Thoughts on the aftermath of September 11

"The horror, the horror." So says Colonel Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness" about the spectrum of atrocities that war creates. Those words express the reaction of all civilized people to the murder of more than 4000 men and women, and the wounding of as many others, in the homicidal attacks by Osama Bin Laden terrorists on the World Trade Towers in New York and on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. 

      So vast is the multiplying horror--more anticipated terrorist strikes, intimations of germ warfare and nuclear attacks, the protracted bombing of Afghanistan--that new events occur each day like stark projected images quickly supplanted by others, resulting at times in surreal juxtapositions, many assuming clarity only in retrospect.

     "I think it's the end of the age of irony," Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter proclaimed: Whatever that vague statement meant exactly, irony was not dead; it abounded on the surrealistic landscape carved by the terrifying events of that branded day.

     While those still alive dealt with the bloody aftermath of the assault on the Towers, ex-Governor Bush of Texas (appointed as their own president by a partisan Supreme Court) and Dick Cheney fled into hiding, the ex-Governor emerging to echo Franklin Roosevelt's: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." While the imminent threat of anthrax to mostly minority postal employees was ignored, a similar threat on congressional representatives sent them scurrying away--after they sang "God Bless America." With glittery lapel pins depicting the American flag, Wall Street investors panicked, sinking the economy further.

     In a speech announced as being about terrorist threats to the nation, ex-Governor Bush instructed the country to give a boost to his brother, Florida Governor Jeb: "Go about your business, fly, go to Disneyland in Florida." Ostensibly to speak once again about the anthrax crisis and the looming bombing of Afghanistan, the ex-Governor pushed at businessmen his "stimulus package" that amounts to war-profiteering, allowing large corporations huge gains derived from the current quagmire. 

     In turning the undeclared war against Afghanistan into a "Crusade against evil," he became a strutty Western sheriff in a B-movie. He wanted Bin Laden "Dead or Alive." He continued to pepper his speeches with Bushisms: "We will fail," he said, meaning--perhaps, "We will prevail." He warned that this is not "an instant gratification war," and reminded: "I'm a lovin' kinda guy." In an attempt at folksy camaraderie at the site of Ground Zero with cameras attending, he leaned so heavily on an old veteran fireman that the man threatened to topple over.

     Swamped with millions of dollars in contributions for the victims of the September 11 bombings, the Red Cross floundered about how and to whom to distribute the donated amount, while the survivors and the families of the victims--now that the tributes and ceremonies for the dead were over--were left to face not only the sorrow of their loss but a future snarled in red tape. Criticized, the charitable organization offered to return donations to angered donors, then retracted. 

     Flags proliferated in an ocean of patriotism. But patriotism was not under assault, was it? Why not a new flag expressing unique sorrow over this disaster, and a sense hope for the future, like the yellow ribbons that anticipated the return of veterans? The relevant question, How dare they do this? was reduced to: How dare they do this to us? Artifacts from the Cold War resurged: "America Luv it Or Leave it." 

     Amid the wash of patriotism, the question recurred: Why do they hate us so much? Nothing condones the murderous assault of September 11; yet it is not a slight on the tragedy to state that much of the hatred of America is self-induced. Despite the increasing calamity of our own homeless people and the poverty and hunger of millions, there is a world-wide perception of opulence in America. Consider only these minor current manifestations: An ad for baubles from Tiffany that appears almost daily in the Los Angeles Times, located beside a page-two condensation of world events, offered a diamond necklace for just under a million dollars; juxtaposed with the ad were news photographs of tattered Afghans fleeing the bombings. An Associated Press item was headlined: "How to Accessorize the Perfectly Pampered Pet." 

     It became dangerous to say that America has a checkered historical past, that it often flaunts its arrogance as the mightiest power. That power has often been misused in support of despots--Batista, Pinochet, the Shah of Iran, many others. America, too, has blood on its hands, blood shed in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Middle East. Treason! Anyone who dared suggest that not all was righteous on the darkening horizon was denounced--Susan Sontag, Bill Mahers, dotty old Andy Rooney, and even that stalwart figure of integrity Walter Cronkite, who decried the imperious, and impervious, American belief that "the power of our arms will dictate a quick victory."

     The splash of patriotism led to wretched excess: At a Calvin Klein fashion show, male models in jockey shorts later held hands and sang "God Bless America." In Laguna Niguel a cluster of nubile girls gathered at a street corner with signs proclaiming: "Honk if you love America." At each honk, one pretty little girl jumped and did a patriotic split, causing a male driver to make a dangerous U-turn to re-assert his patriotism. In Louisiana, three teenagers who terrorized a group of elderly bingo players with squirt guns that the elders confused for terrorist guns were sentenced by a patriotic judge to write an essay titled "Why I'm proud to be an American." 

