--by Mike Adams
A few weeks back, I was contacted by a member of the forum committee from the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos, who asked if I might be willing to speak at the forum on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington DC. Because I have thought and read a great deal about those events over the past ten years ,and because I have a higher estimation in my own abilities than perhaps is justified, I agreed to speak with hardly a tinge of reluctance.
A short while later, I began to wonder if I actually had anything worth saying on this topic. I wondered if anything I could say hadn’t already been printed on a bumper sticker.
Momentarily, I was stricken with panic. Why oh why had I agreed to talk on Sept. 11. Then, I remembered that anything I've ever said that was worth hearing didn't coalesce in the confines of my own mind, but rather it grew organically nurtured and fertilized by the various discussions and debates I had participated in.
So I intentionally began discussing 9/11 with my friends and family. I asked for people's thoughts regarding the attacks, their opinions about the world’s reaction, their initial impressions directly after the attacks and their impressions now with ten years having passed. I wanted to discover what others thought about our general discussions surrounding 9/11, what they thought the US seems to have learned and more importantly what they feel we have failed to learn.
This article and my talk to the UU Church of Los Alamos are in part the culmination of those discussions, but more importantly, I hope that this text can act as a catalyst for a thoughtful examination of the tragedy that began ten years ago half a world away. Anything concerning 9/11 is fraught with deep and powerful emotion, strong opinions and positional statements. Often our points of view are rooted in emotion, and they stubbornly persist. I think that as a country, we would do well to all take up an attitude of self-examination and try to employ a bit of humility when discussing our national attitudes and our international role in today's world.
First, I think a review of the Sept. 11 time line and events is in order:
Between the hours of 5:45 and 7:15 am, nineteen hijackers passed through gate security at Logan Airport, Newark International Airport and Washington Dulles Airport. It is believed that all of them carried box cutters or other concealed weapons and, while eight of them were randomly screened and two were even flagged as suspicious, none were prevented from boarding their intended flights.
At 8:19 that morning, Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney, flight attendants on American flight #11 contacted ground personnel alerting them to the hijacking. Somehow, Sweeny and Ong maintained contact with flight crews through the duration of their flight, providing useful information for the subsequent FBI investigation.
Twenty seven minutes later, at 8:46, flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing hundreds of people in the building and everyone on board the plane. Stunned witnesses to the attack, turned their video cameras towards the North Tower. Meanwhile New York’s Police and Fire Departments mobilized in less than a minute, and arrived quickly on the scene.
Thirteen minutes later, flight 175 was approaching the World Trade Center when one crew member and several passengers contacted authorities and loved ones, alerting them to the status of their flight.
At 9:02, three minutes after contact from flight 175 was made, Port Authority Announced an evacuation of the South Tower but only one minute after the announcement, flight 175 entered a dive and impacted the South Tower, killing everyone on board and several hundred in the building.
Thirteen minutes after the crash of flight 175, Renee Mays, a flight attendant on Flight 77 called her mother, reporting that her plane had been hijacked. She asked her mother, Nancy, to alert American Airlines to the situation. Meanwhile, a passenger, Barbara Olson, reached her husband, who informed her of the World Trade Center attacks. Fifty one minutes after the first crash in New York, at 9:37 am, flight 77 crashed into the Western side of the Pentagon, killing 184 people in total.
Twenty minutes after the pentagon attack, at 9:57, thirteen people on flight #93 contacted loved ones and authorities. The passengers were informed that three hijacked planes had already been crashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. It is believed that the passengers of flight #93 held a vote and chose to try and forcibly take back their plane. Six minutes later, at 10:03 am, only 20 minutes from Washington DC, as the passengers of flight 93 battled with the hijackers, the plane entered a dive and crashed in a field in Somerset County, PA. All forty passengers were killed.
Even ten years after the fact, reviewing these events is emotionally painful. I simultaneously feel sad, angry, compassionate, vengeful and empathetic. To this day, I am confused emotionally by this tragedy.
When I awoke on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, it was to news reports confirming the collapse of the twin towers in Manhattan. The reports had infiltrated my barely conscious mind and snapped me into an alert state. I thought the news report had to be a dream, but a quick surf through the cable news channels informed me that the tragedy was real and that I had awoken into a different world.
My first thought was for people I had known while living in Manhattan. I had worked at the foreign news desk of the Wall Street Journal in the World Financial Center. I had known people who worked in the World Trade Center and that morning, I worried about their fate.
Next, my worry gave way to rage and disbelief. How could anyone have such an incredible lack of judgment? Didn't they know what would happen? Why would they intentionally stir up a hornet’s nest? That morning, I gave serious thought to enlisting in the armed services, so that I could exact my own personal vengeance against the perpetrators of this attack.
It wasn't until a day or two had passed that I began to worry about what our national reaction might be. I began to worry about who would get hurt and who would suffer. Would innocent people be forced to withstand a storm of terror and personal loss in order to satisfy our need for vengeance. What onslaught would be unleashed in response to the misguided actions of nineteen hijackers?
