To the victims of 9/11: I’m sorry
I honor the memory of the heroes and innocents who died ten years ago on September 11, 2001. I honor their bravery, their sacrifice, and their families and friends. Whether by chance or by duty, they were America’s finest citizens on that sunny late summer morning. They will forever be my heroes.
Their deaths made us hold each other. Their deaths brought us together as a nation in this promise:
We will not let your sacrifice be in vain.
I cannot think of a more patriotic or respectful way to remember those people than to say in their memories, “I’m sorry. We failed.”
* * *
We were supposed to be better.
That was our hope. We were supposed to be better than the enemy, not just at war, but also at peace. We were supposed to rise from the ashes, not as some mythological creature, but as a true nation worthy of its bottomless well of pride. We were supposed to honor the sacrifice of the people who died on 9/11 by being the country we claim to be.
We failed, and there is no more honest or patriotic way to put it.
Today, Americans trade in outrage, blame, and fear. Civil discourse doesn’t sell advertising, it doesn’t pull page views, and it doesn’t hold the attention of a culture ramped up on prescription speed. Instead of reasonable discussions built on critical thinking, we are treated to histrionics and horse races.
Our leaders in government failed us. Our leaders in business failed us. Our spiritual leaders failed us. Our military leaders failed us. Ultimately, that means we failed ourselves. We have not made ourselves better. We have hidden under a blanket of reality television, faux drama, and false intimacy while our country crumbled around us.
We have let our country engage in wars waged on battlegrounds of false premise. We have sat blind as bankers, corporations, and snake oil salesman robbed us of our wealth. We have tuned in and applauded as our fourth estate not only ignored its promise of objectivity, but proudly assumed the role of political advocate. In the playground battle between honesty and greed, honesty is still being mocked for crying uncle so quickly.
* * *
In the weeks and months that followed 9/11, a phrase became so trite, it turned into a punch line.
“If we don’t X, the terrorists win.”
I look back ten years. Our initial fears, of course, were that there would be more attacks and we would have to live in daily fear like “those people” in other countries. Those fears faded over time as we gave up privacy, liberty, and convenience in exchange for protecting ourselves against radicals. We won that war by ceding ground we’d held sacred for most of our history as a nation. A good spin doctor would call it “honor in retreat.”
Victory had a cost. Our relative security left us without a tangible enemy. At the time, even Osama Bin Laden was a ghost. We had nowhere but inward to turn with our war. Our internal battle was over how we would stand as a nation. We began a bloody two-front war overseas that was ostensibly for peace. Instead, it was just bloody, wrought with fraud and corruption, and is now so entrenched as part of American culture that we don’t blink when anther serviceman or servicewoman dies overseas or another billion dollars goes to a corporate “contractor.” Our war for peace turned out to be just an excuse for war and wartime profit. When we couldn’t get enough of a fight on the other side of the globe, we turned on each other.
When Americans came together after 9/11, I had hope we would make ourselves better. Instead, I live in an America that has given up its civil liberties, turned to ruthless greed as sport, and divided itself in an unarmed civil war in which outrage is the weapon of choice.
I looked for terrorists when the American economy collapsed. I looked for terrorists on the BP platform in the Gulf of Mexico. I looked for terrorists on the streets of New Orleans in 2005. I looked for terrorists at JP Morgan. I looked for terrorists on panels at MSNBC and Fox.
And I saw them.
When it came to looking for the enemy, it turned out Pogo was right all along.
* * *
There is a prepared script for people who choose to ignore the obvious struggle America is facing. It’s one read by the patriotic equivalent of a dysfunctional family’s greatest enabler. While America nods off in a corner, junk in its veins, its enablers say, “We have to love it the way it is. This is how things are. They have always been this way. If you don’t like it, leave, because this is how we are.”
The people who read this script perform their lines with pride and turn their good side—their fightin’ side—toward the audience when they do. They call themselves pragmatists, patriots, and real Americans. They either enable America’s collapse through blind love, or worse, through the greed of knowing they can steal when he country finally slips into a morphine sleep.
Even that old argument, however, has grown tired. After years of flag-waving, we don’t even care so much about patriotism now as we care about getting what’s ours. In ten years America has gone from a place in which criticizing the President was a career-ending mistake to one in which it’s the basis for an entire career.
Finally, after years of accepting greed, blood, and constitutional wildfires in the hope they would help shore up our nation, we are left to look back and realize we were just using our nation’s worst tragedy as an excuse to be the worst of who we are.
The best thing we can say about the ten years since 9/11 is, “At least it didn’t happen again.”
* * *
While we focused on the goal of making our nation more secure at its doors, we let its foundation crumble.
We are bigots who believe skin color is a matter of something more than pigment. We are homophobes who are afraid of what happens when people of the same sex love each other. We are isolationists who naively believe—most without ever leaving the United States—that being American automatically makes us better than the rest of the people in the world. We are zealots who believe the world’s second-biggest religion is the biggest threat to our nation.
Post-9/11, we used the phrase “aid and comfort to the enemy” more times than we could count. We spotted traitors among us at every turn. We virtually hung people for not standing with our leaders.
Today, we’re forced to ask ourselves this: how much more comfort does our enemy need than what we give him every day? Do we prove our strength as a nation when our banks collapse? Do we prove our abilities as a superpower when our leader’s citizenship is questioned by legitimate people? Do we look undefeatable when our lawmakers purposefully engage in gridlock to ride out the clock until the next election? Of what, exactly, can we be proud?
The great irony is that Bin Laden’s terrorists attacked us when we were at our strongest point as a nation in recent history. Now, we stand teetering on the edge of collapse. Any terrorist worth his salt knows that if there’s a time to hit us, it’s now, because we’re as vulnerable as we have been in decades. They attacked us the first time, not because they thought they could win, but because we looked too strong. When they next attack, it won’t be for that reason. When it happens, do not blame the Republicans. Do not blame the Democrats. Do not blame the TSA. Do not blame the CIA. Blame yourselves. Blame me. Blame America. Because every single one of us is at fault.
Ask yourself if you think you are a good American. Now ask yourself if you think you are a better American than your neighbor. Now, ask yourself what that says about you. I ask myself that question today, because I look around me and I believe I am better American than many people I know, and I guarantee you every one of those people believes the same of himself.
In September 2011, there are people who will discount everything I have written above because of something else I believe. It doesn’t matter what that something is. As long as they can find one reason to disagree with me, I’m easily discounted. If my church isn’t your church, how could we get along? If my party isn’t your party, how could we ever see eye to eye? In the fight of Us versus Them, we have somehow forgotten that Them is Us.
And we hate each other.
* * *
For many years, I posted the picture you see at the bottom of this post. It gave me hope that my country could be all I was taught it could be. Last year, I wrote “Remember today,” in the hope somebody would read it and pass it on to someone else. I hoped to make a difference and make my country better. In the past year, I’ve grown increasingly cynical. Many times, I’ve given up, tuned out, and said, “There is no hope.” There have been many people–some I know and some I don’t–who have asked me to hang in there and fight the good fight. I hardly know what that means anymore. I only know that I want America to win. I want America to be better. I want the sacrifices of the people who died on 9/11 to not be in vain.
I want to hope.
I don’t know if I can ask you to think differently. I don’t know if any of us is capable of listening to each other anymore. If there is anything that gives me any solace, it’s that I can teach my boys to be good Americans, even if the adults around them are not. I can only hope there are enough people who think the same way and will do the same with their children.
As it stands today, I try not to ask too much of my country, but I ask of it what I ask of my boys.
I ask them to listen.
I ask them to embrace tolerance.
I ask them to practice moderation.
I ask them to think critically.
I ask them to work for what they need, but not take more.
I ask them to give to people who need it.
I ask them to love.
This weekend, I will remember the brave and innocent people who died ten years ago. I will honor their memory, their patriotism, and their sacrifice by trying to teach my children what it means to be an American.
I will teach my children those things, because right now America cannot.