Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, Volume 3

OK, this is my final essay on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. I had hoped to finish this by 9/11 but that didn’t work.

In my last essay I spoke about how President Bush asked for and received Congressional approval to combat the “war on terror” without any way to measure either success or completion. This allowed him to avoid seeing 9/11 either as a criminal act or an act of war.

President Bush is and was a devout Christian. He credits his faith with his decision to stop drinking and change his life.

But he also believed that as Christians we struggle constantly with a world caught between good and evil. Among other things this caused him to proclaim the planners of 9/11 as part of the axis of evil in early 2002. He stated that Iran, Iraq and North Korea sought our destruction (interestingly omitting Afghanistan, the nation giving safe harbor to Osama bin Laden).

By articulating that we are “good” and those other nations are “evil” he set up a paradigm whereby only those who were on his side were worthy of God’s love. Opposing him wasn’t simply mistaken, it was sinful. And while he stated several times that we were not at war with Islam, he should have known he unleashed that very prejudice.

When he decided to invade Iraq in 2003 he justified it by claiming Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein were developing and stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction” intending to attack the United States. The only link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden lay in the fact that both identified as Muslim, though their practices were dramatically different. At the time I claimed that Hussein and bin Laden were both Muslims in the same way Bill Clinton and Pat Robertson were both Baptists.

President Bush also hinted that Hussein helped plan 9/11 without any evidence. Shortly after the invasion his administration admitted there were no weapons of mass destruction even though his administration claimed we knew where they were.

In any war we need to articulate why we are right and our enemies are wrong. But President Bush went farther and laid the groundwork for the belief among many that all Christians are good and all Muslims are evil. The 9/11 terrorists may have claimed to be Muslims but members of the Ku Klux Klan identify as Christians. Muslims who wish us evil constitute a minuscule percentage of Islam.

I prayed after 9/11 that these acts of terrorism would not only bring us together but unite us in our determination to choose love over hate, courage over fear. Alas, I feel we are going in the wrong direction. Prejudice against Muslims and anyone who appears to be Middle Eastern continues seemingly unabated. Our fear has emboldened some of us to reject the very values on which our nation was founded.

I was blessed to witness an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution called A Nation of Nations that celebrated our diverse past and shared future.

I pray we will be that again and that the 30th Anniversary of 9/11 points in a better direction.

Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, Volume 2

In my last essay I spoke about my experience and feelings on the day of the attack. There I admitted I couldn’t encompass all I wanted to say in one entry. I hope to keep this to 2 volumes, but we’ll see.

In the first few weeks and months it was good to see that as a nation we came together. Like most Americans I had not voted for President George W. Bush the previous November. I felt he didn’t have enough experience, or frankly, smarts to run the country. But, like most of us, I fell in line behind him and I have to credit him with his ability to articulate our grief and pain.

But I felt at the time that he needed to make a critical decision. We knew early on that the mastermind of the attacks was Osama bin Laden who led a terrorist organization called Al Qaeda. We also knew that he was living in Afghanistan and the government of Afghanistan (led by an ultra orthodox Muslim group called the Taliban) granted bin Laden refuge.

So do we treat these attacks as a criminal matter or an act of war? If we saw it as a criminal matter we would deploy the FBI to investigate and hope to capture bin Laden and those who planned the attack. If we saw it as an act of war President Bush could convene Congress and ask for a declaration of war against Afghanistan according to the Constitution. It should be noted that the Congress has not done this since December 8, 1941.

President Bush did neither. Instead he addressed Congress and asked for support for a war on terror. It was overwhelmingly granted.

Unlike previous declarations this did not specify a nation (even as wars in Korea and Vietnam did). The declaration gave no indication of our objectives or even when we would know the war was over. President Bush spent the rest of his administration using this equivocation to his advantage.

