September 11, 2012

Never Forget

Like most Americans of a certain age, I remember September 11, 2001 well. I had pulled an all-nighter at the office, working on an appellate brief. I had gone home for a quick nap, shower, and clean suit. I was ironing my shirt, watching CNN, when news broke of the first plane striking the Twin Towers. I remember thinking it was a terrible tragedy, but the idea of a terrorist attack was just one possibility. Then I watched as the second plane struck in the background of a live news update. That second strike made it real. There was no way it was an accident. America was under attack.

I remember going to the office, and watching in one of my partners' office as the Towers fell. I remember heading to a noon hour special Mass with several Catholic partners, even though I am a lapsed Lutheran. I remember heading home as they closed my building, the tallest in the Des Moines skyline, because right then the idea of a terrorist attack on an insurance building in the Midwest seemed entirely plausible. I remember watching hours of news coverage as America tried to come to grips with the thousands of little tragedies spinning off from the greater tragedy we were still unable to process.

Every generation has its defining event. For my grandfather's generation, it was Pearl Harbor, when America was pulled into history's greatest war against tyranny. For my father's generation, it was the assassination of JFK, the man who steered America away from the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was probably the last best hope to avoid the quagmire and historical-political repercussions of the Vietnam War.

For my generation, in 1995 I would have assumed our defining event to have been the Oklahoma City bombing, then the most significant act of terrorism on American soil. I still remember where I was when I heard the news of that attack—in my last year of law school, thinking about finals and the bar exam while supervising intramural softball. But somehow, the Oklahoma City bombing faded from the public memory in a few years, maybe because the terrorists turned out to be home-grown American radicals, maybe because times were good and Americans just wanted to move on. A few months ago, I was in Oklahoma City for a mediation. We walked past the Oklahoma City bombing memorial on our way from the parking garage to the soaring building where we were meeting. Our attorney rather off-handedly pointed out the memorial and mentioned how it was just part of downtown and not something he had visited in years. Just another historical marker for another historical event.

The terrorist attack on 9/11 truly was a defining moment for my generation. It dwarfed the Oklahoma City bombing in its scale, its brazenness, its evil. It was a sucker punch to the American psyche, an attack at the foundations of our culture on our home turf. The world changed for Americans when those planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside. We solemnly vowed we would never forget.

I remember the bitter political rancor that divided the country less than a year prior to 9/11, when a few hundred ambiguous votes and a split decision of the U.S. Supreme Court decided the hotly contested presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Yet in the days after 9/11, I remember being inspired by President Bush as he visited the still smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers. I remember my pride at Al Gore solemnly declaring, "George Bush is my President." I remember how Americans—so recently and so bitterly divided—came together, their political discord mended by a renewed sense of common cause.

We forgot.

Since 9/11, there have been three presidential elections, each more vitriolic than the prior. Americans are more polarized politically than ever. Red states vs. Blue states. Republicans vs. Democrats. Politicians willing to lie, dissemble, obfuscate, and slander merely to thwart the other side, without regard for the merits of the issue in dispute. America no longer has a common cause. It's good vs. evil, and evil vs. good. Compromise is a dirty word, an unacceptable surrender to the enemy. Bipartisanship is dead, slain by ideological purity.

I remember after 9/11 how Americans were careful to separate the terrorists from their Muslim faith. How politicians and clergy spoke of treating Muslims with compassion, to recognize that their faith does not condone such senseless violence, to understand that Muslims worldwide condemned the attacks and sympathized with our loss. I remember how the terrorists were our enemies, not Muslims.

We forgot.

Today, barely a decade removed from the atrocities committed by a fringe radical group more similar to the Oklahoma City bombers than to the average Muslim in the Middle East, the idea of a mosque in the same area as the Twin Towers is grist for conservative politicians and talk show hosts to whip up their base into a frenzy. These same radicals turn "Muslim" into a pejorative slander against our President, who makes the electoral calculation that it is better to declare his Christian bona fides than to defend the millions of Muslims whose faith follows a path of peace.

