Point of View Columns

Weekend Edition – September 9, 2011

Everyone over the age of 40 remembers where they were on November 22, 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Everyone over the age of 15 remembers where they were on September 11, 2001 when the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists. Today’s Weekend Edition of Point of View provides a retrospective as to the meaning of that terrible day.

Where America Was. Where is America Now?

On the evening of September 10, 2001 Michael Jackson performed at Madison Square Garden in New York City, providing the 18,000 people in attendance with a brief and shining demonstration of true genius. At least one young woman attended that concert and partied afterwards. As a result she was too tired (and hung over) to go to work the next day.

She worked in an office near the top of one of the Twin Towers. Going to see Michael Jackson saved her life.

A young man had a job interview with a firm in an office near the top of one of the Twin Towers. His appointment was for 9 a.m. He wanted to make a good impression so he got to his appoint about 15 minutes early. He was killed trying to make a good impression on his prospective employer.

The stories of 9/11 are full of pain, grief, sorrow, anger and the realization of the random nature of life on this planet. The smallest change in routine could have resulted in life or death that day – as is the case every other day of our lives.

But it was the random nature of the unknown rage from an unknown land that troubled and tortured Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It was beyond belief that there were people in this world who hated the greatest country in the world so much. It was beyond belief that we were so vulnerable.

And after the cries of pain had been silenced and the tears of grief and sorrow had dried anger took center stage. We had been attacked by enemies. The enemies must be slain.

But these enemies wore no uniform, had no nationality and carried no flag. Al Qaeda doesn’t even have a motto. We learned that Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan, sheltered by the Taliban – so there was a target for the cold steel of anger that had been forged in the fires of 9/11. Except……

Except that, in going after bin Laden it became to kill many thousands of Afghan men, women and children. Some were enemies of this country. Many more fell into the awfully banal category of “collateral damage”. And then…..

The government of the United States decided that this was an opportune time to ramp up the Big Lie. A key plotter in the 9/11 tragedy was Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi despot. It wasn’t enough to pursue bin Laden, the downfall of Hussein was critical to the safety of the United States and was important in avenging 9/11.

And so 9/11 and the so-called War on Terror became the password that unlocked all of the horrors of war. “Collateral damage” claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and so too many other places. The War on Terror excused the suspension of constitutional rights for Americans and human rights for suspects who were subjected to torture in black holes around the world through a process called rendition.

In times of tragedy friends, families and communities come together. Differences were forgotten in the aftermath of 9/11 as we realized that the terrorists were didn’t care about our color, religion or national origin. We were targets and that was enough. And for a while, it seemed that silver lining on the cloud of 9/11 would be a different sense of a national community.

But the anger morphed into war and the war morphed into horror. And then there was revulsion and shame. And those who were expressed revulsion at water boarding and torture and rendition and mindless war found their patriotism questioned by those who felt shame in their heart of hearts.

For the first time since the American Revolution the United States pursued war(s) without raising funds for the war through taxes. Combined with the Bush tax cuts, the wars drained the national treasury and turned a multi-billion dollar surplus into a multi-trillion dollar deficit.

The wars created a schism in this country as it became clear that both wars were pathways into a bloody morass with no way out – the fact that the war in Iraq was based on pure fabrication made matters worse. The schism resulted in Americans questioning the patriotism of other Americans and this schism set the stage for the Tea Party radicalization of American politics who now want to “take America back”.

We know now that the goal of Osama bin Laden was not to simply destroy the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. His real goal was to destabilize the United States.

It remains to be seen if that goal will be achieved. We still have the ability to prevent that goal from being achieved – but it will require will as well as power.

Have a great weekend!

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Point of View Columns

When No Sense Is Sense

“For evil to flourish, all that is needed is for good people to do nothing.”
-Edmund Burke

We are drawn inexorably and tragically back to the raging controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. This country has been at war for almost a decade and that casualties mount daily. We narrowly avoided a cataclysmic collapse of the global economy and we continue to sort through the detritus of the damage wrought by Wall Street and our own inattention. Unemployment continues at effective double digit rates and hope is a flickering flame that has to be vigilantly guarded against the downdrafts of despair.

Yet, it would appear to a latter day Rip Van Winkle, if he were to awaken today, that the most important and compelling subject that has riveted the attention of the American body politic is the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. All of the noted challenges and controversies are left in the shadow cast by this collision of titanic forces. One the one hand there is the Constitution of the United States and its very clear and unambiguous commitment to freedom of religion and its equally clear corollary that government will not interfere in the exercise of the right of religious freedom.

Arrayed against this seemingly formidable component of the foundation upon which this country was built is a gaggle of opponents with no coherent philosophy save a very ugly anti-Islamist undertone. That undertone is masked with calls for “sensitivity” to the feelings of the families of 9/11 victims and queries as to why the proposed center (which is not a mosque, although it will have a prayer room) has to be “so close” to the site of the new World Trade Center. And then there is an Alice in Wonderland exposition of the theory that while Muslims have the right to build their community center in Lower Manhattan, they have the responsibility to realize that some citizens would be offended by their presence and so they should move to another site. Perhaps in Siberia or Mars.

As we observe this conflagration of opposing views move across a landscape charred and scarred by extremism and venom, perhaps the cooling waters of fact and reason could be helpful. I am personally appalled at the vehemence of the expressions by opponents to the center. Could it be that 7 out of 10 Americans are against the site? Could it be that these 7 out of 10 Americans are unaware that Muslims died as innocent victims during the 9/11 catastrophe, as innocent as the Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu and atheist victims? Could it be that 7 out of 10 Americans are truly offended that an Islamic sponsored community center would be several blocks from the site of a World Trade Center?

Because, if that is the case what should be done about the two mosques that are already near the World Trade Center? One mosque is four blocks from the 9/11 site and has been there since 1970 – in effect before there was a World Trade Center. What should be done about the mosque that is 12 blocks from Ground Zero and has been in existence since 1985, or 16 years before 9/11? These mosques have been in continuous operation since 9/11 without question or concern and not once have the sensitivities and feelings of the families of 9/11 victims been mentioned. Not once.

Are we to infer that the opponents to the proposed center feel that 2 Islamic sites are enough? Or perhaps these two centers should also be dismantled and moved? Or is 4 blocks far enough away? Or 12 blocks? And, by the way, whatever happened to the Constitution of the United States?

Everything that is now being said about Muslims and mosques has been said about Jews and synagogues and Catholics and cathedrals and Protestants and their churches. Flames of intolerance have consumed untold legions of martyrs of every religion. The aspiration of tolerance is a very real aspect of what has made this country different. What a shame it would be for us to reverse the evolutionary process and return to the intolerance embodied by pogroms and holocausts and inquisitions since time immemorial.

If the rights of a minority are protected only when the majority is comfortable and looks favorably on that minority, then those rights are mere gossamer – a half-dream that disappears with the dawning of the dull sun of prejudice. If the exercise of rights set forth in the Constitution were subject to minority rule women might not have voted in Utah until very recently. If Constitutional rights were subject to a vote in North Carolina my father’s great grandparents might have never have moved from the Ford plantation.

There will always be a moment of pause between stated ideals and the full attainment of those ideals, but allowing the construction of the Lower Manhattan Islamic cultural center to be determined by some kind of neo-plebiscite a la American Idol would be shameful. To allow the exercise of religious freedom to be circumscribed because it is “insensitive” would make a mockery of the Constitution and provide the enemies of this country with custom made propaganda to recruit more misguided zealots.

Nonsense begets no sense. And we are all the worse for this very sad episode in the life and times of America.

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