In 2001 I was a faculty member at Groton School, about 40 miles west of Boston. As I walked from my on-campus house toward Chapel that Tuesday morning, I was struck by the absolutely perfect beauty of the sky. People who know me are aware that when it comes to the scenery surrounding me, I am usually barely sentient. But the purity of the cloudless blue sky, and the coolness of the air, have stayed with me all these years. Little did I know that planes leaving Boston's Logan Airport had already been hijacked, and were being diverted through that perfect sky toward their targets.
During the first period of the day I left my office (I was the Academic Technology Manager, which gave me the chance to work with teachers to incorporate technology into their curricula) and went to ask a question of our network administrator. While we were talking, the head of the math department came into the server room and urged that we turn the tv to CNN. "A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center", he said. Since his son is an airline pilot, it makes sense that he was particularly attuned to the topic of plane crashes (his sister had called him to deliver the message). As we were watching, in shock and dumbfounded surprise, we watched the second plane crash into tower 2. Obviously this has been reshown on television and in movies countless times since then, but I will never forget my first sighting of it. Watching the fire from the first plane, we naturally assumed that the crash had been an accident, but the second plane crash made all of us jump to the truth of the matter--the crashes were the result of terrorism.
Groton has a lot of students from New York, and I was never prouder of the school than I was that day. An emergency school assembly was convened, New York area students were approached by advisors, deans, chaplain and headmaster, and we in the technology department tried to find ways to get messages to families in New York, which was difficult as phone lines were jammed. In the days that followed, as the world tried to come to terms with what had occurred, I remember having conversations with colleagues, family and students in which we all recognized that things would never be the same. I remember feeling like I finally knew what my grandparents had felt on December 7, 1941 and what my parents had felt on November 22, 1963; and wishing that I still didn't.
I was on dorm duty the next week, and the girls were diligently studying and completing their homework, when I decided to try to put my thoughts down. Re-reading it now (it is on my website), I can't help but notice the debt I owed to Bob Cringely, and his extremely prescient writing the previous month that "I wonder whether the end of the Cold War may have accelerated this law enforcement trend as intelligence agencies try to stay in business by re-targeting their efforts on terrorism, the new bogeyman." I also can't help but notice the debt (stylistically, if not in content) owed to my rereading of the political essays of Gore Vidal. Most importantly, I was encouraged to follow the lead of my friend Sascha Fruedenheim, whose invaluable blog often clarifies difficult ideas for me.
This week I was teaching history at Wyoming Seminary, where I have worked since 2003. And I realized that my 15-year old sophomores were about the same age 10 years ago as I was when Richard Nixon resigned, days before my fourth birthday. Growing up I always heard about "Watergate", and it was clear that post-Watergate America (my America) was different from what came before, but I never knew how. In fact, the desire to solve this mystery is one of the reasons I became a historian. So for anyone who reads this, and especially for younger people, I hope it helps show that there was a "road not taken" in the fall of 2001. At that time I urged travel on the road not taken, and, sadly, that has made no difference at all.
The following is my original post from 2001. Some of the references are dated (such as reminders about the 2000 Presidential election), and some have since turned out to be wrong (such as the reference to Moammar Gaddafi's daughter). But I still think the world would be a better place if we could all "work to arrive at peaceful solutions based on laws, empathy and compassion". America will never forget 9/11. But here's hoping that the next 10 years will enable our country to move away from a perpetual fear and constant war to a more sustainable existence.
Reflections on the Terrorism of September 11th, 2001
by Ethan M. Lewis
September 17, 2001
On this, the birthday of the United States Constitution, I find myself reflecting a great deal on the recent terrorism which so calamitously befell America. While the human tragedy is, obviously, the most poignant aspect of this incident, I have been spending most of my time thinking about the choices that our Nation now faces.
To me, the biggest threat these acts of terrorism pose to the United States lay in the dilemma of choosing an appropriate response. It seems to me that such a response could fall along a wide continuum, but that essentially it boils down to two options: revenge, or redress. America has always prided itself as a nation governed by the rule of law. During the past hundred years or so, this has been honored more in the breach than in fact, but it is a conceit that pleases most Americans to believe. Recent Presidents have responded to acts of terrorism with violent retribution (the attack on Tripoli that killed Gaddafi’s daughter [Reagan], the missile attacks on Afghanistan [Clinton], and let’s not forget Bush pere’s war against Iraq, which has yet to abate after 10 years, and has kept the United States on a permanent war footing, almost invisibly to most of the citizens of what we like to think of as our republic.
Although the Constitution clearly gives to the Congress the sole right to declare war, Congress has equally clearly relinquished this right over the last 50 years. President Truman sent us into Korea (another front in a never ceasing war) on the pretext of supporting the UN (a concept that grows more laughable the longer we go without paying our dues to that noble organization). We fought (and lost) a major war in Vietnam on the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which ultimately led to the War Powers Act (which should be unnecessary, but in the end is just pointless, since it is never observed by President or Congress). We invaded the island of Grenada to kill some Cuban engineers, invaded Panama to illegally arrest its head of state (our former favorite drug dealer), and have maintained the war in Iraq on the strength of a resolution (that barely passed the Senate) authorizing the first President Bush to take any action he deemed necessary in protecting our oil vendors.
