Can we learn permanent lessons about resilience, grace, courage, love and community from our experiences of those responses at the outset of a tragedy? Can we incorporate them into our lives, so that they change us and our communities for the better, not for the moment but, possibly, forever? Or are those worthy responses, formed in the crucible of tragedy, doomed to fade away, or worse, to be co-opted by the wielders of power, who capitalize on the emotions of their constituents to pursue objectives that align most squarely with their own ambitions?
I’m tempted to think we can learn. We haven’t seen another Nazi Germany since that heinous regime was vanquished 74 years ago. But we have seen comparable crimes, only lessened in their effect by remaining within a country or a region: China’s Cultural Revolution, genocide in Kosovo, slaughter in Cambodia and Burma. If an example of intentional, purposeful healing can be gleaned it might be limited to Rwanda’s courageous and visionary Truth and Reconciliation project after the 1994 ethnic butchery in that country. Other than that, one worries that the human race will stumble from one self-inflicted tragedy to the next, learning little of permanent value.
Last weekend, this newspaper published a review of Montpelier native Garrett M. Graff’s new book, “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.” It sounds like an important book to read, in part to recapture our sense of togetherness as Americans.
Graff’s book is described as a compendium of hundreds of stories related by people who lived intimately through that dreadful experience — or didn’t live; some contributors apparently relate last phone calls from loved ones who were trapped in the burning towers of the World Trade Center, or in the airplanes used by hijackers to destroy vast numbers of human lives.
We remember people’s desperate, heartbreaking searches for days and even weeks for missing husbands, wives, siblings, friends; the astonishing heroism of police and first responders; the firefighters Tom Paxton memorialized in his song, “The Bravest:” “Every time I try to sleep I’m haunted by the sound, of firemen pounding up the stairs while we were running down.”
Fittingly, the reviewer draws a quote from President George W. Bush’s address to the nation that night, reading, in part, “Today … we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors … .”
Predictably, however (for how long can such intensity last?), the emotional purity of that experience didn’t last. I remember seeing a bumper sticker, actually just days after 9/11, that said “Bomb the Bastards.” Americans weren’t certain yet just who the perpetrators were, but it was clear they weren’t state actors; they were terrorists, which meant that bombing them would mean killing the innocent people among whom they were hiding. Which we eventually did, attacking Al Qaida cells and networks in Afghanistan, and bombing lots of non-bastards who were only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time — attending mosques and weddings — or of being misidentified.
Well, we had been attacked — violently, ruthlessly. We were justifiably angry. Something bad was going to come out of it.
But as we know, things got progressively worse. One war wasn’t enough. The president who had extolled “the best of America” paved the way for the worst. The day after the attack, Richard Clarke, chief counter-terrorism adviser on Bush’s National Security Council, later testified, Bush “told us, ‘I want you ... to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam (Hussein) did this.’” When told that the evidence against Al Qaida, not Saddam, was overwhelming, Clarke said that Bush pressed him to find “any shred” of evidence that Saddam was involved.
That wasn’t easy to do, but we in America spent the next 18 months being battered by allegations — suspect at the time, and later proved false — that Saddam was implicated and/or that he was developing nuclear weapons to use against us. As the administration and its allies pressed these lies and half-truths, the virtues and sense of unity kindled by the 9/11 tragedy began to recede.
My personal experience of this was unsettling and surprising. I had left the staff of the Times Argus by then, but I continued to write a bi-weekly column. Sometime in 2002, I became concerned about the growing nationalist fervor, evident in Vermont as elsewhere, that seemed to undermine our tolerance of dissent and herald a march toward an expanded war (we were already in Afghanistan). I expressed these concerns in a pair of columns — delicately, I thought, for I appreciated that those were tender times — but for the first time in my experience, the newspaper didn’t publish them. When it dawned on me that they were being withheld, I tried to contact the editor, but he didn’t respond to my messages. Consequently, I stopped submitting columns. (In an unfortunate scandal, he was later dismissed from the paper for concocting false stories.)
The newspaper later became known for its principled stand in opposition to the Iraq war. But for me, my earlier experience was a sobering message about conformity and censorship — that it can happen here.
Certainly, others had far worse experiences of that war — most obviously the 4,500 U.S. soldiers who died there and the 38,000 wounded (more, counting psychic trauma), the millions of Iraqis killed, displaced, wounded, impoverished. And, like the legal concept of “the fruit of the poisonous tree,” a war ill-conceived, poorly planned and often callously executed, produced disgraceful episodes for our country, such as the obscene treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, the Nisour Square Massacre of civilians by Blackwater Security contractors in 2007, torture conducted at “black sites,” and unjust imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay (see “Guantanamo Diary,” by former detainee Mohamedou Slahi).
These were the long-term results of the 9/11 attacks — results tragically at odds with “the best of America” that Bush lauded at one moment, but, in league with his vice president and cohort of enablers, bent to nefarious purposes the next.
Would that evil begot good. The evidence seems to be that it does — but only temporarily.
Will Lindner is a former editorial page editor for The Times Argus. He lives in Barre.