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.

Happy Juneteenth

On this day in 1865 the last of those enslaved in the former Confederate States of America learned they were free. It happened in Galveston, Texas when Major General Gordon Granger proclaimed General Order Number 3.

Interestingly enough, those enslaved Americans had been technically been free since January 1, 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

President Lincoln never believed the Confederacy was a valid nation but were instead states in rebellion against the country. Because of that he insisted that they were subject to our laws and the Emancipation Proclaimation decreed that anyone enslaved in those rebellious states were automatically freed from bondage.

Obviously slaveholders in the South disagreed and declined to tell their slaves of their freedom. At the time they still expected to win the war. But on April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered and ended the Civil War.

But still, slaveholders in Texas refused to free their slaves. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that word got out to everyone.

Juneteenth reminds us not only that freedom can never be taken for granted. Juneteenth ended legal slavery but it didn’t end racial discrimination. Today we find many of these same states passing laws that make voting more difficult (disproportionately affecting people of color) and demanding school history curricula that downplays slavery.

So while we celebrate let us continue to remain vigilant.

Thoughts On Watergate, 49 Years After the Fact

On June 17, 1972 a small group was arrested in the Watergate Office Building in Washington D.C. Twenty six months later, President Nixon became the first American President to resign from office. He knew he would otherwise be impeached and removed from office.

It was worldwide headlines at the time but you really have to be either 60 years old or a political junkie (guilty on both counts) to remember this. Here is the elevator pitch on what happened:

In 1972 President Nixon ran for reelection against Senator George McGovern. It was a runaway from the beginning and McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But the Nixon administration formed a committee called “The Committee to Reelect the President” in the hopes of not only winning, but winning big. A few members of the campaign decided to find out what the McGovern campaign was doing and broke into Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate building to wiretap their phones. On the second try they were caught and arrested. President Nixon knew nothing about this until reading it in the newspaper but ordered his aides to pay money to the defendants to plead guilty and say nothing about the break in. In return their families would be taken care of. Obviously it didn’t work and by the end almost everyone involved went to prison.

I find Watergate particularly topical today. President Nixon served our nation well in many areas but not here. He believed he was above the law and bribing people to remain silent was justified. He didn’t see himself as subject to the law.

During this time many Americans were frightened that getting away with this would embolden him to continue to consolidate his power and violate the balance of power that our Constitution demands. We may have come closer than we ever knew. President Nixon continued to insist that he did nothing wrong and there was a “silent majority” who would support him.

Perhaps the greatest indication of our democracy happened on August 7th and 8th, 1974. A President resigned and a new President took office. We showed that nobody is above the law.

I write this at a time when the most recent former President believes his reelection was stolen from him and expects to return to office in a few months. He won’t.

We are still a strong democracy that believes nobody is above the law.

Thoughts on President Biden’s First 100 Days

Ever since the beginning of President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in 1933 we’ve graded Presidents on their first 100 days. A few days ago President Biden hit that mark.

On one level 100 days is an arbitrary mark. But on another level it’s a little like his “first report card” and we can see how he’s doing. And he’s doing well. His approval rating among Americans is 57% and he gets props for that.

But more to the point it’s been 100 days since we’ve had to endure President Trump. It’s been nice.

Economic growth so far in 2021 is 6.4% and generally most of us feel the economy is going in the right direction.

Additionally most of us believe he is doing a good job in fighting COVID-19. And in fairness, President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed helped accelerate the development of the vaccines. Nevertheless it appears our worst days are behind us.

But I’m most pleased that I no longer hold my breath when I open the newspaper. I don’t have to wonder what the President is going to lie about in a tweet. I don’t have to read how (once again) the President is fawning the approval of President Putin while alienating our allies. I don’t have to endure another story about how he is diverting funds from the mmilitary.

Simply put it’s nice to have a President who tells the truth, who cares for all of us (not just himself) and guides our future in a good direction.

Thanks President Biden.

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.

Happy Birthday America

On this day 244 years ago something amazing happened. A 33 year old farmer and scholar, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), wrote an essay that declared that the 13 colonies were independent from England. King George III (1738-1820) looked on this as nothing more than a rebellion that his troops would crush.

But Mr. Jefferson and others like him put their lives on the line. They argued that human rights were not given at the pleasure of the king, but instead human rights are given by God to everyone.

It hasn’t been an easy 244 years. For our first 89 years our country claimed that we are all equal while we held displaced Africans as slaves. Even when they were freed from their chains their lives were far from equal and it’s a fight that continues to this day.

Our 244th birthday recognizes the fact that we are led by a racist President who enjoys the support of many Americans who justify their racism by claiming victimhood.

But the good news is that our core values as Americans remain the same. We work hard, we innovate, we welcome, and we celebrate.

It wasn’t easy to celebrate our birthday during the Civil War but we did because we knew that Mr. Jefferson’s vision would win out. We can do it today.

Yom Hahshoah at 75

Earlier this week the Jewish community remembered Yom Hahshoah, the commemoration of the Holcaust. In the Jewish calendar it’s commemorated on the 27th day of the month of Nissan. We remember Yom Hashoah because every one of us needs to ensure this never happens again.

Here’s what we need to know:

  • It didn’t begin with Auschwitz. It began with blame.
  • It began with xenophobia.
  • It began when one man blamed others and abandoned the idea that we are all in this together.
  • It began when this one man saw he could advance himself by dividing others.
  • It began when he saw he could lie without abandon and be believed.
  • It ended with the deaths of 6,000,000 Jews and 4,000,000 others.
  • It ended when this one man killed himself and avoided taking responsibility for his actions.
  • It ended when the forces for Good spend billions of dollars and decades healing the world.

It began with blame. Let us not let it happen again.

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.