     Even self-announced liberals deserted logic and draped themselves in patriotism. After issuing a cominique from one of her mansions stating, "I get very upset when I see big business and corporations getting [favored] over working people," Barbra Streisand hurried to toss her support to the ex-Governor of Texas. If Barbra speaks, can Warren be far, far behind? Mr. Beatty ("the technology is to blame," he keeps declaring in answer to any question) followed in dogged flaggy support. Eminem has not been heard from; but fickle Elton John prepared to recycle his all-purpose "Candle in the Wind" (first awarded to Marilyn Monroe, then snatched away to be given to Princess Di--nothing for Mother Teresa) to honor the victims of the assaults. The Emmys finally went on. ("Let history record that," said the President of the Academy). In dutifully mournful clothes, the Emmy attendees shed rivers of tears at each patriotic reference. Even those performers who were secretly watching the world series wept along. 

     Impervious to trivialities, Cuban exiles in Florida opened the Elian Museum, displaying to the world his precious toys, togs 'n things.

     In a closing message by the Assembly of Bishops, their holinesses from around the world condemned terrorism. Their statement, released by the Vatican, went on to decry "the fact that 80% of the world's population lives on 20% of the income." Was the report sent aloft from one of His Highness the Pope's palaces, or from one of the lesser palaces occupied by the blessed cardinals and bishops?

     Vultures hovered and scratched with their talons. Creepy things crawled out from under rocks: Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell justified the treacherous attacks by terrorists as God's deserved wrath against feminists and homosexuals. Falwell's son asked devoted followers to sooth the subsequent criticism of his father by sending in a donation of 50 or even a hundred dollars. TV evangelists and millionaires Paul and Jan Crouch hosted quivering preachers who echoed Falwell's denunciation. In empathy, Sister Jan perpetually wept giant tears under the huge blond wig that threatens to swallow her head and the mascara-laden eyelashes that might blind her first. The son of Sister Jan and Brother Paul (Brother Son?) said God had timed the raid on the Towers and the Pentagon to correspond with the release of a dingy apocalyptic movie he produced. In Afghanistan, as Taliban forces caved in to the so-called Northern Alliance of often-warring tribes, opium-poppy growers celebrated the restoration of their only sure means of gaining big wealth, the production of heroin.

     On the internet, cheap "survival kits"--gloves, masks--were hawked for high prices; for a hundred bucks you could buy an Anthrax detector, batteries included. An advertisement in the Los Angeles Times exhorted people to face the world bravely--with a new face created by the advertiser, a plastic surgeon.

     Meanwhile ...

     A million-dollar investigation by independent media about the irregularities of voting in Florida during the turbulent presidential election resulted in findings that asserted ... nothing. What remains clear is that if all ballots (including those with indications that they were intended for Gore) had been counted, Gore would be president. What remains more emphatic is that Gore was elected by a large margin of the popular vote. What remains equally unassailable is that Cheney, from his hiding place (only God and the devil know where either he or Bin Laden are) is the real president. (President Clinton--the last elected president--please come back!)

     Polls declared that the approval rating of ex-Governor Bush had soared. Not surprising, since support grows for any president during war, especially among the majority of people who remain initially uninformed and so confuse support of the government with patriotism. It happened during the Vietnam war until the reality of the debacle infiltrated the general consciousness and drove Lyndon Johnson out of office. That shifting of consciousness is increasingly reflected in newspapers by the majority of letters to the editors that question current dangerous trends, abroad and at home. 

     Whose side is God on? 

     Ex-Governor Bush of Texas asserted that the Deity is on our side, members of the Taliban asserted that Allah is on theirs. More chilling "religious" words were uttered: "Our young men love death the way Americans love life," Bin Laden was quoted. A checklist left behind by one of the four hijackers noted: "... remember that this is a battle in the sake of God, which is worth the whole world and all that is in it." A little boy in San Francisco shouted on television: "Kill a thousand of them for one of ours!" 

     Amid revelations of ignored years-ago warnings of impending terrorism and germ warfare, squabbling FBI and CIA officials admitted they lacked expertise to deal with further threats, despite millions of dollars spent on a new crime lab and special units for hazardous materials and instruments of mass destruction. Was the FBI overworked in its pursuit of pornographers? Finally a break occurred in the million-dollar hunt for the perpetrator of Anthrax terrorism when the FBI announced: The criminal is "a man, a loner who possibly has a connection to a lab." Now let's go get 'im! 

     The fifth victim of anthrax, a 94-year old woman, Ottilie W. Lundgren, provided--and even her sweetly benign name contributed to--a metaphor for the whole, grotesque cruelty and indifference of the perpetrator of the mailings, increasingly believed to be a home-grown right-wing maniac.

