| Thoughts on the |
September 11, 2001 Attacks
Context: I began a sabbatical leave from West Chester University in September 2001. On what started off as a beautiful autumn day, I was enjoying the freedom of working at home and making good progress on a book that was published the following spring.
This morning, terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes and used three of them to destroy the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City (NYC) and to destroy a portion of the Pentagon in Washington DC. The fourth crashed in Somerset County, PA, 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
The first plane hit the WTC at 8:47am. I was working at my computer at 9am and my wife was in the next room (the living room) watching "Good Morning America" on Channel 10. I heard her call me in to see the footage of the World Trade Center on fire just after the second plane hit the south tower (about 9:05am). For the next three hours, I managed to pull myself away from the TV a few times but kept coming back.
My first thought was that with the two towers on fire, there were going to be a lot of deaths and that I was glad I was not part of the rescue teams. President Bush made a statement from an elementary school in Florida at 9:29am. Then, as we watched a newsman give a report from the Pentagon, where he had information from federal anti-terrorism experts, he said that he'd just felt an explosion and saw construction workers running away from the building (about 9:40am). The network switched back to NY, then came back within a few minutes to say that the Pentagon had also been attacked.
A few minutes after that, while they were showing the two burning towers in NYC, I heard one of the news people say to rerun the tape, because something had just fallen off of one of the towers. They reran the tape, and through the smoke, we could see that the tower had collapsed (10:06am). A few minutes later, the other one collapsed (10:28am).
I felt sick to my stomach at that, because I knew that there were people and emergency crews caught in the collapse. The images of smoke and dust completely covered the lower end of Manhattan, leaving only the tops of buildings visible. For the rest of the morning, the TV showed confusion and anquish as people tried to figure out what had happened and what to do.
Within the hour, all US air traffic, all airports in USA and Canada, and all tunnels and bridges leading out of NYC were closed. Rail service was suspended, federal facilities in other cities closed, and by the early afternoon, many businesses, schools and other organizations closed early. The stock market shut down as well, and since the main cellular telephone towers were located on the WTC, phone communications with NYC were greatly reduced.
The President went back on the TV to promise to punish the perpetrators, and the TV networks ran footage of Palestinians celebrating on the West Bank. They also repeated the assertion that this was such a well-planned and complex operation that only Osama bin Laden's organization could have done it. I began to fear for my Arab and African friends in the US, and hoped they could stay out of sight until people calmed down.
The news coverage continued without interuption throughout the day. We all wondered how many lives were lost. I also wondered about the financial cost--lost TV advertising, lost stock market activity, the cost of the damage, etc.
Whoever did this was pretty shrewd. They used only airplanes that were at the beginning of transcontinental flights, which meant they carried a maximum amount of fuel. The timing was very good to maximize deaths--striking the second tower while people were rushing to aid folks in the first tower. The synbolism was also well chosen--the WTC is the symbol of the US economic system and the Pentagon is the symbol of its military power. I wonder what the fourth plane was supposed to hit, or if it was a "spare."
I called my mom and left a message on her phone. At 10:45am, I called my relatives on the West Coast and spoke to my sister-in- law, who was not yet quite awake and had no idea about what had happened. She said that her cousin worked in the WTC, so I got off the phone so she could make phone calls to her family. At 12:30pm, I got a call from a friend who worked across the street from the WTC, telling me that she was safe with a friend in mid-town Manhattan, but had not been able to contact another friend of ours who works in West Chester. I went to her office on my bicycle, but she was already gone, so when I got back home, I called and found out that everyone was all right.
About 1pm, a friend stopped over. He had heard bits and pieces while he was working, so I gave him the timeline and showed him the video. His reaction was about the same as mine -- shock, disbelief and fear about what will happen next. While he was there, another friend stopped over. We had a short conversation, but everyone was on edge.
It's now about nine hours after the first attack, and reports are still coming in of collapsing buildings in NYC. The fire is out at the Pentagon, but stil burning in NYC. I no longer feel compelled to watch it all on TV, but I kept drifting towards the TV which is on in the kitchen while my wife makes dinner.
The news people are comparing this to Pearl Harbor and calling for a declaration of war. Against whom? Only the BBC reports have even mentioned the reasons that people have for hating America, and the BBC reporter also mentioned that Americans seem incapable of thinking about that.
Well, you hit the World Trade Center, but you missed America. You hit the Pentagon, but you missed America. You used helpless American bodies, to take out other American bodies, but like a poor marksman, you STILL missed America.
