There's something different about this year's 13th anniversary of the terrorist attack on America, September 11, 2001. It's the first one since the May opening of the museum attached to the National September 11 Memorial at the former World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan – an inevitable rite of transition, as the horrific and vivid images from that morning fade into the somewhat foggier haze of history.
Visitors to the museum can see the significant and the trivial reminders of that day – from the wallets of the dead and the dust-encrusted boots of rescue workers to the farewell letter written in Arabic by some of the al-Qaeda terrorists – but for some the museum's lasting impression is its assertive and perhaps suffocating security. The New Yorker's Adam Gopnick, in an essay on the museum this summer, wrote of his alarm at watching security guards yelling "Don't advance" at visitors who seemed to stray from the admission line, and "You there, down!" at children who stood on the concrete benches outside…as children are wont to do.
Wrote Gopnick: "The idea that we celebrate the renewal of our freedom by deploying uniformed guards to prevent children from playing in an outdoor park is not just bizarre in itself but participates in a culture of fear that the rest of the city, having tested, long ago discarded."
Fear discarded? I'm not so sure, especially after seeing the Midland, Texas, sheriff in his good-guy-white, 10-gallon hat go on CNN to announce that he's ready for the terrorist group ISIS – even though they seemed pretty busy some 9,000 miles away from the Lone Star State last I checked – and that "if they rear their ugly head, we'll send them to hell!"
It is fitting and proper that we pause again this morning to remember and reflect on the nearly 3,000 who were murdered by 19 thugs and their terrorist bosses on this date. And, to be sure, part of that is to remind us that evil exists and that it's important to be vigilant. But – for me, anyway – the more lasting memories are of even stronger human goodness, the love of the innocent victims still felt so powerfully by those left behind, and the bravery of firefighters and police officers who gave their own lives trying to save total strangers.
But it's been 13 years -- so now our memories of Sept. 11 have to compete with our awareness of the muddled times that have followed. Let's call these days Sept. 12, the Day After – a time when individual acts of courage gave way to mass fear and paranoia, encouraged and then exploited at the highest levels of American leadership. Sept. 12 is a time when one day of violence and a righteous quest for justice has somehow morphed into a kind of endless war footing that reads like an epilogue to George Orwell's "1984."
On Sept. 11, remember Moira Smith, an NYPD officer who pulled victims from the World Trade Center and was rushing back one final time when it collapsed. But Sept. 12 is a good time to ask whether so many routine buildings – including the September 11 Museum – still need a photo ID for you to enter, one of the endless security hurdles erected since 2001. And also to ask whether the existence of some terror cells overseas really necessitated government programs to monitor the emails and the phone calls of law-abiding Americans.
On Sept. 11, we can never forget the courage of United Flight 93 passengers whom, evidence suggested, rushed the cockpit of their hijacked flight and who may be the reason it crashed into a Pennsylvania field and not the U.S, Capitol. But what does it say about American courage when 9/11 is used to justify billions in absurd spending on military hardware for small-town cops, like the mine-resistant armored vehicle in scenic Story County, Iowa, or the APC that guards the Pumpkin Festival (no, seriously) in Keene, N.H.? Or that this kind of firepower was then turned toward American citizens protesting last month in Ferguson?
Tomorrow, remember Welles Crowther, the Sandler O'Neill and Partners employee who guided perhaps dozens of co-workers in the WTC South Tower to a stairwell escape, then paid with his own life. On Friday, remember how the legacy of 9/11 was hijacked by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others to invade a sovereign nation that had nothing to do with the attack, and to justify actions such as torture, extraordinary rendition, and indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay.
With this sad legacy, you would think the passage of time and the election of a different president would have cooled down the excesses once justified by waving the bloody flag of 9/11. Instead, the threat that the Islamic fundamentalist group known as ISIS poses to Iraq's corrupt pro-Iranian government and to pockets of Syria – a legitimate policy concern, among the many we face – has become a source of exploitative fear for America's Bed-Wetting-Paranoia Complex.
The reality, as uttered by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson: "At present, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are unaware of any specific, credible threat to the U.S. homeland from ISIL." The unreality has come from a slew of Congress members playing predictable politics – such as Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe claiming without evidence that ISIS plans to blow up a U.S. city. – and shameless cable-TV execs chasing higher ratings. CNN, which needs to create an aura of "BREAKING NEWS" to stay in business – regardless of what is actually happening – has mentioned ISIS 3,800 times in the last two weeks. And as a result, 71 percent of Americans now believe ISIS is likely to attack on U.S. soil – a lie propagated by the U.S. media. Like a scared groundhog, America sees it shadow today and forecasts three more years of war in Iraq…at least.
Please use 9/11 to remember the ones we lost. Then use 9/12 to remember the America we lost – and pray for the courage to get it back.