I became increasingly worried that the US would fail to have a measured response and that we would instead exact a toll against a foreign population that was completely disproportionate to the damage we had suffered.
At the time, I could not have imagined the sheer magnitude of US reaction that would ensue. I would never have guessed at the devastating consequences that would result from our vendetta. Ten years ago, my worry extended to the residents and survivors in New York and Washington; I worried for families half way around the world who might get caught in the cross fire. But I couldn’t imagine my country trashing a balanced budget, incurring the largest debt in US history, invading two countries and waging the two longest wars in our national history, resulting in more than a million deaths. I didn’t think we would recklessly shove our economy off a cliff dragging much of the world along for the ride. I wouldn’t have thought we might strap the next generation with a mountain of debt that they didn’t approve and for which they have no culpability.
According to ex CIA Officer and al Quaeda expert, Michael Scheuer, the bin Laden movement was aimed, not at killing or conquering Americans, not even at “reforming” our politics, but rather, al Quaeda wanted the US to go bankrupt thus reducing our worldwide influence and in particular, our influence in Muslim countries.
It gives me pause to consider that bin Laden’s primary goal may have been to incite the US into creating it’s own economic Armageddon; that he didn’t aim to foment a global Muslim uprising against the West, that al Quaeda didn’t actually plan to lead the Muslim world in a great war against Western powers. But rather that the goal was to spur the US into an exaggerated, sustained and costly military reaction, which would ruin our economy. Could it now be said that maybe he succeeded and that the primary weapon he used was our own national hubris?
I think the jury is still out on that question, but the question is worthy of contemplation. In the Time Magazine article, “bin Laden’s great mistake: What Osama Never Understood About the American Spirit”, journalist Romesh Ratnesar, contends that the US economy is far more robust that what bin Laden had thought. He points out that we attract the best and brightest from around the world. He cites statistics showing that in 2005 one in four high tech start-ups were launched by immigrants and that in 2009 immigrants with advanced degrees were three times as likely as native-born Americans to file for patents. Ratnesar writes, “What bin Laden never understood is that, whatever the body blows suffered over the past decade, American society retained its capacity to renew itself.”
While Ratnesar discusses our strengths, he stresses that we cannot afford complacency, and I wholeheartedly agree. The facts at present are these, our public education system is on the verge of collapse. Our federal and increasingly our local governments are paralyzed with partisan bickering and ineptitude. Our debt is titanic, our credit downgraded and our citizens demoralized. While it is true that our culture and our economy received an infusion of vitality from the immigrant talent we’ve attracted, we flirt with disaster if we continue to allow xenophobic politicians to gain clout and power in Washington. We are ensuring our downfall if we continue to let partisan politicians grind their axes on the foundations of our school system legislating ill-conceived “oversight” and designing education without the input of knowledgeable experts in education or people who understand child development and learning. We cannot continue to blame our teachers and educators for the failure of our culture to instill a love of learning in the next generation or to place a high value on acquiring an education.
The fact that our country has attracted multitudes of talented and industrious immigrants, is heartening, and it gives us a little bit of breathing room, but it is troubling that so little innovation is home grown. That our country is failing to produce entrepreneurs and designers, requiring that we be able to attract external innovators to feed our success.
With regards to whether bin Laden has accomplished his goals, I believe the jury is out, because I think we will either deliver his victory or deny his success. Our choices in terms of how we invest in our country and in our future will determine our answer to that question. Our answer to bin Laden will be formed from our priorities, from our ability to coalesce into a unified nation from our willingness to confront unpredictable challenges while maintaining our values. I think think our answer will be determined by the questions we are willing to ask.
For example, many of my liberally minded friends and acquaintances have said things like “peace is the answer” or “give peace a chance”, but what does that actually mean? Are those statement truly meaningful in terms of foreign policy? Are they practical? Are they useful? Do they provide a basis for governance or do they look profound on a bumper sticker? Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not against peace. My question goes to whether the world we live in is truly that simple or are things much more complex than any thirty second sound bite?
Are we truly informed about important issues? Are we willing to consider contrary information, particularly concerning issues that we ardently defend or zealously attack?
Has our country had an intelligent conversation about any important topic in the past year or even the past decade?
I don’t think so...do you? I have to ask why haven’t we? What is preventing us? More importantly, what, if anything, have we done to promote a responsible conversation about energy, education, international policy, or our economy?
Do we collectively think primarily in bumper sticker phrases or do our opinions carry the weight of having been questioned and considered with care? I don’t mean other people either, I mean myself and anyone who is reading this article.
When we vote for public officials, are we voting for someone who will govern effectively or are we voting for someone who expresses our outrage and who will inflict that outrage on the opposition?
Which kind of candidate will more likely herald the change that our country craves and that our children need? We are the ones who elect our leaders, so the choices are ours.