Why? Because of something you guys will never understand. America isn't about a building or two, not about financial centers, not about military centers, America isn't about a place, America isn't even about a bunch of bodies. America is about an IDEA. An idea, that you can go someplace where you can earn as much as you can figure out how to, live for the most part, like you envisioned living, and pursue Happiness. (No guarantees that you'll reach it, but you can sure try!)
Go ahead and whine your terrorist whine, and chant your terrorist litany: "If you cannot see my point, then feel my pain." This concept is alien to Americans. We live in a country where we don't have to see your point. But you're free to have one. We don't have to listen to your speech. But you're free to say one. Don't know where you got the strange idea that everyone has to agree with you. We don't agree with each other in this country, almost as a matter of pride. We're a collection of guys that don't agree, called States. We united our individual states to protect ourselves from tyranny in the world. Another idea, we made up on the spot. You CAN make it up as you go, when it's your country. If you're free enough.
Yeah, we're fat, sloppy, easy-going goofs most of the time. That's an unfortunate image to project to the world, but it comes of feeling free and easy about the world you live in. It's unfortunate too, because people start to forget that when you attack Americans, they tend to fight like a cornered badger. The first we knew of the War of 1812, was when England burned Washington D.C. to the ground. Didn't turn out like England thought it was going to, and it's not going to turn out like you think, either. Sorry, but you're not the first bully on our shores, just the most recent.
No Marquis of Queensbury rules for Americans, either. We were the FIRST and so far, only country in the world to use nuclear weapons in anger. Horrific idea, nowadays? News for you bucko, it was back then too, but we used it anyway. Only had two of them in the whole world and we used 'em both. Grandpa worked on the Manhattan Project. He told me once, that right up until they threw the switch, the physicists were still arguing over whether the Uranium alone would fission, or whether it would start a fissioning chain reaction that would eat everything. But they threw the switch anyway, because we had a War to win. Does that tell you something about American Resolve?
So who just declared War on us? It would be nice to point to some real estate, like the good old days. Unfortunately, we're probably at war with random camps, in far-flung places. Who think they're safe. Just like the Barbary Pirates did, IIRC [?]. Better start sleeping with one eye open.
There's a spirit that tends to take over people who come to this country, looking for opportunity, looking for liberty, looking for freedom. Even if they misuse it. The Marielistas that Castro emptied out of his prisons, were overjoyed to find out how much freedom there was. First thing they did when they hit our shores, was run out and buy guns. The ones that didn't end up dead, ended up in prisons. It was a big PITA [pain in the ass] then (especially in south Florida), but you're only the newest PITA, not the first.
You guys seem to be incapable of understanding that we don't live in America, America lives in US! American Spirit is what it's called. And killing a few thousand of us, or a few million of us, won't change it. Most of the time, it's a pretty happy-go-lucky kind of Spirit. Until we're crossed in a cowardly manner, then it becomes an entirely different kind of Spirit.
Wait until you see what we do with that Spirit, this time.. Sleep tight, if you can. We're coming...
I've been hearing a lot of talk about "bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age." Ronn Owens, on San Francisco's KGO Talk Radio, conceded today that this would mean killing innocent people, people who had nothing to do with this atrocity, but "we're at war, we have to accept collateral damage. What else can we do?" Minutes later I heard some TV pundit discussing whether we "have the belly to do what must be done."
And I thought about the issues being raised especially hard because I am from Afghanistan, and even though I've lived in the United States for 35 years I've never lost track of what's going on there. So I want to tell anyone who will listen how it all looks from where I'm standing.
I speak as one who hates the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. There is no doubt in my mind that these people were responsible for the atrocity in New York. I agree that something must be done about those monsters.
But the Taliban and bin Laden are not Afghanistan. They're not even the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a cult of ignorant psychotics who took over Afghanistan in 1997. Bin Laden is a political criminal with a plan. When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think bin Laden, think Hitler. And when you think "the people of Afghanistan" think "the Jews in the concentration camps." It's not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators. They would exult if someone would come in there, take out the Taliban and clear out the rats' nest of international thugs holed up in their country.
Some say, why don't the Afghans rise up and overthrow the Taliban? The answer is, they're starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering. A few years ago, the United Nations estimated that there are 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan -- a country with no economy, no food. There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows alive in mass graves. The soil is littered with land mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets. These are a few of the reasons why the Afghan people have not overthrown the Taliban.
We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that's been done. The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They're already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and healthcare? Too late. Someone already did all that. New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taliban? Not likely. In today's Afghanistan, only the Taliban eat, only they have the means to move around. They'd slip away and hide. Maybe the bombs would get some of those disabled orphans; they don't move too fast, they don't even have wheelchairs. But flying over Kabul and dropping bombs wouldn't really be a strike against the criminals who did this horrific thing. Actually it would only be making common cause with the Taliban -- by raping once again the people they've been raping all this time.