On September 11 , Mr. Bush’s son stated that an act of war had been committed against America. Obviously forgetting that only nations can commit acts of war (and ignoring the fact that no nation is claiming responsibility for this attack) Bush promised, and has continued to promise, to fight this war wherever it leads us, for however long it takes, just as soon as they can find someone to smack. Resident Bush (I will omit the "P" until he can Persuade at least a Plurality of the Public that he should be the President) seems eager to respond to this act of extraordinary violence in a similarly violent way.
This predilection for violence is almost surprising, considering that the Resident told us, before the Iowa caucus, that the most influential person in his life was "the Lord, Jesus Christ". Bush professes to devout Christianity, but seems unwilling to turn the other cheek, as the Bible urges us. After Pan Am flight 103 was exploded in Scotland, the countries whose citizens were killed worked assiduously to find the people responsible for planting the bombs, strove to extradite them, and tried them in a Scottish court. This is civilized. This shows the primacy of law in our society. On Tuesday, Bush promised to "hunt down" the "folks responsible" for the attacks. Obviously, the people directly responsible are dead, killed in the airplane crashes. Who is left to find? If there are ringleaders still at large, it seems to me that the right thing for a peace-loving, law abiding country to do is find them, and try them for conspiracy to commit murder (and the lesser charges of hijacking, piracy, etc.). Instead, Bush and the Congress have committed America to a long term course of "war" against person or persons unknown. This weekend, Congress passed a joint resolution granting the Resident the right to take any action he felt appropriate to get some revenge. They also passed a resolution granting $40 billion to address the terrorism. While the Office of Management and Budget needs to spell out what they want the money for before they get it, only half is statutorily required to go to relief and reconstruction. Where will the other $20 billion go?
Probably to the erosion of our civil liberties. Much of the money will go to buy mysterious boxes like the "Carnivore" which the FBI wants to put in the office of every Internet Service Provider to eavesdrop on Internet transmissions; or to other means of harassing people. The so called "intelligence" services will probably also gain more resources to increase surveillance on Americans. It is inevitable that domestic travel will be subject to new restrictions and difficulties as a result of the hijackings, and already people who appear to be of Middle Eastern origin, or who worship Allah instead of Jesus have been subject to persecution and it’s slightly more benign twin, "profiling". At his most Fordian, Mr. Bush has promised to "whip terrorism" now. But how is this to be done? How does a society with open borders, paperless domestic travel, and a free press stop an invisible enemy?
And, the most serious question, though it will not be asked by our unelected leaders (by which I refer to the corporate media, as well as Mr. Bush) is, why do we have enemies? On Tuesday, Mr. Bush said, "freedom was attacked", by the terrorists. Such a rhetorical device does not attempt to deal honestly with the fact that America and its bullying foreign policy is hated by the greater part of the world’s people. America isn’t hated because it is free; it is hated because it is the most prominent rogue state in the world. The "sanctions" we inflict on Iraq have been attributed to the deaths of over one million Iraqi children in the past decade. Mr. Bush has threatened Afghanistan for harboring the Bin Laden terrorists; but America is the largest backer of the State of Israel, whose brutal subjugation of the native population of its territory has been censured by the world. (Many are unaware that the United States’ permanent veto has saved Israel numerous times from serious UN sanctions). Americans claim to honor the rule of law, but Mr. Bush is single-handedly reneging on international treaties, our country hasn’t paid it’s dues (over a billion dollars) to the United Nations, and we have backed out of the international war crimes agreement, because the Pentagon doesn’t want to see its future Lt. Calley’s on trial in the Hague.
What is to be done? I wish that the leaders of America would act in keeping with the values that they claim motivate the country. I wish that instead of abrogating treaties (and using the Supreme Court to steal elections) they would work to add strength to a World Court that could mete out appropriate sanctions to international lawbreakers. I wish that the self-professed Christians who run our country would respond to acts of violence not with more violence, but with love. Most of all, I wish that Americans would see this abhorrent act not as a random act of hate by fanatics, but as a response to aggressive acts undertaken by our country. This can be a hard perspective to take, but I think it is necessary. In 1991, I was in Berlin, Germany staying with friends on the night that the allied bombing of Baghdad started. My hostess was very upset (like many Europeans, she was against the war for oil, and like most Germans, she knew enough history to reject the facile comparison of Hussein to Hitler). I came in for the night, and saw her watching television. When I asked what was happening, she said "You’re bombing Iraq". My initial reaction was to deny any complicity, after all, I was against the war, too. But I realized that as an American, the world held us collectively responsible.
Americans should try to pay more attention to the deeds that are carried out in their name, and participate in the political process that results in the decisions that so enrage our neighbors. To my way of thinking, nothing justifies violence, but it is important that we begin to see these acts of terrorism as reactions to our foreign policy, not random acts by lunatics who are enraged by "freedom". Most of all, I wish that my fellow citizens would see that violent reactions to violence do not solve problems, but merely beget more violence. Making "war" on terrorism will not make airliners or skyscrapers safer. For everyone's safety, we should work to arrive at peaceful solutions based on laws, empathy and compassion.