Sept. 11: 2001-2011
When they don’t want to defend the people they put them in uniforms and start defending the country.
— Samuli Paronen
There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.
— Sun Tzu
In war the result is never final.
— Clause von Clausewitz
Am I still dreaming?
Two weeks ago, I told a friend/coworker that I sometimes fear going to sleep because during my slumber I may slip into a parallel world that is at once familiar yet fundamentally different from the day before. It would be no different than if I were living in a dream.
This is my freshman year at Oberlin College. Last week, I had finished an exhausting and exasperating orientation with my dad: setting up a local bank account, buying textbooks amid the throng of Obies new and old, checking out the local restaurants and my new co-op, settling into my dorm room from the nearby Motel 6. I am the only person from my high school who is attending Oberlin. I am sharing a room again, albeit with a stranger from California instead of my brother. That Monday was a long day for me 10 years ago, one that began with 8 a.m. calculus and ended with dinner at the co-op. All of this newness took its toll on me and I sleep Monday night as I had little to worry about the next day since my first class didn’t begin until early afternoon.
I wake up about a quarter to 11 and the first thing I hear is two people outside my window talking about the attack on the World Trade Center towers. I didn’t think much of it since the north tower had been bombed before in 1993, and they were probably talking about it within an international political context, as many Obies, I would later find out, are wont to do. Groggy, I go back to bed.
Around 11:30, I wake up, brush my teeth, wash my face, change my clothes, and leave for lunch. I walk through the student union and see my classmates huddled around TVs, watching footage that wouldn’t be out of place in an action film. The World Trade Center had been completely destroyed by airplanes. Two other flights had been hijacked: one crashed into the Pentagon, the other into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania instead of Washington, D.C. Le Monde runs the headline, “We Are All Americans.” This is not a dream.
Classes are canceled. I receive emails and see posters about impromptu teach-ins on Middle East politics and U.S. foreign policy. Classmates make calls to friends and family with questions and reassurances and concerns. I barely know anybody on campus and I don’t know anyone who is from New York, so I watch TV, refresh the news websites, and listen to conversations. It seems everyone went to the local Red Cross to give blood, so much so that the staff had to turn away would-be donors. It is the only act many of us could take while in the middle of rural Ohio. Come early Friday morning at my first real job as copy editor for The Oberlin Review, I would edit an article about this incident and see my RA featured in the accompanying photograph. I watch clips of the plane crashing into the second tower on TV and news websites. They eventually meld into one infinite mental loop of disbelief. This is not a dream.
Or is it? In the following months, I become a glutton for information. I read about and watch Bush talk about al-Qaeda being responsible for the attacks in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. It is not until just before the 2004 presidential election that al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, would claim responsibility for September 11. But none of us knew that that would happen at the time.
News outlets talk about the U.S. invasion into Afghanistan to conduct its hunt for the terrorists responsible for the heinous attacks and for those who supported them. I learn about the Taliban and its stranglehold on the country and about the irreplaceable and historic Buddhist statues that they have denounced and destroyed. I copyedit Review articles about student-led protests against the war. The editors comment on the friends and classmates who have been interviewed and photographed. In between consultations with the style guide and the copy chief, I occasionally wonder why I’m in a crumbling, overheated bomb and tornado shelter that had been converted into a dorm basement, putting together a print newspaper, instead of joining the protests or forming an activist group or signing up to an NGO. During the quiet moments, I sometimes see the editors pause over the words and photographs, as if they are asking themselves the same question. Then they continue with their work and so do I. We have a noon deadline to meet.
Two weeks before my 19th birthday, the U.S. and Britain begin bombing Taliban forces in Afghanistan, thus starting a war that would continue to this day. Two days after my birthday, House Representative Frank James Sensenbrenner Jr (R-Wisconsin) introduces the USA PATRIOT Act. The acronym stands for “Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism.” Five days after my birthday, Bush signs the act into law. In the days before and after its passage on both the House and Senate floors, many senators and representatives from both parties protest that they did not have enough time to review the bill’s 340 pages.