I remember when we sought those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and were viewed as the good guys, the righteous people seeking justice, not vengeance. I remember the broad coalition of our allies, and the support of those countries and peoples who prior to the attacks might have shared the terrorists' view of America as an arrogant, hedonistic behemoth who imposed her will on the world.

We forgot.

America's thirst for justice was subverted and perverted. We used the 9/11 attacks to justify a war against Iraq, a country with no connection to the attacks and posing no threat to American security. We began to torture enemies and suspected enemies, using euphemisms like "extraordinary rendition" and "enhanced interrogation techniques". We opened and continue to operate a concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, enabling us to hold prisoners—even American citizens—idefinitely and beyond any judicial authority. We have Presidents of both parties asserting the authority to order the summary executions of not just foreign terrorists, but also American citizens thought to be terrorists. Those same Presidents who decry the loss of innocent Americans in the 9/11 attacks order drone strikes on terrorist suspects without regard for the collateral damage to innocent foreign civilians.

I remember when we viewed the 9/11 attacks as a fundamental attack on our American way of life. I remember how we swore we couldn't "let the terrorists win" by changing our core principles, by sacrificing our freedoms to assuage our fears.

We forgot.

Americans sold out their liberty for the illusion of security. Sensible security upgrades gave way to a nationalized system of security theater. Airports are filled with TSA agents irradiating and patting down millions of American citizens who pose no threat greater than transmitting the common cold with an unprotected sneeze. Now TSA agents are inspecting our beverages; it's only a matter of time before we all fondly remember the days when we did not have to strip naked before boarding a plane.

Even worse than the indignities of airport security are the more fundamental erosions of our rights. Today, the Homeland Security conglomerate mines the detritus of our daily lives, looking for suspicious patterns of behavior in the goods we buy, the books we read, the web searches we conduct, the people we meet. If we trip the wrong alarm, or piss off the wrong government official, we may find the full force of the government digging into our lives via secretive "national security letters" that circumvent our Constitutional due process rights. But it's all OK because the Government is simply trying to "prevent the next 9/11".

The 9/11 attacks unquestionably struck a major blow to the American way of life. But we do a disservice to those who died in the 9/11 attacks if we superficially remember their sacrifice while fundamentally altering our time-honored American values. Saying "we will never forget" is not about a monument or a memorial service. The best way to honor those who fell on 9/11 is to remember and celebrate the fundamental values of America—liberty, equality, and tolerance.

Never forget the essence of America.


  1. We ALWAYS forget.

    Perhaps more pertinently, we always deem today's bogeyman so much scarier than anything that has come before that it justifies violating precepts that we have literally carved into stone on some of our national buildings.

    Within a few years of enacting the First Amendment, the same Congress decided that the whole "freedom of speech" thing surely couldn't encompass the shocking act of criticizing THEM, and so passed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

    For Abraham Lincoln, the exigencies of the beginnings of the Civil War seemed to justify suspending the right of habeas corpus.

    In the second half of the 19th century, we had what amounted to an official federal governmental policy of genocide of Native Americans, because they frightened the western settlers and resisted having their lands taken away.

    For WWII America, the possibility of Japanese espionage was sufficiently frightening that they were able to deem thousands upon thousands of legal immigrants and US citizens to be potential enemies, solely on the basis of their parentage, and as a result force them to sell their property for pennies on the dollar and relocate them to concentration camps in the interior. Due process? Judicial review? Petition for redress? Presumption of innocence? All whisked away with barely a whimper of protest from the majority--and with the explicit, shameful stamp of approval from the Supreme Court.

    Every generation abandons the values it claims to hold sacred when it is sufficiently frightened--and every generation has something that sufficiently frightens it. With the passage of time, we look back at our predecessors and think, "How could you DO that?", barely aware that our grandchildren will be thinking the same of us for having turned our backs on bedrock constitutional principles in the ways that you have listed here.

  2. In case that first comment wasn't sufficient explicit, I agree with your laments here about how we have, collectively, willingly thrown away core constitutional guarantees in the name of alleged national security.

    Allow me to ask a pointed question: Who do you plan to vote for in the upcoming presidential election?

    I mean, you give a nice speech here, but will your vote reflect your sadness and outrage?

