Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later

Today is the milestone anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that changed America for the worst. Since I did not have a blog before 2006, I will share my memories of that day and then write about my thoughts regarding our country in the decade since that tragedy.

Ten years ago, I was working for the Boy Scouts council in Atlanta. I had just started the job three weeks prior. The office was on the 4th floor of the United Way building in downtown Atlanta (you can see this building in the film The Change-Up, when the two buds urinate in the magic fountain in the park across the street from this building). I was sitting at my desk and entering merit badges that boys earned into the computer database when one lady in the office appeared, shaken and emotionally distraught. She said that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. Weird, I thought. When does something like that ever happen? I had often wondered how we had managed not to have a mishaps with planes crashing into skyscrapers.

Later, the same lady passed by my work area and said that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. By this point, I had goosebumps and knew that the world was going to hell. I rushed to the office of the ladies in accounting, who had a tiny TV and were watching the news. Later came the report about the Pentagon being hit. By this time, I really felt we were experiencing the end of the world. This was the opening shot in the war of Armageddon. The distraught lady at the office also misreported that a fourth plane had hit the U.S. State Department building. It wasn't long before the second guy in charge called everyone into the conference room. He said that he had made a decision to close the office because nothing we did at work was as important as our families so he asked everyone to go be with our families. I was relieved, because I would not have been able to concentrate at work. I'd be too obsessed with news like this. Because I was new to the job, I did not dare use the Internet to read for more information.

I went home (I had been living back at home for over a year when I left D.C. in July 2000 and got a low wage job at the GBI. With my increased salary at the Boy Scouts, I had plans to move into a new apartment in October 2001). My brother was at home (he had always struggled to find a job, so I can't remember if he was employed at this time) and when he saw me come home from work early, he asked, "What? They let you go home because of the terrorists?" My sister was at Emory University and the car our parents let her drive had problems starting so she needed someone to pick her up. I volunteered and drove to the university. I was stunned by how many drivers could not stay in their lane. So many were driving over the line. It was dangerous! Obviously, people were driving around shell-shocked by this tragedy.

When I returned my sister home without an accident, we all sat in the living room watching the TV coverage. Our dad was sleeping because he worked the night shift, so it was just mom and us siblings. When my dad woke up and walked down the stairs, I wanted to tell him to go back to bed. I felt awful that while he was sleeping in peaceful slumber, the world had gone to hell. To wake up to this news was just awful. When my sister broke the news, my dad's response alarmed me. He said something like, "I guess we're going to kick some butt." It was a reminder of how different my view is from my father's. My impression about the 9/11 attacks after the first day of coverage was that this was definitely karmic retribution for many of the things we've done to other countries. From 1997 through 2000, I learned a lot of our foreign policy since World War II which most Americans are ignorant about. We did not always act in accordance with our professed and highest values. I knew from a spiritual standpoint that we could not continue doing what we did without paying the ultimate price. 9/11 was exactly that. I later learned that the CIA even had a term for this. They call it "blowback."

In watching the coverage, what struck me the most was seeing Diane Sawyer on the streets of Manhattan with papers blowing around behind her. She picked up a handful and said that just yesterday, these documents were considered important to someone, and now they were part of the rubble. The twin towers of the World Trade Center had disintegrated before our eyes.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, we were on edge because we did not know if there would be more attacks. All flights were grounded for an entire week and people flying into the U.S. from overseas were diverted to Canadian airports (they are such great neighbours!). I have no idea why the government decided to shut down the airline industry for an entire week. That was a loss of huge revenues for a fledgling industry. However, I also knew that I would have been too afraid to fly during the weeks and months following the attacks. If I sat next to someone who looked Arab or Middle Eastern, I would not be comfortable and would watch his every move. And I'm one who has never felt uncomfortable around foreigners! Also during this period, the major television networks ran continuous coverage 24 hours a day for a full week. There was no commercials at all or any other programming other than the news. The video footage of the second plane hitting the second WTC tower kept playing over and over, as though there might be someone alive who had not seen the image already. I still get chills if I see such video footage.

In the weeks following, the Anthrax attacks became the next wave of attacks. At work, we had a few faux-Anthrax scares when someone sent the family planning office in our building a packet full of sugar or detergent. Real Anthrax was placed in letters mailed to a few tabloid newspapers and U.S. Senate offices (curiously, only Democratic senators were sent these tainted letters). The media reported on the letter that accompanied the anthrax and it appeared that a Muslim had sent it, though eventually, the anthrax was traced to a U.S. Army facility in Maryland. The media kind of forgot about this storyline when it turned out that an American citizen was responsible for the attacks.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, most Americans and much of the world was fully on board because we were attacked and had the right to defend ourselves and to strike back against those who were responsible for the attacks. However, I was against the invasion of Afghanistan because I did not believe that we would succeed where Alexander the Great, Great Britain, and the USSR had failed. There is a reason why Afghanistan is known as "The Graveyard of Empires." Nearly a decade later, there is no sign that we are leaving any time soon, so it is likely to be our longest war and we will have been there longer than the Soviets were!

