09 September 2021

How the Grinch Stole 9/11, part two

On September 11, 2001, I was one of about thirty Northwest Yearly Meeting pastors at the yearly meeting's annual Focus Conference at a riverside conference center in Hood River, Oregon.

I got up early that morning, found a bench facing the Columbia River, and opened up a book that was consuming my every free moment: Academician Dmitry Likhachev's Reflections on the Russian Soul: A Memoir. There was nobody else in the courtyard.

That morning, I was reading about Likhachev's experiences as an inmate at the Solovetsky prison camp, where he narrowly escaped execution. Solovetsky was the first prison camp in the GULag system, and was in operation before the death of Lenin. Likhachev's account was riveting.

I paused to check the time and realized I was late for breakfast.

As I approached the entrance to the conference center's dining room, I gradually noticed a puzzling thing: I couldn't hear a sound. When I entered the room, that silence continued, until I heard someone say (recalling from memory), "Let's pray for the Muslims who will be blamed for this."

A big-screen TV in the UNC Student Union was tuned to CNN
for coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Photo by Dan Sears, source.

What "this" was, I soon found out, and the magnitude of the shock and grief in the dining room, and around the country, immediately became apparent as we brought each other up to date, and as we spent several of the next hours in front of television sets.

Out on the streets, that shock and grief, in many cases, quickly turned to anger and threats of revenge. As I coped with this escalating torrent of patriotism and outrage expressed on tee shirts, pickup truck banners, and mass media, it was -- and still is -- a profound consolation that the very first thing I heard on 9/11 was that call to prayer at a breakfast of Quaker pastors.

Millions of Americans reacted to 9/11 with shock and understandable anger. I'm sure many Quakers realized that our Christian testimony of nonviolence was in for a period of great turbulence. However, as we eventually found out, in Washington a different calculation was going on.

Here's how many of us USA citizens seemed to find our consolation: as journalist Robert Draper (quoted here) said,

In the after-shocks of 9/11, a reeling America found itself steadied by blunt-talking alpha males whose unflappable, crinkly-eyed certitude seemed the only antidote to nationwide panic.

What were those alpha males cooking up for us? Here's Matthew Warshauer's brief review:

That the U.S. treated September 11 as a Pearl Harbor-like moment to rally a nation for war was the essential problem. Japan’s attack was an act of war. Bin Laden’s was a terrorist act treated by President Bush and his advisors as war. It wasn't. 9/11 was a criminal justice issue that required a military component. Al Qaeda represented no nation state, no definable military that could be vanquished unconditionally. Nor did it pose an existential threat to the homeland or American power abroad. Bin Laden couldn’t touch, as President Bush put it, "the foundation of America," unless we blundered; unless we decided that 9/11 was the new Pearl Harbor and carried that comparison for all it was worth.

How else could the Bush administration invade Iraq and expand its military footprint into the Middle East? How else could the administration secure unquestioned funding for the Pentagon and military industrial complex? Treating bin Laden as a criminal wouldn't suffice. Equating him with an attack on freedom, an existential threat to American society, would. 9/11 had to be Pearl Harbor. ...

Just hours after the attacks, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld handed one of his aides a hasty note for General Richard Meyers: "judge whether good enough hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein]@ same time—Not just UBL [Usama bin Laden]…go massive—sweep it all up—Things related and not." The note didn’t insinuate that Saddam was in any way responsible for 9/11. Those arguments came later. Rumsfeld and other Republicans simply asked whether the U.S. could utilize the attacks for larger purposes.

Karl Rove, Bush's ever-present campaign guru, said later, "Sometimes history sends you things, and 9/11 came our way." The President and his advisors wouldn't allow this "Pearl Harbor" moment to be wasted.