Shortly after the declaration we began to round up those we suspected had a hand in the attacks. So here’s the problem: if we saw 9/11 as a criminal attack these people would have been suspects and would have had certain rights (the right to remain silent, the right to counsel, the right to be arraigned, etc.). If we saw 9/11 as an act of war these people would have been prisoners of war (POW’s) and would have had certain rights (support from the Red Cross, the right to be treated within the rules of the Geneva Convention, etc.).

But the Bush administration skirted these rules and made up a category called “enemy combatants.” This allowed them to detain people with virtually no protections. They were sent to prisons in several locations, primarily to the US Naval station in Guantanamo Bay Cuba. The Bush administration then argued that these detainees didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the United States as they were being held in another country (Cuba) but since Cuba has no jurisdiction over Guantanamo that was a blatant lie. Some of these enemy combatants have been held for nearly 20 years with no ability to argue their case or ask that prosecutors prove their case.

Twenty years later we still don’t know what victory in the war on terror is.

OK, this essay is long enough. Looks like I’m going to Volume 3.

Thoughts On The 20th Anniversary Of 9/11, Volume I

For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking of the events of September 11, 2001. I originally thought I could do this in one essay but I can’t. Today I’m writing Volume I. Stay tuned.

We all remember where we were when we got the news. The previous April Nancy and I bought a house with her recently widowed father, Al. My parents came out for a visit to see our new home and were scheduled to return on September 12th. They didn’t and weren’t able to leave until the following Sunday the 16th.

When we heard the news that a plane crashed into one of the World Trade centers we immediately turned on the TV. We were both getting ready to go to work and we pulled ourselves away from the TV. By that time we knew that the other World Trade center and the Pentagon had been hit. On my way to work I learned about the final crash in Pennsylvania.

We all spent the morning wrapping our heads around the reality of what happened, and as a Christian I first thought about how Heaven would have to open more lanes to accommodate all those now in line.

It didn’t take long for us to recognize that our world had changed and we needed to update our view of terrorism. Since the early 1970s we’ve recognized that planes were subject to hijackers but the prevailing wisdom was that the pilots should follow their directions and let those on the ground negotiate with the hijackers.

We had no plan for hijackers who demanded that the pilots surrender their seats. We had no plan for hijackers who never intended to negotiate but instead intended to kill themselves, all the passengers, and thousands of innocent men and women in buildings who were working at their jobs.

In the last 20 years I’ve thought a great deal about what they were thinking. I’ve thought about the passengers of American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175, who crashed into the World Trade Centers. Also American Airlines flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon and United Airlines flight 93 that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania but was likely headed to the Capitol. We don’t think much about this but I also think about those in the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon who watched planes headed toward them, recognizing that they were targets. At some point they must have known that they were living the last few minutes of their lives and must have felt a combination of anger, fear, and grief. They must have known that they were leaving parents, siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends. I pray their last few seconds were filled with prayers.

Much has been written about those on United Airlines flight 93 who knew about the attacks and sacrificed themselves. They hoped to overpower the hijackers and land the plane safely but weren’t able. Their heroism makes us proud to be Americans.

I also think about those who didn’t die because of dumb luck. The man who overslept and missed a meeting at the World Trade Center. The woman who got caught in a long line and missed her flight. The soldier who found out at the last minute that he didn’t need to attend a meeting at the Pentagon.

More on my next essay.

Thoughts On Our WIthdrawal From Afghanistan

Shortly after the events of September 11, 2001 we learned that Osama bin Laden masterminded the attack. We also knew that he was protected from capture by the Taliban, a terrorist organization who occupied Afghanistan. The Taliban identified as Muslim but denied basic rights and education to women. Most of us believed the Taliban to be evil because of their beliefs but felt we couldn’t invade another country only to impose our values on them, noble though they may be.

Osama bin Laden wasn’t a member of the Taliban but was instead the head of another terrorist organization (who also claimed to be Muslim) called al Qaeda. When we demanded that bin Laden be turned over to us Afghanistan refused.

At that point the administration of President Bush had a choice to make. They could either see the 9/11 attack as a criminal matter and dispatch the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or they could see it as an act of war and ask Congress for a Declaration of War.

They did neither. Instead, on September 18, 2001 Congress authorized President Bush to “prevent acts of international terrorism.” On this authority President Bush sent troops into Afghanistan. But here’s the problem: In December our troops were closing in on bin Laden in Tora Bora, in Afghanistan close to the border with Pakistan.

But at the time the Bush administration were more interested in invading Iraq because they claimed that Iraq stored “weapons of mass destruction.” They didn’t but the invasion of Iraq pulled out troops that could have captured bin Laden. Simply put, we were at war with both Afghanistan and Pakistan and bin Laden avoided capture.

That’s where things stood at the end of President Bush’s 2nd term in 2008. He was replace by Barack Obama. President Obama ended the occupation of Iraq in 2017. On May 2, 2011, on orders from President Obama, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.

So if we invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to capture or kill bin Laden and we did that over 10 years ago, why have we continued to be in Afghanistan? Good question.

President Bush famously claimed that we weren’t in the business of nation building and had no interest in forcing our American values on another nation. But that’s exactly what we tried to do. Both Presidents Obama and Trump claimed to wish to leave Afghanistan but neither did it.

This year President Biden found himself saddled with a war that none of his predecessors were willing to end, and he decided to end it.

Yes, it’s a mess. Yes, many good people in Afghanistan believed our promise to liberate them from the terrorists that drove girls and women from classrooms and the freedom to go outside their homes.

And yes, perhaps most importantly, we promised good, honest Afghans that if they helped us they could look to a better future for themselves and their families. Now many of these Afghans find themselves trapped in a country no longer their own, fearing reprisals from the Taliban, and wondering why they trusted our promises.

I don’t blame them if the regret helping us. War is an awful thing and promises easily made become hard or impossible to keep. Their vision was our vision for a free and inclusive Afghanistan, and that vision now lies in tatters.

I grieve for them. I also grieve for the brave and heroic American men and women who were placed in harm’s way. Some of them sacrificed their lives. Others came home with horrific wounds (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that will haunt them the rest of their lives. But all came home wishing for a different outcome, and many of them will likely never reconcile the guilt they feel in making promises they intended to keep.

As Americans we need to stand for the promises we make. We are a nation founded on the belief that each and every one of us has the God given tools to create a nation that embodies truth, justice and love.

Finally, and we didn’t learn this after Vietnam, we should never land boots on the ground without deciding in advance what victory would look like. If our goal was to kill or capture bin Laden, we achieved that 10 years ago. If our goal was to create a new Afghanistan in our own image, we should have had that debate 20 years ago.

The Four Chaplains: May We Never Forget Their Courage

I don’t remember when I first heard this story, but something incredibly brave happened on 3 February 1943. During World War II the SS Dorchester, a civilian ship pressed into service to transport American troops to Greenland, was torpedoed by a German submarine. As the ship began to sink it became clear that there were not enough life jackets for all the troops on board.

Among those on board were four chaplains: Rev. George Fox (1900-1943), Rabbi Alexander Goode (1911-1943), Rev. Clark Poling (1910-1943), and Fr. John Washington (1908-1943).

When they recognized that there were not enough life jackets they gave up their own and stayed on the sinking ship. Those who were saved because of their life jackets remember seeing these four chaplains linking arms and praying as the bow of the ship sank.

I spent twenty two years as a hospice chaplain and the title “chaplain” means a great deal to me. When I see a chaplain acting with courage I feel pride and when I see a chaplain acting cowardly I feel anger. When I think of these men I feel great love and admiration.

They did us proud and we need to know that.

COVID and the 1918 Flu: Lest we forget

Several years ago I discovered Findagrave. It came out of my interest in genealogy. Volunteers like myself tramp through cemeteries and set up memorials from the headstones to honor those who have gone before us. Sometimes we know them, oftentimes we don’t. But we don’t want their memories to disappear.