One of my thoughts during the days and weeks after 9/11 was how screwed we were because we had an inexperienced man as our president. I wished that we had Gore or McCain in the White House, because I did not have any confidence in Bush's leadership ability. For three days following 9/11, Bush's whereabouts were kept secret. When America needed the president to reassure us, he was absent. He only emerged three days later, with a bullhorn at Ground Zero. His approval rating shot up, off the charts. I had learned about this in a Political Science class a few years earlier. Its called "rally around the flag." It didn't matter who was president at the time of a national crisis. His approval ratings will rise during times like this, automatically, Republican or Democrat.

What did our "dear leader" tell the country to do? Not, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what can you do for your country"! Not, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"! Nope, in Bush's most historical moment, he essentially said: "Shopping will defeat terrorism!" He urged Americans to go to Disney World (where his brother Jeb was governor of the state that depends on tourism as a major revenue generator) and to shopping malls all over the country! In World War II, meat was rationed and people made all kinds of sacrifices and bought government savings bonds to support the war effort. Scrap metal was donated to the cause. What was Bush's strategy? Shopping, shopping, shopping. The most shallow of pursuits. He even managed to snooker the country into supporting two wars on borrowed funds. We are the first people in history to go to war and get tax cuts all at once. When commercials aired on TV again, many car companies offered 0% APR. One ad used the 80s song "Saved By Zero" (a song I loved in the 80s but now can't hear it without thinking about cars for sale thanks to the ads in the fall of 2001).

One of the questions the media asked was "Why do they hate us?" Apparently, a lot of Americans have no clue about foreigners and how they see the world, so for many, 9/11 was a huge wake-up call that not everyone in the world wanted to immigrate to America and be Americans. Because I had studied political science for my degree, I learned a lot about our foreign policy, so I understood why foreigners might have a problem with our meddling in their internal affairs. I had said as much during my BYU internship in D.C. when we had one lecture by CIA agents. I had made them uncomfortable with my question regarding Iran because what we did to that country was hypocritical (we basically did to Iran what no American would want done to our country by a foreign power, which is deciding what leader will rule over the people).

Because of this angle, I had hoped that Americans would become more interested in learning about how others viewed us (and our foreign policy). I had hoped that this would usher in a more spiritual age. I also thought this tragedy would lead Americans to be deeper thinkers and not superficially shallow like we tend to be. Well, for a time, it did seem that way. Radio stations played U2's brilliant album from 2000 All That You Can't Leave Behind (they had a song about New York on there and "Peace On Earth". It was a brilliantly timely album that was a year old when 9/11 happened) and Enya's A Day Without Rain ("Only Time" was played often in the days and weeks after 9/11, even though the song had been released at least months earlier). Many books about the Middle East came out, people were buying copies of the Qur'an, Nostradamus predictions were passed along in emails by Evangelical Christians (who have never shown an interest in such a "heathen" before), and even movies were eventually made that portrayed the complex issues (such as Syriana and others I can't think off the top of my head right now).

However, all this might have been too much, as I think Americans became even more shallow in the decade since the tragedy. Before 9/11, there were a few celebrity magazines. Several years after 9/11, there are even more celebrity gossip magazines than before 9/11. Check out your regular grocery store cash register checkout line! See what stares at you in the face. People want their celebrity gossip more than ever. What spiritual age? There has actually been an increase in atheism in the past decade. This could be in part to the way evangelical Christians tried to manipulate their hand in the aftermath of 9/11 by forcing their president to enact their agenda. The more they pushed, the more others pushed back. We're probably much further away from a spiritual age than we were in the days just after 9/11, when people were asking deep questions of an existential nature.

For the church worship service today, we did a special tribute to 9/11, which included lighting ten candles. I was one of two people who shared a testimony. I spoke about my experience as a young man being robbed in South Africa and how that experience led me to understand what would push my robbers into a life of crime. Several people thanked me after church for what I shared. I hope that my words made an impact on others and made them think about how to view bad things that might happen to us. One of the things I mentioned was that in the aftermath of 9/11, some people said: "Our grief is not a cry for war." That is one of the best quotes I had ever heard in the days after 9/11. I also said at the end of my testimony, "How have I contributed to your pain and what can I do to change that?"

My wish for America on this ten year anniversary is to get deeper in our thinking and not just react impulsively to things. Let us look at how our actions bring harm to others and what changes we can make in how we live that will help other people. After all, we are all in this together. We are connected in ways that we may be unaware of at the surface level. We must go deeper and see the humanity in others. Yes, even the humanity of those who want to bring the violence they see everyday into our peaceful lives. When they hurt, in some way, we hurt too.

No comments: