Reflections on 9/11: How a Tragedy was Exploited

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

Tragedy or Opportunity?

As everyone knows, this Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and killed over 3000 people (including over 400 rescue workers).  Like most people, I remember that day vividly.  I remember where I was, what I did, what I thought, and how I felt as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.  I was shocked, I was saddened, I was confused, and above all, I was scared.  I don’t think these memories will ever fade, and I hope that they don’t.  I think that these events should be remembered.  But, I think that it is essential that they be remembered correctly, and in their proper context.

One of the things I remember most was how quickly the events of that day were distorted.  I remember tragedy being turned to propaganda.  I remember mourning turning to vengeance.  I remember it becoming an excuse for invasions of privacy, hate crimes against Muslims, and two unjust wars (wars that continue to this day).   And, these reactions to a tragic event turned something terrible into something even worse.  This was a day of tremendous loss, and it was exploited.

I don’t mean to make light of the events of that day, and I certainly don’t mean to dishonor the dead, but I believe that both those things have been done by the leadership of this country.  It is very important that we remember the true facts of that day, before they were spun by the media and the government into something that they were not.  Thousands of people died that day, yes, but most of them were victims, and nothing more.  There were true heroes on Flight 93, which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers fought back against the hijackers.  And, there were heroes among the rescue workers, many of whom sacrificed their lives in an attempt to save others.  But, most of the people who died that day were just people, trying to go about their lives the same as they did every other day.  Their deaths are tragic, not patriotic.  They did not die for America, they died because they were American, and that is an important distinction to make.  But, the Bush Administration ignored this distinction, and turned these victims into martyrs.  They used these deaths as justification for terrible acts of their own, including the torture and slaughter of innocent people, and they entered us into extended wars with two countries that had little or no ties to the events of September 11th.

Wars Abroad

Iraq, a country with absolutely no link to the attacks, was invaded in 2003.  To date, more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed, most of them civilians (casualty estimates vary, but most sources list casualties well over this number, some approaching 1,000,000).  This is in addition to over 4,700 deaths among Coalition Forces (almost 4,500 of them American soldiers), around 1,000 contractors, and almost 200 journalists and media members.  This means that at least 30 people, and likely many more, have died in Iraq for every person that died on 9/11, despite the fact that there is zero information linking Iraq or its citizens with the events of that day.

The situation in Afghanistan is a bit different, but is equally appalling.  The invasion of Afghanistan was supposedly justified by the presence of Al Qaeda members and the sympathetic Taliban leadership of that country.  We began our invasion there less than a month after September 11th.  Though there have not been nearly as many casualties in Afghanistan as in Iraq, our war has still resulted in over 17,000 Afghan deaths (half of them civilians), as well as over 2,000 coalition forces, media, and contractors (mostly Americans).  This is despite the fact that Afghanistan had no direct ties to the attack other than a government that was friendly to Al Qaeda, and speculation that Osama bin Laden may be in hiding there.  This war has killed more than six people for everyone that was killed in the attacks on America.

I hear you saying, “But, we got Osama bin Laden!  It was all worth it!”  Ignoring the fact that he was found in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, this is still almost as ridiculous as the wars themselves.  True, bin Laden did take responsibility for the attacks, though not officially until he released a recording in 2004.  It should be noted that he originally denied involvement.  I am not saying that I don’t think he was responsible.  In fact, I’m saying the opposite.  I do think he was responsible, and that makes him the worst kind of criminal.  But, criminals should be tried for their crimes, not murdered in cold blood.  Even Saddam Hussein was granted that right.  He was executed, satisfying the blood lust of the people, but not until he was tried and found guilty of his crimes.  Noam Chomsky, long a voice of reason, argues this exact point.  He says that American troops had no intention of capturing bin Laden, and were on an assassination mission from the start.  I will use Chomsky’s words here, as he states things far better than I could:

On May 1, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in his virtually unprotected compound by a raiding mission of 79 Navy SEALs, who entered Pakistan by helicopter. After many lurid stories were provided by the government and withdrawn, official reports made it increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion itself.

There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 79 commandos facing no opposition — except, they report, from his wife, also unarmed, whom they shot in self-defense when she “lunged” at them, according to the White House.

A plausible reconstruction of the events is provided by veteran Middle East correspondent Yochi Dreazen and colleagues in the Atlantic. Dreazen, formerly the military correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, is senior correspondent for the National Journal Group covering military affairs and national security. According to their investigation, White House planning appears not to have considered the option of capturing bin Laden alive: “The administration had made clear to the military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command that it wanted bin Laden dead, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the discussions. A high-ranking military officer briefed on the assault said the SEALs knew their mission was not to take him alive.”