    I don't see how you can identify the flagrant, ongoing, massive violations of several provisions of the Bill of Rights, and then cast your ballot either for one of the guys who is in charge of the governmental machine that is visiting such violations upon us, or for the guy who promises to do even more of the same if he gets his chance.

    I humbly suggest giving consideration to Gary Johnson, who takes individual constitutional liberties seriously, and I believe will do all in his power to reverse the worst of the abuses you have listed.

    Publishing an impassioned lament about constitutional violations, but then voting for somebody who you know is dedicated to continuing them, seems to me both irrational and hypocritical.

  3. Hypocritical, perhaps, but not irrational. Such a vote is irrational only if one believes that slowly building a movement to reject such violations is a)feasible and b)more important than other issues.

    And lest we forget, there ARE other issues. Important ones, about the structure of our society and economy. You both live in battleground states, and thus face an important choice: vote for an immediate positive effect (Obama or Romney - I'll forgo mentioning the obvious better choice) or filing a protest vote in the hopes that a political party will grow in the future.

    Purely from a perspective of civil liberties, Gary Johnson may be the best candidate. But the election is about more than that.

    Oh, and good blog post. I agree.

  4. @ Rakewell (a/k/a Poker Grump): Regrettably, you are correct that Americans have a habit of trading liberty for security (real or imagined). I suppose if, during America's most virtuous endeavor—WW II—we felt it necessary to send 10s of thousands of our own citizens to camps because they were of Japanese descent (but not doing the same to our citizens of German descent), then I should hardly be surprised at what we have done in the name of the greater good in the aftermath of 9/11.

    Still, during the weeks following 9/11, I remember feeling hopeful that things might be different this time, that we Americans might find a way to use that tragedy as a starting point for a renewed, shared vision of who we are as a nation. Eleven years out, it's obvious my hope was horribly misplaced. Yet I refuse to think that there is no hope of changing course.

  5. @ Rakewell & MisterFred: Rakewell is right that there is a conflict between opposing the kinds of flagrant violations of our rights I identified in my post and supporting either of our main political parties and their presidential nominees who are responsible for initiating and sustaining those odious policies. However, Misterfred is correct that the issue is much more complicated than simply saying, "A pox on both your houses."

    Look, I voted for Obama last election in part because he opposed the war in Irag, he favored closing Guantanamo Bay, he opposed torture, he offered a way out of Iraq and Afghanistan. To say I'm disappointed in Obama on those issues is putting it mildly. But Romney and the neo-con hawks in the Republican party will almost certainly be worse on those issues.

    The problem is, our system is structurally unable to give me any viable options for voting against Obama. So long as the Republican party is in thrall to the right wing loonies—and a party that offers Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich as serious presidential candidates is beholden to the crazies—there's no way I can vote Republican. As MisterFred points out, I live in a swing state in a tight election year. If folks like me vote for Gary Johnson, we might well collectively hand the White House to the worst choice of the lot. So the safe bet is to hold our noses and vote for Obama, not because he is good on these issues, but because he is not nearly as bad as the alternative.

    In an ideal world, I wish I had the option to vote for a fiscally conservative, socially moderate-to-libertarian candidate like Gary Johnson or Jon Huntsman. Right now, neither major party offers such a candidate. And from what I can tell, a lot of supposedly libertarian voters aren't willing to back Johnson because they would rather support the Ron Paul cult of personality (complete with his nutty policies and less than libertarian views on social issues). Maybe if the Republicans lose a few more elections they will see their way clear to cutting loose the radical right (or at least stifle them) and put up a candidate like Johnson. But until they do, the only viable option for me is to vote for the Democrat and trust he won't push the envelope too far.

  6. Great post. What is one to do?

    For years I have considered myself a moderate republican. I am horrified that the party has been taken over by the extremist loonies who give a bad name to all republicans. On the other hand, the democrats are dominated by their own extremist loonies.

    As things stand now it is so difficult for anyone close to the middle to get nominated for the top spot. However, it seems that many on both sides could live with someone from the opposite party as long as common sense and statesmanship were part of the occasion.