About fifteen years ago I wrote a blog post, How the Grinch Stole 9/11, in which I mentioned how urgent I felt it was to expose the cult of American self-pity that 9/11 threatened to become. The phenomenon was still strong at that point, five years after the attacks. Now we are at the twenty-year mark, and the specific power of that wave of outrage seems to have been dissipated somewhat, in favor of a new wave of recriminations related to the Taliban and the seemingly shambolic end to the American war in Afghanistan.

Back in 2006, I was concerned that the 9/11 attacks and the USA's responses fit a pattern described in Tom Engelhardt's book The End of Victory Culture-- a pattern that goes more or less like this:

Once again Americans have been ambushed, once again we are utterly innocent, and once again no response is too cruel, too wasteful, too outright racist. No snide remark about "appeasement" or "defeatism" is too crass to aim at anyone yearning for some ethics, some wisdom, some ... Christian moral values, strangely enough.

After another fifteen years since that post, I'm thinking less about that cultural pattern and more about how it was blatantly exploited by the USA's leaders. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Roosevelt could argue that nothing short of war was appropriate from the range of actions open to him. (Since I'm a pacifist, I'm parenthetically noting that, from our viewpoint, that range of actions is limited by the prevailing assumptions of power politics.) Furthermore, Roosevelt already realized that racist totalitarianism was on the march in Europe and the Middle East as well as Asia, so the picture was indeed grim.

As Warshauer points out, the 9/11 attacks had nothing of the same scale. The Pearl Harbor comparison was simply a manipulative device to convert the righteous rage of the American public into support for what the New American Century advocates had already been pushing when 9/11 came along: wholesale rearmament and the USA's permanent dominance of the planet.

Forward to 2021. Many of our fellow citizens in the USA are deeply skeptical about COVID vaccinations. Although I understand some of the history behind this stand, I can't approve of it -- after all, the effects of widespread vaccination refusal are deadly. But I'm intrigued by that capacity for skepticism. Can we cultivate a capacity for skepticism when it could save lives?

How do we inoculate ourselves and each other to refuse to hate and bomb and kill when that very same national government that now (correctly) wants to get us vaccinated, might later want to exploit a new "emergency" to ignite another round of deadly and expensive military adventures? What is the role of the Christian evangelist, the Christian prophet, and the Christian prayer leader in providing that crucial inoculation?

Among the features of this year's media coverage of the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I've seen several moving articles about those who suffered and died in the attacks, and their families. Nothing I say about the exploitation of Bush's "'Pearl Harbor' moment" is meant to downplay the grief of survivors and the need for genuine justice. Here's what I wrote on the fourth anniversary, 2005:

I no longer have conflicting feelings about anniversary observances of the attacks and deaths associated with September 11, 2001. In a spirit of bearing one another's burdens, I am totally willing to participate in genuine mourning of the deaths that took place on that date, and comfort for the consequent wounds carried by the survivors. I am no longer willing to do anything to encourage the cult of pseudo-patriotic self-pity that was born a few terrible hours after those attacks.

The USA suffered that day in a way that many other countries have, far more often and at proportionally a larger scale—even at times because of our government's indifference or outright connivance. The suffering of our citizens, residents, and visitors on September 11 should help sensitize us to the the violence that is so constant in many other places. (I'm not even addressing the issue of the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq that our self-pity is directly linked to.) Instead, nearly four years of ugly chest-thumping and Patriot Acting have threatened to make the USA smaller, meaner, greyer, certainly more fractured.

Greg Morgan on compassion for the unvaccinated.

Samuel Cohen: What's wrong with calling 9/11 "Patriot Day"?

W.J. Astore's ten reasons the war in Afghanistan lasted so long and ended so disastrously.

Is the USA's age of global privilege really over? Andrew Bacevich thinks so.

Donald W. McCormick, in Friends Journal, on taking the mystical experience seriously.

This year, World Quaker Day is October 3. Meetings and churches in Friends World Committee's Section of the Americas are being encouraged to record interviews with their oldest members.

Steve Guyger and the Excellos at an appearance in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "When You Have These Blues." (If you like it, listen to the whole concert.)

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