Friday, September 9, 2011

Where were you?

The “where were you when…?” questions often serve as a ways of getting to know someone, as a cultural reference point, and, as there are more of them, a way to mark how old you are. The ‘where were you when’ questions that mark my life are the assassination of John F. Kennedy (Nov 23, 1963) and Sept 11, 2001. Certainly there are other major events in my life: the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Nixon’s resignation, the Loma Prieta earthquake, the stock market crash of 1987. But they don’t stand out with the clarity of these two events, which I and many others could retell in minute detail.

I was in Montreal on Sept 11, 2011, in a meeting with two colleagues who are also dear friends. I was to leave for Washington DC later that day. One of my friends left the room to take a phone call from his daughter and came back to say “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center—it has punched through it.” He has a quirky sense of humor and at first I thought ‘Is this a joke?” But his face told me it wasn’t. At first it was hard to imagine and then with the replaying of videos captured on cell phones, it was impossible to forget.

September 11 and the two or three weeks that followed were the only (and probably the last) time in my life that the United States had a chance to unite the world in a true effort for peace. The Congress under the “leadership” of George Bush, squandered that opportunity, voting at every turn for war, with only the voice of Barbara Lee begging ”Let us not to become the evil we deplore.” Taliban leaders offered to find and surrender Osama bin Laden to the World Court in The Hague, where he could have been tried. We could have taken the high road, and not met violence with violence. We could have treated this horrible tragedy as a crime and the perpetrators as criminals.

But there was no intention on the part of the war machine to have peace. Instead we invaded two countries that had done nothing to us, and now ten years, 6200 dead American soldiers, hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Afghani and Iraqi soldiers and civilians, and almost a trillion dollars later, we have become one of the most hated and despised nations in the world. And in one of my ironies of this “war on terror” – when Osama bin Laden was assassinated, one of my students at the University of California asked, “Who was he again?” Of course, this young man was nine in 2001.

And so in the frenzy of memorials for 9/11, I will mourn the loss of life again, and relive again where I was and how I felt, and hear from others where they were and how they felt. Some of us will recall people we know who escaped or were killed in New York or DC, or marvel how we might have been on those planes or at the World Trade Center but weren’t.

But what we won’t talk about because it is too painful, is the fact that the vast majority of people in power then, and now, are not interested in peace. The PATRIOT Act is still in place, Obama makes tepid comments opposing Islamaphobia but continues the war, the economic downturn caused in part by a bloated military has driven the death and destruction half a world away to smaller and smaller articles every day and the “peace movement” is barely to be found.

From our grief must come a renewed determination to do all we can for world peace. The only fitting memorial to 9/11 is peace. The work required is overwhelming but as Che Guevara said, “Be realistic. Do the impossible.”

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