September 16, 2001
by Democratic Underground readers
I remember when I was in college in the late 1980's being
accused of being unpatriotic because I refused to support
our policy in Central America. I was told that first Reagan
and then Bush were our elected leaders and that I should support
their fight against our enemies abroad. I said that I had
a duty to leave the country better than I found it and thus
I would oppose a wrongheaded policy.
The eight years of the Clinton Administration I often thought
back to that criticism as I saw a right wing war to bring
down a duly elected President being waged. Repeatedly these
'patriots' used lies and smears to try to stoke hatred of
those that they don't like and to try to undermine our elected
Now they have sunk even lower. Chris Ruddy of Newsmax.com
blames Bill Clinton for the bombing, Ann Coulter of the National
Review takes pot shots at Hillary while mourning a friend,
Jerry Falwell blames the ACLU, abortionists, gays, and lesbians
for making God angry, Orrin Hatch blames Bill Clinton too,
the list goes on. It simply amazes me the lengths these patriots
will go to to trash their enemies. I thought even these people
would have the decency to let the bodies cool first.
The contrast with the behavior of liberals could not be more
clear. I read numerous liberal sites on the web. A partial
list includes this site, bartcop, buzzflash, salon, slate,
democrats.com, gwbush.com, and mediawhoresonline. Not one
of these sites saw fit to demonize George Bush or Republicans.
Many of them either published emergency numbers or became
founts of information on the bombing. The few criticisms of
George Bush on these sites were to criticise his response
to the attack not to blame him for it. Again the contrast
could not be clear. We tried to leave the country better and
more united, they tried to blame their enemies and demonize
I have never been more proud to be an American nor have I
been more proud to be a liberal. Now if only we could get
the 'patriots' to act patriotic we would be all set. We will
survive this but we must be vigilant. We can not let the false
patriots of the right be the only voice. We must fight to
leave this country better than we found it.
I woke up on the west coast to scenes of my beloved city.
As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I heard the reporter say
the World Trade Center was on fire. My first thought was we
have had fires before - okay. Then, unbelievably, a plane
rammed into the building.
In the 1980's I worked as a temp throughout lower Manhattan.
I spent a month on the 86th floor of the World Trade Center.
I remember sitting at my desk and seeing the view. Even at
that floor, you could see planes, helicopters and the occasional
bird. You could see the entire city laid out, including Brooklyn
and of course Lady Liberty.
The view needless to say was breathtaking. I cannot fathom
what people felt as they watched these planes plow towards
God bless them.
Now, I try to be stoic but I cannot seem to wipe the last
What a pathetic excuse for a United States president we have.
For days now I have been listening to New York Mayor Rudy
Giuliani and New York Governor George Pataki as they explained,
described, consoled, and directed. No cue cards. No index
cards to tell them what to say or do. Just off he cuff. From
their own heads and hearts. Intelligent, capable men who knew
what needed to be done and said, and were doing it.
Switch to Louisiana on Tuesday, then Nebraska, then to the
White House and what did we get? Pathetically brief comments
about "war" and "victory" and "them" and "us." Maybe that
kind of butt-kicking mentality is what got us to where we
are vis-ŗ-vis the Arab world today. Could not our president
at least have done as well as the New York mayor and governor
were able to do in this time of fear, anguish, distress, and
terrible pain? Mr. Bush's scripted comments were at least
coherent, if occasionally falling short of what was needed
from our nation's leader, but his off-the-cuff comments were
the faltering, struggling, scrambled reflections of the underachiever
he has always been.
For those of us who have seen what REAL leadership looks
like, in Giuliani and Pataki and New York's other officials,
I can only conclude that we have a desperately not-up-to-the-challenge
president. For those who recall President Franklin D. Roosevelt
and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World
War II and their marvelous ability to rally their respective
nation's people, and to generate the kind of confidence the
times required, this is a sorry version of a U.S. president
we have. Heaven help us all.
If he can't lead this country, he should get out of the way
of those who can.