The authors add: “For many at the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency who had spent nearly a decade hunting bin Laden, killing the militant was a necessary and justified act of vengeance.” Furthermore, “capturing bin Laden alive would have also presented the administration with an array of nettlesome legal and political challenges.” Better, then, to assassinate him, dumping his body into the sea without the autopsy considered essential after a killing — an act that predictably provoked both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world.

Obviously, this mission was carried out under the current administration, which makes Obama guilty of misdeeds of his own.  However, I am sure that if Bush had found bin Laden before he left office, the result would have been the same, assassination instead of legal recourse.  Many would argue that justice had been done–indeed, Obama made this very statement.  But, I disagree.  Justice is something that is done in a court of law, not in the scope of a gun.  Chomsky continues, quoting British barrister Geoffrey Robertson:

Robertson usefully reminds us that “[i]t was not always thus. When the time came to consider the fate of men much more steeped in wickedness than Osama bin Laden — the Nazi leadership — the British government wanted them hanged within six hours of capture. President Truman demurred, citing the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson that summary execution ‘would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride… the only course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times will permit and upon a record that will leave our reasons and motives clear.’”

This is the American way, or it least it was.  It has not been so long since the days of Truman, the days when there was an American conscience that would insist on proof of guilt before such a sentence was carried out.    The American government has never shared whatever evidence they have that conclusively proves that bin Laden was in fact responsible for the attacks, and a trial would afford them this opportunity.  This would help to appease dissenters here at home, as well as those abroad that doubted his complicity.

But, to most, the ends justify the means.  So, a decade of war and hundreds of thousands of deaths are the necessary price for capturing and executing the leader of Al Qaeda.  From the beginning, our sights were set on vengeance, and we would not rest until we had it, whatever the cost.

Wars at Home

As terrible as these wars and the deaths they caused may be, they are only one part of the story.  George Bush and those in his administration wasted little time exploiting the September 11th attacks to pass a bevy of laws, attempting to turn America into a police state.  They launched a third war here at home, against American citizens (and immigrants) and their civil liberties.  And, the American people let it happen.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, the most common public reaction to the attacks was one of jingoism.  American flags were ubiquitous, patriotic songs filled the airwaves, and George Bush’s approval rating (and that of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani) soared.  I understand the impulse of those who have survived a great tragedy to band together.  And, despite the fact that the attacks only directly affected citizens of New York City, Washington DC, and western Pennsylvania, (along with the friends and family of those that were killed), indirectly, the entire country was affected.  This was a shared tragedy, a shared loss, and it called for a shared reaction.

But, instead of using this time as a time of reflection, it became a time of blind American pride.  We celebrated all those things about our country that caused others to hate us.  In fact, we refused to believe that we could be hated, and demonized anyone that had the audacity to do so.  We reveled in our excesses, and stubbornly continued to insist that the American way was the ideal for the rest of the world, despite repeated evidence that the rest of the world did not agree.

The Bush administration, like most of the rest of the country, chose to ignore the reactions of the international community.  Their reaction was one of imposed xenophobia, institutionalizing fear for anything un-American.  First, they established the Department of Homeland Security, a cabinet department devoted primarily to the prevention of future terrorist attacks, with an annual budget over $50 billion.  Despite this initial charter, they quickly absorbed all responsibilities for Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Protection, meaning this new department was now responsible for monitoring virtually everything and everyone that entered this country.

These new powers were part of a rash of anti-Muslim sentiment.  There were countless claims of racial profiling, both by government agencies like the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), and by private citizens.  Violence against Muslims (or anyone appearing to be Muslim) increased.  Though there had already been traces of Islamophobia before 9/11, it quickly escalated after the attacks.  There were 354 reported hate crimes against Middle Easterners in the US during the year 2000, which is already a horrendously high number.  But, during 2001, there were 1,501 reports of violence against this same group, with most of those coming after September 11th.

Even when no violence was involved, anti-Muslim hysteria has been rampant.  Right-wing politicians have introduced measures prohibiting Sharia law (the code of conduct and religious laws of Islam), insisting that Muslims are trying to infiltrate our judicial system, despite zero evidence of that.  There is also the example of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”  This was a proposed Islamic community center planned for a location in downtown Manhattan, more than two blocks from the World Trade Center site.  Despite the fact that it was neither a mosque nor at “Ground Zero,” the name persisted, and led to massive protests and media backlash.

Another example of the exploitation of this tragedy is found in the Guantanamo Bay detention camps.  This camp, located on a U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, was used to hold almost 800 people suspected of various crimes relating to terrorism.  Bush and his administration insisted that the people held here were not protected by the protocols of the  Geneva Conventions, which established humanitarian standards for prisoners and victims of war.  This, in addition to a Justice Department advisement that the camp would not fall under U.S. legal jurisdiction, led to multiple instances of torture and inhumane treatment of the prisoners, many of whom were being held without having been charged of any crime.

