairly nebulous media to get us to a happy place. Divisiveness and mistrust in the face of diversity will lead us nowhere.