In the wake of the recent tragedy, among the many responses
from citizens of the United States, one of the most frequently
heard, especially among politicians, have been calls for "unity"
and giving full support to our President. As one of the many
citizens of the United States who lacks substantial confidence
in our President, this response concerns me to some degree,
because I fear that it represents some sort of knee jerk reaction
that implies that we should give our President carte blanche
to handle this crisis however he sees fit.
The responses have been many and varied, including many that
have been loony and destructive, ranging from calls to round
up all the "foreigners" in our country and send
them back to where they came from, to demands to make a "parking
lot" out of the whole Middle East. I consider people
responsible for the latter type of responses to be very similar
to the terrorists who attacked this country, although even
worse. They are similar to them in that they are filled with
hate and that they believe that their hate justifies any conceivable
reaction, including the massacre of untold numbers of innocent
civilians. They are worse than the terrorists because, unlike
them, they live under circumstances where they should know
better. If people like that ran our government the world would
probably quickly degenerate into chaos, and civilization would
The response by our government so far has been, as far as
I can tell (which isn't much) responsible. The main response,
after caring for the victims, has been to find out who is
responsible, with the goal of apprehending them and punishing
them for what they have done. That is appropriate as far as
it goes. But it is not enough. It is sort of like trying to
cure a bad case of pneumonia in a person who has AIDS. It
needs to be done, but it won't cure the underlying problem.
What must be done in addition is to understand the underlying
reason for what happened. Only by first doing that, and then
addressing the underlying causes, will we ever be able to
live in a world where this kind of thing does not happen.
To begin to understand the underlying causes of this problem
I think that it is first imperative that we Americans understand
something that, judging from most of the comments I have heard,
few Americans understand: That is that what happened on September
11th is nothing new. This kind of thing goes on all the time
in the world today, as it has since the dawn of human history.
Just consider the atrocities that occurred in Yugoslavia,
Chechnia, and Rwanda, among numerous other countries, in the
1990s. By comparison what happened to us a few days ago is
minor. The only reason why this seems so new to Americans
is that it hasnít happened here in almost 60 years.
The fact is that America has an isolationist attitude towards
the rest of the world that causes it to tune out these types
of events when they happen elsewhere in the world. This attitude
is reflected and exacerbated by our news media and by our
government. It was typified by George W. Bush as he campaigned
for the Presidency when he said clearly that if he is elected
President the United States will not get involved in areas
of the world where our interests are not directly at stake.
This same kind of attitude, of course, was shared by most
countries in the world in the 1930s. This is widely recognized
today, as is the fact that this attitude led to the temporary
domination of Europe by an evil regime that came close to
ending civilization as we know it. We know this today, and
we almost uniformly condemn the attitude and actions that
led to Nazi domination of Europe and World War II. This lesson
is taught in most or all of our schools. So it seems strange
to me that this lesson, which is so widely accepted when looked
at 60 some years retrospectively, is not recognized when similar
circumstances (in many respects) exist in our own time.
The United States contains over 250 million people, of widely
varying religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. What goes
on within our borders is certainly not perfect by any means,
and there is much room for improvement. But it is a far cry
from the atrocities that have been occurring in many other
countries in recent decades. We would not tolerate that kind
of thing within our own borders. If one racial group in Los
Angeles began an "ethnic cleansing" campaign against
another racial group, our government in Washington wouldn't
just sit there and let it happen. Even if they were inclined
to do just that, our citizenry wouldn't tolerate it. So why
do we (and the rest of the world) tolerate it when it happens
in other countries?
There are obviously many and complex reasons for this, but
perhaps the main one is that most Americans don't believe
that it is in our interest to be concerned with things like
this. I believe that the events of September 11th should serve
as a message to us that the stability and well being of other
parts of the world are indeed of vital interest to our country.