Not content to strip the rights of foreign prisoners, the administration passed the USA PATRIOT Act, which allowed them to strip rights from American citizens.  This Act removed much of the protection that these citizens had against searches into their private lives, including phone and email records, and also made it easier to detain and deport immigrants.  And, though the Act was introduced under the Bush Administration, much of it was extended by Obama.

Also not to be forgotten is the cumulative financial impact of this increased bureaucracy and the two wars that are still being fought.  American has been suffering from a terrible recession over the last few years, and it is indisputable that a great deal of the debt we are facing is the result of the huge amount spent on Homeland Security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (total costs of which have been estimated as between $3.2 and $4 trillion dollars).  We are now in a position where we are being forced to make cuts in essential services such as education, infrastructure, and public services like police and fire departments.  We are robbing our citizens to pay for wars we should not be fighting.  Money that should be spent improving this country is being spent destroying others.

What Now?

So, the questions remain: what do we do now?  How do we honor those that died that terrible day without tainting their memory with everything that followed?  How do we learn from what happened?

There is no easy answer to these questions.  But, I would say that the first thing we need to do is to stop exploiting the memory of those that died that day.  Their death has been commercialized, the tragedy preserved in commemorative pins, t-shirts, coins, flags, and any other trinkets or tchotchkes you can imagine.  It has become a promotion on television and at sporting events.  The site of the attacks has become a tourist destination.  Is this really how we should honor our dead?  Is this for us, or for them?

Tom Engelhardt, in an excellent article, addresses this very question:

And surely it’s our duty in this world of loss to remember the dead, those close to us and those more removed who mattered in our national or even planetary lives.  Many of those who loved and were close to the victims of 9/11 are undoubtedly attached to the yearly ceremonies that surround their deceased wives, husbands, lovers, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters.  For the nightmare of 9/11, they deserve a memorial.  But we don’t.

If September 11th was indeed a nightmare, 9/11 as a memorial and Ground Zero as a “consecrated” place have turned out to be a blank check for the American war state, funding an endless trip to hell.  They have helped lead us into fields of carnage that put the dead of 9/11 to shame.

Every dead person will, of course, be forgotten sooner or later, no matter how tightly we clasp their memories or what memorials we build.  In my mind, I have a private memorial to my own dead parents.  Whenever I leaf through my mother’s childhood photo album and recognize just about no one but her among all the faces, however, I’m also aware that there is no one left on this planet to ask about any of them.  And when I die, my little memorial to them will go with me.

This will be the fate, sooner or later, of everyone who, on September 11, 2001, was murdered in those buildings in New York, in that field in Pennsylvania, and in the Pentagon, as well as those who sacrificed their lives in rescue attempts, or may now be dying as a result.  Under such circumstances, who would not want to remember them all in a special way?

It’s a terrible thing to ask those still missing the dead of 9/11 to forgo the public spectacle that accompanies their memory, but worse is what we have: repeated solemn ceremonies to the ongoing health of the American war state and the wildest dreams of Osama bin Laden.

Memory is usually so important, but in this case we would have been better off with oblivion.  It’s time to truly inter not the dead, but the worst urges in American life since 9/11 and the ceremonies which, for a decade, have gone with them.  Better to bury all of that at sea with bin Laden and then mourn the dead, each in our own way, in silence and, above all, in peace.

So, how can we best honor our dead?  Not with television specials, or elaborate memorials, or souvenirs.  Not with patriotic anthems, or saluting the flag.  And, certainly not with wars that add to their numbers, or laws limiting the liberties of those of us that are still here.  All these things we have done in the decade since we were attacked have not served to honor anyone at all.  They have been vengeful and barbaric.  In a time when we should have shown compassion, we  have shown none.

No, the best way to honor those that have died is by holding on to their memories, remembering them as people, before those memories were corrupted and commercialized.  Because, after all, that is what this day is truly about.  These were people who died, people who were loved, and people who should be remembered, not exploited.

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7 thoughts on “Reflections on 9/11: How a Tragedy was Exploited

  1. Great post!

    Not just because it goes much in the line I’m planning my posts for tomorrow/today, but for it’s been a great satisfaction to read concepts and thoughts that split from the usual topics, and that you thougth yourself, no matter what.

    However, I’d like to add just one thing. I don’t know what your approach is, to the events occurred on 9/11 in terms of truth, but to me, the other way to honor the dead, is to make justice and clarify all the remaining questions, many of which, have been held out of public knowledge so far.

    If they died for “economic reasons”, and not under terrorist attacks, many people in the U.S.A. should be prosecuted and judged.

  2. […] Reflections on 9/11: How a Tragedy was Exploited (via WordsNotBullets) As everyone knows, this Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and killed over 3000 people (including over 400 rescue workers).  Like most people, I remember that day vividly.  I remember where I was, what I did, what I thought, and how I felt as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.  I was shocked, I was saddened, I was confused, and above all, I was scared … Read More […]

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