People are saying, “Never forget”. Except it’s hard for those of us alive that day to ever forget. The shock and disbelief. The horror and sorrow. The confusion and anger. That last one, anger, that lingered longer. It came to overshadow the rest. We as a nation wanted to get the people responsible for this horror.
Sad to say, that desire for vengeance led, that same evening, to an attack on a Sikh in Arizona. That the Sikhs were no more involved in this attack than the Baptists didn’t matter. To people brought up to look at skin color and general appearance as a gauge of worth, a south Indian in a turban probably looked like a Muslim. That was the first, small indication that our country was about to go off the rails in a very big way.
I was never a fan of George W. Bush before 9/11. Through that summer, as our younger daughter was born and we began adjusting to yet another new life, I watched his administration from a distance and thought to myself he would probably be a one-term President like his father. Just too arrogant, too many missteps. It was like watching amateur hour. Even that day, it seemed to be a bit of amateur hour. People have criticized Bush for staying in that Florida classroom and reading that book. Not me. He did exactly what he should have done. He didn’t panic, he allowed his subordinates to do what needed to be done while he maintained calm in an effort to keep those far from the scene from becoming panicky. Once in the air, Air Force One did exactly what it’s supposed to do – radio and radar silence flying no particular route while guarded by fighters. That day, no one knew quite what was happening and the President and the Secret Service acted precisely the way they should.
In the days immediately following, the President spoke for the country when he insisted we would pursue those who had attacked us. He went further, however, and called upon us as a people not to blame the religion of Islam for the attacks. Terrorism and religion are not the same thing, he insisted, and the millions of Muslims living in America deserved our respect. They should not live in fear because of what some political fanatics did in the name of a religion of peace and justice. At a memorial service in New York, an Imam participated in a very public way. The message the President was trying to send was very clear.
Except too few were listening. Congress rushed through a bill – the PATRIOT Act – that for all intents and purposes stripped civil protections from people the state believed to be involved in any way in terrorist activity or sympathizes with terrorists. Charities were shuttered. Young Muslim men disappeared, winding up in federal detention without recourse even to habeas corpus. This most ancient and sacrosanct of Anglo-American rights – it’s only mentioned in passing in the Constitution because it’s presence was assumed – was stripped from some criminal suspects. Long-term solitary confinement became common place.
In October of 2001, American Special Forces were inserted in Afghanistan in what was supposed to be a quick strike against the top leadership of the Taliban leadership, removing them and creating conditions in which an American military action would be swift. None of those Special Ops forces made it out of Afghanistan alive and the Taliban leaders remained alive. Our subsequent invasion used allies from local rebel forces, funneling money and weapons to various factions about which we knew little except they opposed the Taliban. When the leadership collapsed and the battle quieted down, American forces swept through the land picking up anyone and everyone off the field of battle. The resulting prisoners, rather than treated according to the laws of war were labeled something new, “unlawful combatants”, for which extraordinary measures were deemed necessary. Thus began the Cuban gulag.
In the summer of 2002, the big news items were the beginning of restructuring in Afghanistan according to local traditions and the collapse of energy trading giant Enron. The Enron collapse, linked to a spike in natural gas and heating prices in California that led to the recall of the Democratic governor and the election of actor Arnold Schwartezenegger, had ripples that led to the White House. Even as public outrage at what happened to Enron employees and retirees grew and calls for federal investigations mounted, the first whispers of something else began to emerge from Washington.
I’ll never forget when a possible invasion of Iraq first became news. It was a Friday morning and I was listening to NPR. It was one of those “news roundup” programs in which talking voices (no one can see their heads on the radio) gab endlessly about the news. Someone in the Bush Administration had said something about Iraq, and it had snowballed. The host, Diane Rehm, asked one of her guests what the talk about Iraq meant. “It means we’re not talking about Enron,” was the answer I heard. From that moment, I didn’t trust the Bush Administration’s talk about Iraq, or its motives for beginning to create support for an invasion.
We all know what happened then. The invasion. The collapse of the Ba’ath regime. Chaos in the streets. The big reveal there had been no planning for maintaining order. There had been no contingency for extra troops to be used for policing. The news that our soldiers and their vehicles weren’t armored properly; families were sending battle armor to their soldiers and Marines. All this should have been a huge scandal, but the Bush Administrations was becoming expert at distraction. Abu Ghraib? A few bad apples. The American occupation government removing any and all Ba’ath Party members from Administrative positions? The only proper action. Stripping weapons from the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard and disbanding it? They were the enemy force and needed to be stripped of power.
Back home, as years passed, first responders and construction workers at the Twin Tower site began to show effects of exposure to dioxin, a rapid-acting carcinogen. The people who had become the faces and names of heroism on September 11, 2001 appealed for help. They received silence. Family members of the dead from September 11 began to speak out against the war in Iraq and the maltreatment of those who were suffering because of their work saving lives or removing the rubble from lower Manhattan. They were attacked by conservative media. Particular narratives of heroism – the rescue of Lynndie England; the death of Pat Tillman – were revealed to be lies. The wars lingered on even as Bush Administration officials insisted it was, in the words of then-VP Dick Cheney, “in its last throes”.
We continue to live with all the mistakes we made in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. From widespread anti-Muslim bigotry through the tens of thousands of veterans wounded in body and mind for which we have yet to provide adequate care to the ongoing death toll as our soldiers and Marines continue to die in Afghanistan, there has yet to be any real reckoning. The events of 9/11 were horrible. Much of what we as a nation did in the wake of those attacks, however, was both unwarranted and has led, as critics at the time kept insisting, to untold misery both at home and abroad. Our all-too-broken politics in no small way can be laid at the feet of our mistakes made years ago. It might well be the case we face decades of repair work both here and abroad fixing all the damage we have done here and abroad.
We must never forget the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We must also never forget how seriously we botched what happened after. We should commit ourselves to doing better, starting today. The people who died at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center should be honored by our refusal to allow their murder to be the beginning of our unraveling. We owe them that.