     What about the four Tommies? Director of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson claimed the first case of anthrax came from a contaminated river. Tommy J. Ridge, head of the Office of Homeland Security, was stunned into silence by direct questions during his first briefing after the disasters; he stuttered, visibly perspiring, through stage-fright. Tommy J. Pickard, the number two man at the FBI, announced an untimely retirement, abandoning the investigation into the anthrax mailings. General Tommy Franks, commander of US troops, granted few briefings and said nothing about casualties of the bombings, nor about the extent of destruction, but he did emphasize: "We are winning." (In current military jargon, dead civilians are called "collateral damage.")

     Though not a Tommy, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield (Donny?) contributed to the unique, evasive performance of ex-Governor Bush's cast of characters. Asked whether certain Taliban forces were dead or running out of Afghanistan, he provided this answer: "Life isn't perfect." 

     Without the necessary requirement of a declared war, ex-Governor Bush granted military tribunals the right to try and to sentence--and to carry out punishment on, even to execute--those deemed to be war criminals. Consistent with such a robbery of due process, thousands of foreigners have been rounded up (like the Japanese during World War II); they remain incommunicado, even from their families--400 agents, 1200 suspects; and on the airways there is talk of government-condoned torture of the detainees. The FBI admits it has no evidence that any of the confined are connected to the terrorist act. Now it is creating software that, planted secretly via the internet, will record every stroke of a computer.

     At the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills, Walter Cronkite addressed those violations of human rights and intimations of censorship, blaming the federal government and the military: "Americans aren't getting enough information about the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan." He denounced "a violation of everything that we believe in, our rights as citizens of a democracy."

     There were still more violations. Old people and the poor became silent victims of the burgeoning events as campaign promises of relief for expensive drugs and of insurance for the vulnerably uninsured were shoved aside. 

     "Yes, I call CEOs `honey.' but to me, that's wry Texas humor," laughed the woman appointed by ex-Governor Bush to persuade the Muslim world that the U.S. is not the enemy. The Madison Avenue executive went on to describe her style at client meetings: "I'm likely to say the most outrageous thing in the room--to liven things up." ("Muslims, honeys, we're not for y'all, just against y'all. Just kiddin', honeys, jumblin' up words like my boss, to get your attention an' liven things up.")

     To assert its alerted consciousness to critical matters, the Supreme Court considered definitions of ... pornography. Antonin Scalia, looking more and more like a judge of the Inquisition, made a startling admission: "I don't know what simulated sex is." Even within his busy schedule in keeping track of terrorists--unsuccessfully--Attorney General John Ashcroft (as fanatic a Christian fundamentalist as are some Afghans about their own Muslim fundamentalism) found time to file a suit against Oregon's right-to-die ordinance. 

     Amid the chaos, there remain memories of acts of courage. The passengers on the hijacked Boeing 757 on flight 93, alerted by cell phones that they were on a forced mission of destruction, took over the airplane, choosing to crash it in a field that would kill no one but them. (The deserved celebration of those men and women does not undermine the unknown acts of those on the other disastrous flights, who were not aware, until the exact moments of horror, that they were being used to assault the Towers and the Pentagon.) There were equally courageous individual acts--most of them unrecorded--of people who helped others, often the handicapped, out of the fiery inferno of the Towers; and there were the men and women of organizations aiding survivors of the victims in America as well as victims of the bombings in Afghanistan. 

     There were moments that stirred joy: Photographs of Afghan women removing their veils, symbols of their brutalization; a picture of an Afghan soldier placing a flower in the mouth of his rifle while Taliban forces fled.

     As the flags that proliferated after the bombings in America grow old--strips of red, white, and blue often fall along freeways, whipped up by speeding cars--there are new, daily realities to cope with: The reality depicted by photographs of long lines of displaced Americans applying for a few jobs; accounts of families waiting for promised relief in seeking new shelter while they attempt to renew their altered lives; photographs of other families, Afghan families, huddled in rags, fleeing the bombings against a drought-seared gutted background of desolation. 

     The bombs continue to drop--along with packages of food containing messages informing Afghan civilians that the bombs may fall on them but they are not aimed at them. Delivered by airplanes in the dark morning hours, some food packages crash into mud-brick dwellings, injuring people. Some packets land in mined areas.

     While Bin Laden hides after unleashing new violence on a ravished country as a result of the murders in America, more than 6 million Afghan civilians--as innocent as the thousands who died in the terrorist attacks on September 11, as innocent as the Afghan civilians who have died in the bombings--face starvation during the freezing winter in a country of entrenched poverty. News photos of ragged children haunt almost daily now, some--who have never known a time of peace--scavenge through garbage; others roam deserted streets. Those children inevitably reveal pained, ancient eyes, eyes that don't seem to know whom to accuse.

     The horror, the horror.

John Rechy
November 26, 2001