That is, these events should provide that message to us. I
am afraid, however, that in our zeal to find and punish those
responsible for the recent atrocity, we will lose sight of
the larger and underlying message. And if that happens we
may be successful in our short-term goal without addressing
any of the underlying problems. In that case we may have a
respite from terrorism for now, but the respite will only
Given that there has been a great deal of hate in the world
throughout human history, and given that this has led to violence
and atrocities on massive scales throughout human history,
what is the underlying cause of this? There are many and varied
opinions on the answer to this question, and probably no general
consensus. My understanding of human history is that perhaps
the most important common denominator for hate, violence,
and atrocity in the world is wide disparities in wealth, and
therefore in living conditions, between people. Certainly
much of the world today live under conditions that would be
considered unthinkable for many people who live in relatively
wealthy countries such as the United States. I have heard
the life of a typical terrorist described as "desperate"
and "hopeless." If that doesn't describe the situation
of the people who recently attacked our country, why else
would they spend months or years training for a mission which
if "successful" would result in their crashing into
a building and burning to death?
My main concern with the Bush administration is that it seems
committed to a course that would ignore the issues that I
have discussed above (this was obvious during the Presidential
campaign of 2000). In the first place, within the United States
the Bush administration seems committed to increasing, rather
than decreasing disparities in wealth between people. This
of course is the obvious intention and effect of his tax cut,
which goes disproportionately into the pockets of the wealthy
in this country. When this was pointed out during the election
campaign Mr. Bush couldn't dispute this fact, so he defended
it instead, by saying that these wealthy people deserve to
have this money because it is their money - as if their value
to society were 100 or 1000 times as great as the majority
of American working people.
Similarly, the Bush administration's attitude towards the
rest of the world is manifested by its turning away from environmental
and human rights issues which need our support. Because we
are the most powerful nation in the world today, many complex
worldwide efforts to address critical global problems are
likely to succeed only with our support and participation.
So if we decide not to participate it shouldn't be surprising
when these efforts fail.
Enough said. I believe that the long-term issues having to
do with terrorism are far more important than the short-term
issues. In other words I believe that even if we are completely
successful in finding and punishing those responsible for
the recent atrocities, the world will continue to be filled
with hate, violence and terror unless and until the long-term
problems are dealt with satisfactorily. That is why I believe
that it is counterproductive, even at this time of crisis,
to have a knee jerk response that says we will fall behind
our leader and give him full support for whatever he decides
For the past few days the skies have been overcast, rainy,
and downright gloomy here in the southern New Mexico mountains.
The astronomer in me would normally find this rather frustrating,
but right now I don't really seem to care, since it matches
my mood almost exactly.
Like all Americans, and I suspect - and hope - most people
around the planet, I was shocked and horrified by the events
of this past Tuesday. I've seen the televised images countless
times: the passenger jetliners crashing into the towers of
the World Trade Center, the subsequent crumbling of those
structures onto the ground; and I'm still not sure that the
fact that these are not glitzy special effects in some adventure
movie, but rather are stone cold reality, has sunk into my
brain. I cannot even begin to imagine the horror that must
have been experienced by those aboard the hijacked airliners,
in and near the World Trade Center, and in the Pentagon during
those moments when their lives were snatched from them. As
I contemplate the thousands of innocent people who lost their
lives in such a senseless slaughter, I search for answers
to the same questions that I'm sure haunt everyone else who
has seen these images: who could have done this? And why?
As horrible as these scenes are, what sinks me into the deepest
despair is the fact that this is nothing new. We've seen this
thing before, countless times. We see it all the time in the
land that some people call Israel and others call Palestine:
the seemingly never-ending stream of young Palestinian suicide
bombers in supermarkets and shopping malls, and in the continuing
shelling of Palestinians and demolition of their homes by
Israeli tanks and bulldozers. We saw it in the frightened
face of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durrah before he was cut down
by gunfire at Netzarim, and in the bloodied bodies of Israeli
soldiers dangling from the window of the police station at
We see it elsewhere, too. We've seen slaughter in the streets
of Northern Ireland, and in the jungles of East Timor. We
saw it during the Nazi regime, when six million Jews were
sent to unspeakable deaths during the Holocaust, and in the
killing fields of Cambodia during the rule of the Khmer Rouge,
and in the ethnic cleansing that has gone on in the Balkans.