Today I came across a few headstones for the Chiappe and Carniglia families at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery here in San Diego. I’m not entirely certain how, but these two families are related to each other. What caught my were four memorials:

They ranged in age from 5 to 57 and all four died in the span of 10 days. Given their age and the proximity of their dates of death I think we can safely assume they all died in the 1918 Flu Pandemic.

Over a century later we find ourselves in the face of another pandemic. But we also find ourselves surrounded by people who believe it’s all a hoax and we don’t need to socially distance or wear a mask.

Don’t listen to them. Instead listen to the voices of those who died within 10 days of each other in 1918.

It’s Been 19 Years and We Still Need to Remember

Nineteen years ago today most of us woke to horrible news: nearly 3,000 people woke up on the last day of their lives. We watched New York (NY), Arlington (VA) and Shanksville (PA) with horror as terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville.

I remember telling a friend that at the end of my life I’ll tell someone about this about who wasn’t even born in 2001. In the days following 9/11 I spend time listening to hospice patients who needed to tell me about their experience hearing about Pearl Harbor.

But they told me about how Pearl Harbor brought people together, how young men (and many women) lined up to volunteer to defend our nation. They told me that World War II was hell but at the end of the war they were proud to have contributed to victory over fascism and allowed Europe and Japan to embrace democracy.

In the following decades the United States helped rebuild Japan and Europe.

But in the nineteen years since 9/11 we’ve gone in a different direction. Many Americans turned anger against Muslims in the false belief that they hate us and were somehow complicit. They weren’t. Currently there are 3,000,000 Muslims in the United States and they overwhelmingly love the US as much as we do.

Unfortunately the current US President, Donald Trump, loves nothing more than blaming his troubles on “others.” We are a nation who deserves better than this. We are a nation who needs to continue to mourn our losses and at the same time looks forward to healing, peace, and reconciliation.

Next year we will commemorate 20 years since 9/11. Let us work toward being a nation worthy of their sacrifice.

COVID Fatigue

Earlier this year we learned about COVID-19, a virus that likely originated in Wuhan, China.

Despite President Trump’s claim that the virus’ fault lies with China we are faced with a worldwide virus that we all need to deal with.

In the middle of March much of our nation “closed down.” We decided that some businesses needed to remain open and were deemed essential, among them grocery stores. Almost all of us listened to the voices of intelligence and reason.

Many people began working from home and they are the fortunate ones. Many more got laid off and needed to apply for unemployment insurance. Finally others, classified as “essential” kept working.

Everyone sacrificed but we hoped (at the time) that if we all pulled together we could “flatten the curve,” ie, prevent an increase of cases and get through the first wave by early summer.

Wave? In 1918 we suffered an enormous Influenza Pandemic (unfortunately misnamed Spanish Flu). The first wave started in March of 1918 with the first reported case in Kansas. It was thought to be a slightly more contagious version of the seasonal flu and by August there was reason to believe it was over.

But in November of 1918 troops began returning home from Europe after World War I and many carried the virus. By the time it was done it had infected 500 million people and killed between 20 million and 50 million.

When we started to learn about COVID-19 scientists from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases advised that the virus decides when the country will open back up.

I guess President Trump didn’t get the memo. On March 24th he suggested that we return to normal on Easter.

Fortunately we didn’t, but by the end of April many states (primarily in the South) began to reopen against the advice of nearly anyone smart enough to be part of the discussion. Georgia was the first, reopening on April 30th. Other states followed.

And the curve, which was flattening in early May, took off again. As I write this the United States has reported over 4 million cases.

For those of us who have followed directions about wearing masks and keeping 6 feet of distance, it’s been frustrating beyond words. I had hoped by this time I wouldn’t have to wear a mask but with this resurgence it appears we’ll have to keep doing this until scientists develop a vaccine.

Now we’re talking about Covid Quarantine Fatigue. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s real. Covid fatigue describes the weariness of having to work from home, wear a mask, and socially distance.

But I will also give another symptom: anger. I’m angry at all those who refuse to follow guidelines and wear masks when shopping or getting coffee.

