Thoughts on 9/11

(While this piece primarily represents my own views and experiences, I
also cobbled it together with help from Garrison Keillor*,
bushbacklash.com**, Hal Crowther*** and other sources. Most of the
words are my own, but I borrowed a few phrases from the aforementioned
folks.)

   For my 21st birthday, I didn't get a party thrown in my honor. I
didn't do any keg stands. Didn't down any kamikaze shots. No toasts.
No drugs. No real nightcap, even. I think I drank a 40-ounze malt
liquor beverage, and then I went to bed.
   Rest assured, however, that I did get to vomit that night. Hard
and often. For my 21st birthday, I got McDonald's chicken nuggets, and
I got food poisoning.
   I was in terrific agony, prostrate in my humility before the
commode. Tears poured down my cheeks in rivers. Maybe it was more from
the gagging than from the pain; both were intense. With every heave,
my stomach wrenched into a thousand knots, and I began having serious
doubts as to whether the venomous spewing would ever stop. I'm pretty
sure I prayed for the pain to knock me unconscious, and around 5 a.m.
the next morning, it finally did.
   That was my 21st birthday, Sept. 11, 2000. And at the time, I told
my friends I couldn't image getting a worse present.
   I ate those words a year later, as the mighty Twin Towers
crumbled, the Pentagon smoldered and four passenger jets lay in
pieces. I ate those words, and their taste was remarkably similar to
those vile, poisoned, processed nuggets. So similar, in fact, that if
I think too hard about that day, I get queasy.
   When the attacks happened, I was just a few months out of college,
copy editing for a small daily newspaper in Sumter, S.C. Up until
9/11, probably the biggest story I'd ever edited was an article on the
town's new coffee shop.
   But I can remember the way my head was spinning that day as the
first reports of the attacks jolted the newsroom--a new and lethal
salvo literally every few minutes. And in those minutes, I am not
ashamed to admit that I feared for my life, for the lives of my
family. I felt very small and very helpless and very vulnerable.
   In those first frantic hours, it seemed like the entire world was
unraveling, and The Associated Press wire read like Armageddon that
day:

      Aircraft slams into World Trade Center tower
      Second plane strikes
      Pentagon takes direct hit
      Hijacked plane crashes in Pennsylvania
      Towers collapse