Among the powers granted to the government in the bill: the elimination of warrants for wiretaps and confiscation of communiqués from anyone suspected of aiding or being a member of a terrorist organization; warrantless searches of an individual’s home; the absence of probable cause when using a National Search Letter, a form of government request for information and paperwork related to any individual, and which includes a gag order forbidding the targeted individual from knowing about the NSL.
A 2007 internal FBI audit finds that the agency violated its use of NSLs more than 1,000 times since 2002. The audit’s sampling covers only 10 percent of the bureau’s national security investigations.
The first 20 detainees arrive at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp that following January. It is five days before my sister’s 18th birthday. I spend my winter term volunteering at the hospital down the street from my high school. GTMO, as abbreviated by the military, remains open and holds 171 detainees as of May 2011. Among those detained since the establishment of “Gitmo” were children as young as 13 years old.
“The War on Terrorism.” “The Axis of Evil.” “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” The next target is Iraq. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gives a presentation to the U.N. about mobile biological weapons labs and the sale of yellowcake uranium in Iraq. The U.S. and its allies begin bombing Iraq on March 19, 2003. The target is Dora Farms where, according to military reports, Hussein is visiting his sons Uday and Qusay. One civilian is killed and 14 others are injured, including nine women and a child. No Iraqi leaders were present. Hussein has not visited the farms since 1995.
I read reports of Iraqi antiquities being looted by Iraqis and U.S. and allied forces. I see an image circulating online supposedly of a U.S. soldier using a crowbar to pry a gold plate off a door of an Iraqi palace. News shows and websites present images of a statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down. In addition to philosophy, I study Chinese and Japanese culture, history, and art.
Bush, wearing a flight suit, declares the war in Iraq to be finished onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes write a book in which they conservatively estimate that the Iraq war has cost the U.S. $3 trillion. Their book, titled “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” is released in February 2008. As of August 2011, the U.S. Treasury estimates the national debt to be $14 trillion.
For a brief period, the U.S. had the world’s goodwill. Bush and the rest of his administration squander it, hastily and nastily.
Over the years, I try to imagine what the world would be like if, instead of telling Americans to work — and spend — as they did before the dot-com crash, Bush had asked everyone to donate their time and skills and fortune toward those who cannot meet their basic needs, who live in unfortunate circumstances not of their own making. Would we have avoided the wake of luxury SUVs, sub-prime mortgages, “toxic assets,” bank bailouts, and home foreclosures that marred the past half-decade and continue to plague us to this day?
One month before my birthday, I wake up and wonder if I have slipped into another dream. I am studying nutrition, trying to become a registered dietitian. I am trying to help strangers, friends, and family through food and nutrition education. I am working at another student-run newspaper, the Arizona Daily Wildcat, as an avocation while my colleagues and friends work there as a stepping stone toward a vocation that, depending on your point of view, is either going through its death throes or just a painful metamorphosis. Aside from the precocious, many of them did not fully grasp the enormity of September 11, 2001 at the time. But they have been learning of and living through that event’s aftermath.
It becomes increasingly difficult to follow the news as I once did, mainly because my old habits and newsfeeds left me with many sleepless nights, but also because there is too much information and white noise and not enough curation and analysis and context. Trusted sources seem scarcer. I lose track of many of my friends’ personal lives and vice versa. I try to make up for it online.
I read, watch, and listen to the remembrances and commemorations in the days leading to the 10th anniversary. I never paid much attention to them in previous years because it somehow felt exploitative and because I was not ready to remember that day.
I am learning more about my limitations. I am learning to find a space I can call my own. I am relearning not just what it means to be an American at a time when America is unsure of itself and fearful of the uncertain future, but also what it means to be human and humane.
I tell myself: The tragedies of September 11, 2001 happened. Our follies and missteps since that day stay with us. We are haunted by the past and exorcised by the creation of a present inspired by visions of a better future. This is not a dream.
To hold a pen is to be at war.
The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it.
— Samuel Butler (1709-84)
Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair.
— Edmund Burke
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
— Theodore Roosevelt
For myself, I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use being anything else.
— Winston Churchill