Some claim that this is a matter of personal freedom (but are willing to avoid a ticket by wearing a seatbelt while in a car). Others claim that they have health conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask. I have asthma and I can tell you that wearing a mask is a burden. After a few minutes I start sweating from my head and back (which I don’t understand). But I wear it anyway. I wear it because I’m willing to sweat to keep the people around me safe. I have no no patience for those who claim an exception.

And I know that I’m going to have to wear a mask for the foreseeable future because those who claim the mantle of personal freedom refuse to acknowledge personal responsibility.

In 1940 ordinary citizens of England suffered nightly bombing raids from Germany in the Battle of Britain. Germany believed that nightly bombing raids on major English cities would break the spirit of England and they would negotiate a peace treaty. It didn’t work. Instead all households were ordered to turn off all their lights at night ensuring that the German bombers couldn’t find their targets.

I write this because it worked. British homes “blacked out” their homes and won the battle. But imagine if ordinary British households believed in individual rights over corporate responsibility. Imagine that some percentage of British citizens claimed that they had the right to keep their lights on and were willing to take the chance of being bombed.

That’s fine but turning on your lights not only endangers you but your neighbors. Your irresponsible decision not only puts you in harm’s way but also those unfortunate enough to live next to you. It doesn’t matter that they’ve sacrificed for the common good because you refuse.

So for all of those who refuse to wear a mask, I hope you’re happy.

We Still Miss Those Who Flew on the Challenger

On this day 34 days ago many of us gathered around a television set to watch a horrific event. That morning the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch and all seven astronauts died. That day we lost:

At the time I was the Director of Religious Education at All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, Virginia. It was ordinary morning until my secretary Edye McIntyre (1928-2008) got a call and expressed her grief. When I heard the news my first reaction was: “Oh no, not with the teacher.” It was a hard day.

We humans have always felt the need to explore. What’s over those mountains? What’s across that sea? Can we reach the moon? Can we reach other planets or galaxies? Let’s try.

All attempts put us in danger but we explore nonetheless.

Thirty four years later let us honor these brave Americans whose sacrifice made our exploration better. And let us honor the teacher, and all those teachers who have inspired us.

Auschwitz, 75 Years Later

Today, January 27th, we commemorate the day in 1945 when Soviet troops liberated the most famous of the Nazi’s concentration camps, Auschwitz. From 1940 to 1945, 1,100,000 men, women, and children were murdered. Most were Jews, but the Nazi’s also murdered Roma (Gypsies), political prisoners, and gays. It’s important to remember them too.

Seventy five years out it’s easy to parrot the phrase “Never again” but that’s not enough. This genocide didn’t begin with the opening of Auschwitz, it began much earlier and “never again” commands that we challenge and call out antisemitism before it becomes the norm, before it becomes acceptable.

Germany after World War I was a mess. Not only did they lose the war, but they were forced into poverty by England and France who demanded crushing reparations.

A few years into this an Austrian who fought for Germany as a lance corporal saw an opportunity. His name was Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). He decided that the real source of German suffering wasn’t the Treaty of Versailles but the Jews.

He was a brilliant communicator and was able to convince much of his adopted country that if they could only get rid of the Jews their future would be bright. He was raised Catholic and used a longstanding myth that the Jews killed Jesus Christ to make antisemitism reasonable to Christians. It worked.

Seventy five years ago, when we learned the horrors of the Holocaust, antisemitism became unacceptable in most quarters. But every year since then we’ve seen antisemitism become more and more acceptable. In August of 2017, at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, we heard, to our horror, the phrase: “The Jews Will Not Replace Us.”

This was part of a larger campaign called “Unite the Right.” Our President, when asked about this campaign, claimed that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

He’s wrong. Fine people aren’t white supremacists. Fine people aren’t anti-Semites.

If we want to ensure there will never be another Auschwitz we need to call out antisemitism when it begins, not when it becomes deadly.