   And that last headline--that simplest of sentences, subject and
verb--pretty much encapsulated the whole sorry episode.
   Because yes, towers do collapse. Pillars fall. Intelligence fails.
Frameworks cave in. Hopes wither, and hearts break. Cities crumble. It
is inevitable.
   They just weren't supposed to crumble here. Not in America.
   My 25th birthday came and went this month, and with it came the
third anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the
nation's history. Much is made of the gravity of that day, of how we
lost our innocence, of how it stained us forever. Sandwiched somewhere
between the shock and the grief, there emerged a very grandiose and
oft-repeated catchphrase: "This changes everything."
   Indeed, when you consider the events in such poetic terms and
gloomy conceits, it's easy to think that. It's easy to become absorbed
in the horror of the day and how it has "changed everything."
   It is also arrogant hyperbole.
   Is it treason to say as much? George W. Bush would have you think so.
   But despite what our president would like us to believe, the
United States of America is not the only country in the world, and in
those other nations, similar barbarisms and atrocities of the worst
order are committed daily, hourly. Sudanese are being slaughtered by
the thousands. Israeli tanks and Palestinian suicide bombers are
annihilating each other and civilian bystanders. We live in a world in
which Russian schoolchildren are massacred by the hundreds, and North
Korea and Iran ACTUALLY HAVE nuclear capabilities or are pursuing
them.
   *As Garrison Keillor has noted, 9/11 was not some cosmic event,
some isolated and unprecedented horror that renders sensible
government irrelevant. And it does not provide a license to trample
the Constitution beyond recognition, to stifle civil liberties, to
invent reasons for invading countries and to give tax breaks to the
long-suffering Enrons of this world.
   As tragic as 9/11 was, the real tragedy is that in its aftermath,
President Bush has heaped humiliation after humiliation upon the honor
of the victims.
   The real tragedy is that, in the most perverse way, 9/11 was the
best thing to ever happen to George W. Bush's miserable presidency.
**It has given him--and the hawkish neoconservatives who created him
out of thin air--a rallying cry, a great catastrophe behind which he
can hide his other countless blunders, including an aimless but deadly
adventure in Iraq that supposedly is "curbing terrorism." Umm, OK.
   The real tragedy is that's all you'll hear when you listen to Bush
the Orator, which is as painful, uncomfortable and confusing as
getting checked for gonorrhea. If you're stout enough to wade through
all his malapropisms and his wretched mangling of the English
language, you'll find three basic terms and phrases always bubble to
the surface: "terror," "stay the course" and, naturally, "9/11."
   The real tragedy is the way his supporters lavish praise upon Bush
for his response after Sept. 11, 2001--how strong and resolute he
supposedly was in the face of the biggest intelligence lapse in our
nation's history. *Never, never, is he indicted for PRESIDING OVER
THAT LAPSE.
   The real tragedy is that our president has passed the buck for
every one of his missteps and shows no ounce of compunction for it.
Aside from Richard Clarke, no one in Bush's administration has truly
accepted even the slightest responsibility for 9/11, just like it's no
one's fault that we were wrong--dead wrong, all wrong--about Iraq's
supposed lethal stockpiles. Just like fingers point around the room
when the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison are made plain. Wake up, America.
SOMEONE'S got to be held accountable. That is, after all, our founding
principle. **But somehow, the resignation of George Tenet just doesn't
cut it when more than 1,000 American troops have died in Iraq so far
over a lie. We have a war president--by his choice, you
understand--with a God complex. Can you think of anything more
dangerous?
   The real tragedy is that our reckless decision to invade a country
that has no proven links--not one--to al Qaeda has inspired only more
hatred for the United States among fanatics willing to blow themselves
apart in crowded buses and fly jetliners into our largest buildings.
Can YOU claim that kind of devotion to anything, let alone to that
kind of seething hatred?
    The 9/11 hijackers were not Iraqis, and Saddam wasn't in on it.
Period. **But when you dare to confront our president with that fact,
he reacts like a 5-year-old insisting that the dollar under his pillow
is from the Tooth Fairy.
   The real tragedy is that Bush has alienated our allies and that he
doesn't care or thinks it doesn't matter. He has narrow, jingoistic
views on the way the world works, and if he can't entice, cajole or
bully other world leaders to join his crusades, then to hell with them
all. Remember that France, Germany, Russia and every other sane
country that opposed the invasion of Iraq did so after offering a
tremendous outpouring of love and support and charity in the wake of
9/11. They are not weak, and they are not our enemies simply because
they disagree with our president. And yet rather than striving for
real reform within the intelligence community, our lawmakers think
it's cute and patriotic to rename french fries out of spite.
   It is the aftermath of 9/11 that has wrought the real tragedy, and
yet whenever he's against the ropes and needs to distract, Bush
invokes that date and his performance before, during and after it. If
the marks of a great leader include eschewing logic and embarking on
misguided and ill-timed wars in a time of crushing debt and record
deficits, then I don't know anything at all. If the answer to
improving an economy already mired in the red is to blame the guy in
office before you and then institute a massive tax CUT, then I am
hopelessly stupid.
   9/11 "changes everything," we're told. But take a cursory glance
at the world around you today and you're almost alarmed at how much
HASN'T changed. Since the attacks, it's not like we've been huddling
in dank basements or bomb shelters, eating sardines and brushing our
teeth with Draino. We still venture outside, walk our dogs, watch our
reality TV, eat our fast food. Life pretty much goes on. Nothing about
any of that has changed. We are not living in fear, nor should we.
   What HAS changed is that our president wants us to be afraid. He
and Tom Ridge and Richard Ashcroft foment that fear. They stoke it
every other month with absurd, color-coded terror alerts that are
justified by "enemy chatter" but are just vague enough to tell you
nothing--except "be afraid." Except "fear the future," especially one
without George W. Bush at the helm.
   What HAS changed is that we can't criticize an oafish, arrogant,
vapid president without being accused of heresy and having our
integrity, our patriotism, impugned. We can't complain about the first
administration to preside over a net loss of jobs since the Great
Depression. We can't ask where the weapons of mass destruction are
because that doesn't matter anymore, if it ever did. Because the truth
does not matter to George W. Bush. And that is the real tragedy.
   And so you and I and our children are left paying for an operation
in Iraq that will be there long after Bush leaves office. ***The Iraqi
rebels will fight us down to the very last peasant, and why shouldn't
they? You'd do the same if someone broke into your home, framed you
for attempted murder, threw you in prison and sexually humiliated you
there.
   The insurgency will continue to fight and maim and kill, but we
will remain to rebuild, to "stay the course." Not because we're
fighting for freedom and against terrorism, but because it is
profitable to rebuild. Just like it is unprofitable to do the same in
Afghanistan, where the man who ACTUALLY IS RESPONSIBLE for 9/11 is
probably hiding and plotting.
   I fail to see how all of this is lost on much of the American
public. I can understand a lack of enthusiasm for John Kerry--a stiff,
detached elitist who seems to vacillate on issues.
   And I don't care.
   I don't care about what any candidate did or didn't do a gazillion
years ago in a land far, far away. I don't care if someone changes his
or her mind about an issue or gives it considerable thought before
rendering a final answer. I don't care if a candidate's speeches can't
light a fire in the pants of the American electorate.
If you're stiff and wooden, be stiff and wooden. Just don't be a
crazed, sophomoric cowboy with the IQ of a brick.
   John Kerry is not a perfect candidate, and I don't care.
   Because John F. Kerry is not George W. Bush, not by a bloody long
shot. And if Kerry loses to Bush in November, it will not be from a
lack of skill or heroism or intelligence. It will be from a willful
dereliction of duty on the part of U.S. citizens, who think the best
man for the job is the one they'd rather have a beer with.
   It will speak volumes about our country, and that will be the real tragedy.

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