I believe we are at a cross-roads in American ...AND world history. I believe the decisions we make will carry monumental consequences for generations to come. The choices are ours but the outcomes are weighty and unknowable. Sometimes I think that our decisions may carry greater import than any that have been made in the past century, if not longer.
So I ask you...
Are we giving those decisions the attention they deserve?
Do we truly recognize the gravity of our choices and are we being appropriately thoughtful and cautious?
One of the people I spoke with in preparation for today’s talk said that one lesson she hopes we have learned is to teach our youth about what happened on September 11, to arm the next generation with the needed resources to avoid future tragedies of a similar nature.
I therefore asked several youth about September 11th. I asked what they know of the events and possible motives for those attacks and I found to my dismay that we have definitely not passed on that information. None of the youth I talked with, including my own, were knowledgeable about the 9/11 attacks, or their possible motives.
At first I was surprised until I remembered that many Americans still believe Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden collaborated. There is widespread belief that our invasion of Iraq was legitimately tied to the attacks of September 11. I guess It shouldn’t be a surprise that we haven’t taught our children about these events when it is clear that even our adult public is widely ignorant to the facts.
It seems we have a long road ahead and very little of our journey will be easy. I think that neither my country, nor even my congregation has honestly engaged in the most difficult and confronting questions that will allow us to resoundingly deny bin Laden his victory.
We don’t seem to know what we stand for and we have difficulty finding unity even in service of our shared values. A microcosm of the USA, my UU congregation can spend hours and weeks debating the merits of having the word “church” as part of our name meanwhile we can’t generate half a dozen interested people to support a weekly interfaith service at the Capitol building in Santa Fe supporting marriage equality during the legislative session.
We have staked out our positions regarding how Sunday services should look and feel. We have hardened our opinions as to whether our message should be secular or spiritual. We are ardent about how to conduct services for all ages and we have largely abandoned them due to disagreement. We have lost long time members, we have hurt friends, we have alienated each other and we have moved on having formulated our reasons, excuses and explanations.
We have failed to be in dialogue and we have failed to listen to each other when we needed to most. We have failed to recognize and honor the commitments that others express, when their proposals seem disagreeable to us? In short, we have failed to do enough. We have failed to manifest our values at large in today’s world.
I know I am at risk of making my self unpopular now, but I think it would be unforgivable and deeply hypocritical for me to imply that I and my community have done or are currently doing what is needed in today’s world.
In reality, I believe we haven’t and we aren’t! We aren’t doing enough to reclaim our democracy and install responsible leaders. We aren’t doing enough to right the wrongs that our nation’s foreign policy has wrought. We aren’t doing enough to ensure that people the world over have access to food, medical care, education and hope. We aren’t doing enough to ensure that members of our community feel they are important when they disagree with the direction we choose.
I don’t mean that we aren’t doing a lot...because we are! Some among us are undoubtedly fatigued and wore out, some are disheartened and others are overcome with the sheer magnitude of all that there is to accomplish.
I don’t pretend that our path is easy or that our values will naturally propagate. Unlike other church communities, we lack the assurance that God is on our side, because many of us don’t believe in God.
I think it is hard to accept that despite all we have done, despite the labor and the passion we have invested, despite our commitment, our belief and all that we have accomplished. Our deeds are still not enough. Despite all we have given, our nation and our world continue to hurtle down a destructive and perilous path that we oppose, so obviously we haven’t yet done enough.
I am not implying that each of us must take an additional full time job serving our values. But we should each examine where we have been ineffective and where we have failed to lend support when we maybe should have. We might consider which areas of personal growth we have avoided because the challenge seems too great and perhaps the payoff is directed primarily at others. We might ask in a serious manner, why we haven’t coalesced into a congregational force for positive change? Have we really engaged in the tough questions, the ones that make us squirm, the ones that we don’t like to answer because we see that we haven’t even begun to stretch ourselves and realize our full capacities.
Many might wonder why I bring all of this up? What could I hope to accomplish? The answer is that despite my being an atheist, I actually believe in miracles. Not miracles of divine intervention, but rather miracles of human triumph. I believe that people are miraculous and confounding all at once.
I believe that given the opportunity, many of my fellow citizens and my community will embrace a worthy challenge. I anxiously chose these topics for discussion, because I have a high estimation of my fellow citizens and my fellow UUs. I think we are exactly the sorts of people who can and will engage in the toughest questions. I think we are the people to take up these challenges and provide the kind of leadership that is needed today. I don’t anticipate acquiring a broad level of unpopularity from this message, because I think most will understand I am not hurling insults but rather calling on every one's innate greatness. The list of shortcomings I covered earlier are normal in any group, they are typical of how collections of people function. I pointed them out, because I think UUs and others in my community are extraordinary and I think we could set a new tone for our broader community and possibly our world. The fact is that Unitarian Universalists have been at the leading edge of many important social upheavals in the past century and I see no reason that we should stop displaying that quality of leadership now.