So what else is there? What can be done, then? Let me now speak with true fear and trembling. The only way to get Bin Laden is to go in there with ground troops. When people speak of "having the belly to do what needs to be done" they're thinking in terms of having the belly to kill as many as needed. Having the belly to overcome any moral qualms about killing innocent people. Let's pull our heads out of the sand. What's actually on the table is Americans dying. And not just because some Americans would die fighting their way through Afghanistan to Bin Laden's hideout. It's much bigger than that, folks. Because to get any troops to Afghanistan, we'd have to go through Pakistan. Would they let us? Not likely. The conquest of Pakistan would have to be first. Will other Muslim nations just stand by? You see where I'm going. We're flirting with a world war between Islam and the West.
And guess what: That's bin Laden's program. That's exactly what he wants. That's why he did this. Read his speeches and statements. It's all right there. He really believes Islam would beat the West. It might seem ridiculous, but he figures if he can polarize the world into Islam and the West, he's got a billion soldiers. If the West wreaks a holocaust in those lands, that's a billion people with nothing left to lose; that's even better from Bin Laden's point of view. He's probably wrong -- in the end the West would win, whatever that would mean -- but the war would last for years and millions would die, not just theirs but ours.
Who has the belly for that? Bin Laden does. Anyone else?
NOTE: The author of this letter, Tamim Ansary, was a professional writer and the son of a former Afghani politician.
I'm not sure how to describe my own reaction to the attacks of September 11. Instead, I read your letter, copied the portions on which I have comments into this email, and identified them with "M." My comments start with "X" so you can tell which is which.
In general, your email says a lot of important things with which I agree. I think I understand why you wrote it and want to send it to as many people as possible--if it came from me, it would be because I feel the need to do something "constructive" in response to the attacks. If that is your goal, then I would say that adding your voice to those of other people who have tried to explain why such an attack took place, and who have explained that the US is not without blame--that is a constructive act. As a professor of colonial American history has already said to me, "if this were the 18th century, we'd be Puritans praying to God to ask what sins we have committed to bring this horror upon us." But there do not seem to be any Puritans in our country these days, and certainly not a lot of critical self-examination, at least not from our leaders. Your letter is part of the self-examination that we all need.
Let me comment on some parts of your letter, which appear below. I'd add a few of my own thoughts at the very end.
M: I believe in peace and nonviolence. But I've had trouble with that over the past few days. While spending Tuesday and Wednesday waiting to hear from friends and family in New York, I was taken by alternating fits of tears and rage and numbness.
X: I have shed tears and felt numbness. Maybe I'm abnormal in some way, but I have not felt rage. Instead, I have felt a sense that it's been a long time coming, and helplessness at the ease with which the country with the most power to destroy in all the world has gotten itself psyched up to go out and add to the violence.
M: I wanted to scream at the Palestinians on the news dancing and celebrating.
X: My first reaction, when I saw the video clip of rejoicing Palestinians on national news within two hours after the attacks, was that the TV networks are trying to provoke retaliation against people of Arab descent (or anyone who is swarthy, since a lot of Americans have a hard time telling people apart). I thought it was extremely irresponsible to run that footage at all, and especially without commentary to explain where it was shot, who those people were, and how they got the news about whatever it was they were celebrating. It was at that moment that I began to think about you and other friends who might be made into scapegoats.
M: I sat like a zombie in front of the TV and hoped for the government to hunt down and murder the terrorists and those who assisted them. I have even found myself not caring whether some innocent civilians are killed in the process.
X: I was a zombie too, but I did not experience the rest of this. Instead, I thought about the US withdrawal from the UN racism conference and the Kyoto Accords negotiations, and President Bush's unilateral declaration of intent to abrogate the anti- ballistic missile treaty. I wondered if we did not, as a nation, deserve some sort of retribution for these acts. I know that individuals who were killed did not "deserve" to be killed, but the issue of personal and collective responsibility, which you raised in your letter, is an old one and I don't know how to resolve that.
M: Mainly, I have been consumed by grief and a seething, paralyzing anger. After four days, I am only starting to think clearly again and regain myself. I am searching for ways to heal myself and my loved ones, and I am searching for collective healing in this tragedy.
X: I am sorry to hear about your anger, and I don't know if there is anything I can say to help with it. For me, I believe that we all come from "the One" -- be it Allah, Yahweh, God or some other name -- and that my anger is no more justified than the anger that presumably drove the terrorists. I know that doesn't really help or even explain it -- no one makes a "rational decision" against becoming angry. I am not sure where my absence of anger really comes from, unless its from a knowledge of history that tells me that all of the anger in the past has failed to produce anything other than more anger. I am sure enough of my belief in the One to know that these attacks, plus the response that follows (whatever it is) are part of whatever "plan" exists for humans. In other words, the human actors in all of this chose their actions from a range that has been made available to them by the One. Just as I cannot become angry when a book falls off my shelf and I have to stop what I am doing to pick it up, I cannot (should not?) become angry at this.
M: I want those responsible to be brought to justice. But who are "those responsible"? Of course the terrorists and those who assisted them must be brought to justice. However, the United States must accept a portion of the responsibility for the legacy of violence which our policies have fostered in this world. It was the United States that covertly funded, armed and trained Osama Bin Laden and other known Islamic extremists in terrorist warfare to resist Russia in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
X: In this part of your letter, you get to the heart of what I feel about all of this. Instead of an act by psychotic killers, this was an act of resistance against a world historical force-- globalization--that includes economic, military and ideological components. The USA has been "waging globalization" against the rest of the world (aided by Western Europe and early converts on the continents) since World War II. Despite the decision of our president to treat terrorism as an "enemy" and declare war on it, I know that terrorism is only a tactic, used by people against an enemy with superior firepower. The enemy is not "terrorism" or even "terrorists," it's something or someone else. They have merely chosen terrorism as a tactic, just as they might use recorded cassettes or letters to the editor to wage an ideological campaign.
M: Now the Taliban holds a reign of terror over the people of Afghanistan, and Osama Bin Laden uses his training to attack the U.S.
X: Absolutely. Have you seen the piece by Tamim Ansary, a writer in San Francisco, and the son of a former Afghani politician? It is circulating widely on the Internet and explains in detail the idea contained in the previous statement. If you haven't seen it, let me know and I will send it to you. It begins with "I've been hearing a lot of talk about "bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age."
M: I fear that we are breeding a generation of potential future terrorists in a country where hope now seems futile. To be sure, the United States has done countless good and humanitarian acts in the world. But the violence that we create detracts from the good that is done by breeding and training potential terrorists and madmen.
X: One of the first things I asked one of my more warlike acquaintances is "how many 14-year old boys in the world have seen bin Laden and the other hijackers turned into celebrities by CNN et al and now want to grow up to be like them? If I was making US policy, instead of revenge, I'd be thinking about what to do to make sure they don't feel that way when they get old enough to acquire passports and box cutters.
M: President Eisenhower, before leaving office, warned of the dangers of the U.S. military industrial complex which was cemented by WWII. His warnings were prophetic. In a nation obsessed with military "defense," we fail to notice that the military industry does not support itself on American tax dollars alone. To thrive financially, weapons companies sell arms to unstable countries and oppressive dictators all over the world, fostering violence.
X: This gets back to the impact of globalization again. It is something that has concerned me ever since the Vietnam war, when I first started to understand what the "military-industrial complex" was. I forget who it was who described the US as a military- socialist state in which the government, instead of redistributing wealth directly to recipients, instead subsidizes the military- industrial complex to provide jobs, scholarships, research grants, etc. As far as overseas arms sales go, I've traveled far enough in Africa to see the effects you described many times.
M: Our biased media subtly endorses such policies by refusing to point out the no-win irony of the situation and by portraying people of color in such countries as violent, ignorant and savage. Why did the media focus only on the small number of Palestinians dancing in the streets? Why did we not hear reports of the hundreds of Palestinians who swarmed into hospitals to donate their blood for American victims, despite the fact that many of them may have lost friends and family due to U.S. funded weapons?
X: The media bias on this particular story seems worse than usual. I watched the BBC news on the night of 9/11 and it was so different from the US coverage that it made the US media look like the TASS (former Soviet news agency) or something I might have seen in a one-party state in Africa. It is still going on--what was the deal with the benefit concert for the victims the other night, which was carried on channels 3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 17, 29 and 57. We don't have cable, so the only stations we could receive that did not carry it were 48 and 61 (Home Shopping Network). Whether the decision was made by presidential order or by the directors of the different networks, the result was the same--a single view of events which one could only ignore at the risk of seeming unpatriotic, heartless, or worse--a supporter of terrorism.
M: I am grieving for friends who have lost loved ones ... for the heroic firefighters and rescuers who died ... for the American people ... for the countless innocents who will now die in U.S. retaliation efforts.
X: In the short run, all of my friends and the friends of my friends survived the attacks (to my knowledge), so my grief is tempered by distance. Although I have to admit that at the moment when I saw the first tower of the Trade Center come down, I felt sick because I knew (from familiarity with emergency rescue procedures) that the rescuers were set up at its base, and I guessed that there were still a lot of people in the building. At that moment, I turned to my wife and when I was able to say something, I said "the number of dead just jumped into the thousands." Sadly, my estimate of 10,000 was not far off.
M: Many people are saying Clinton's response to embassy bombings by Osama Bin Laden's group was too weak, ... I am afraid of what response the media believes will be strong enough. How many civilians will die? The terrorists and those who assisted them must be brought to justice, but innocent lives must not be taken in the process.
X: During the days after the attacks, I saw a letter to the editor of a local newspaper that blamed the attacks on Clinton for weakening the US military, and on the Sunday following the attacks, someone shouted the same thing at a group of Democrats who were registering voters in town. Those are the kind of people in this country who frighten me the most--the ones who generated so much venom against the Clintons in the past eight years, and see the attacks as an excuse to continue. Our current president has essentially done the same thing in his speech to congress in which he divided the world into those who are "with us" and those who are not. From my studies of civil wars and my general knowledge of other wars, I know that one of the techniques is to eliminate the moderates so that there can be no negotiated settlement. Such a technique works to the advantage of the force with the most power, since it provides them with an excuse to eliminate everyone they dislike.
M: This week, Americans are experiencing the same grief and pain that countless others around the world have suffered as a result of U.S. policies.
X: This was also one of my early reactions and it has not gone away. As a watched the scenes on television of people moving among the rubble, it looked to me like video footage from the Honduran hurricane, the Peruvian mudslides, the Balkan wars, an every other major disaster that has been shown on TV. As I watched the interviews with survivors or more often, with relatives of the dead, I thought of all the people with similar stories that we never hear because they speak the wrong language or because the media knows their stories won't help them to sell advertising time. I can only hope that having experienced it ourselves, the American people will treat other peoples' suffering with more respect. Unfortunately, I am not very confident that will occur.
M: We live in the most free country on earth, yet we claim that we can do nothing to change our government's policies, and we turn a deaf ear to reports of atrocities.
X: For me, this was the most important and original idea in your entire letter. It certainly provided me with new insight.
M: We ALL share a portion of the blame for the violence and destruction that U.S. policy has fostered in this world. ... I hope we can begin to feel empathy and solidarity with the countless people suffering in this world ... we learn that we can no longer shrug off our responsibility to educate ourselves about and take action on harmful U.S. policies. This is a time to be patriotic, to live up to the ideals upon which our nation was founded. The U.S. must begin to foster freedom, justice and democracy without our borders to the extent that we foster those principles within our borders.
X: The last part of previous paragraph gets to the source of my frustration about all of this. While I watch our leaders, news commentators and ordinary citizens talk about the high ideals that they think this country stands for, I am also very aware of the difference between ideals and reality. To me, this is hypocrisy, and while hypocrisy is not an offense punishable by death (thank goodness), it makes the anger felt by people against the USA understandable. If we openly bragged about our efforts to dominate the world by almost any means possible, at least we would not be adding hypocrisy to everything else. But when we do the bad things and then proclaim our nobility, that makes it significantly worse because it destroys faith in anyone who acts in a noble and unselfish way.
M: No one is free when others are oppressed. No one is safe when we foster the spread of violence in this world. Violence begets violence. We all understand those simple truths. We witnessed those truths on Tuesday.
X: Once upon a time, the previous paragraph would not have been true, but in an era of globalization, it is profoundly true. Will the USA people be willing to sacrifice the economic benefits of globalization in order to avoid having to deal with oppression elsewhere? For me, that is one of the big historical questions that arises out of all this. I wonder if it will be answered in my lifetime?
M: Members of my family have already begun to suffer under an anti-Moslem and anti-Arab-American hatred which has turned suddenly violent.
X: Words in an email do not convey my sadness and disgust at reading this. I am sorry. I wish I could stop it. All I can say is that it will not go unchallenged it if occurs within my reach.
M: What do we do now? Do we infest the world with more hatred, violence and tyranny? Or do we finally learn from the past and begin to rebuild our world with democracy? I am praying to God that we make the right choice.
X: I can imagine several scenarios that will stop the present efforts to increase the violence, but all of them involve millions of dead before we see any improvement. I am afraid and pessimistic in the short run, and I feel some degree of guilt that I will experience whatever follows from the relative safety and comfort of a small town far from the front lines (i.e. West Chester). In the meantime, I am praying more now that I have in the past twenty years, but like you and everyone else, I am still coming to grips with all of this. I will pray that your anger subsides, as well as that of everyone else. In the meantime, I wish you, your family, your friends, and all the rest of us the best.