We saw it in all the burnings-at-the-stake during the Inquisition,
in the streets running full of blood during the Crusades,
and in the bloodbath upon bloodbath upon bloodbath that has
marked almost every era of human history.
And before we Americans start to feel too smug, we've seen
it here, too, and by our own hands. We're seeing it right
now in hate-filled attacks against American citizens simply
because they are of Arab origin or of Islamic faith. We saw
it in the beating and dragging deaths of Matthew Shepard and
James Byrd. We saw it in the destruction of the Murrah Building
in Oklahoma City in 1995. We've seen it in faraway places
like My Lai and No Gun Ri, and closer to home in the death
squads of Honduras and El Salvador. We saw it in the slave
ships that came from Africa, and in the slave plantations
of the 19th Century, and in the lynchings of the 20th. We
saw it in the way our ancestors took this land from those
who were here first.
And, lest we forget, the death toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
- cities full of unarmed civilians - numbered in the tens
of thousands. Let's also remember that these were only a small
fraction of the tens of millions of lives - military and civilian,
and on all sides - that were lost during World War II.
Of course, we humans have accomplished many wonderful things
as well. We've landed people on the moon and brought them
safely back to Earth, and we've made extraordinary progress
against the many diseases that have afflicted us throughout
our history. We've gleaned secrets from the farthest galaxies
in the universe, and from the cells within our bodies that
tell us who we are. And we've made progress on other fronts,
too; we often talk through our disagreements, both as individuals
and as nations, and don't always find it necessary to sink
to fisticuffs, or to war.
My heart sings when I think of the heroism of the rescue
workers in New York, many of whom have risked - and sacrificed
- their lives for their fellow human beings, and of the people
around the country, and around the world, who have donated
their blood for the victims of Tuesday's tragedy. I rejoice
as I continue to receive messages of sympathy and shock from
friends and colleagues all over the world (including, I add
for the benefit of Americans who might want to engage in stereotyping,
my scientific colleagues in Iran). When I contemplate these
types of actions, I begin to believe that perhaps there is
hope for us humans.
There are parts of me that want to wreak the vilest vengeance
upon the perpetrators of Tuesday's actions, and that of course
is a sentiment that I am seeing many places now. I hear talk
of declaring, and preparing for, a state of war. But against
who? And, ultimately, what good would it do? You can't very
well threaten with death someone who considers it the highest
honor to be killed for his cause. And even if we were able
to wage war against and kill those who were responsible, aren't
we just going to provide incentive for many more individuals
who would want to follow in their footsteps?
And if we do engage in war, aren't we far more likely to
kill unarmed civilians than we are to kill the responsible
perpetrators? What good does that do? The passions this would
enflame would almost certainly provide recruitment incentives
for our adversaries. Perhaps more importantly, it would simply
bring us down to their level. I would somehow like to believe
that we can be better than that, and that we can rise above
our darkest impulses. Can we?
Our response to this past week's attacks represents one of
the severest challenges we have ever faced as a nation, and
as the human race as a whole. I have to admit that I don't
have much in the way of answers here. I'd like to think -
with every part of my being - that there is some way that
we could bring the perpetrators of Tuesday's actions to appropriate
justice, yet still retain the humanity that we've struggled
so hard to achieve. But maybe there isn't. As much as this
might go against everything I'd like to say I believe in,
perhaps the only way to prevent recurrences of events like
last Tuesday's is indeed to engage in an all-out, no-holds-barred,
civilians-be-damned, total state of war.
If that's really the case, then I do have a couple of suggestions.
After we've made the world safe from terrorism, or whatever
it is we'd be trying to do, let's take a good, hard look at
all the carnage we'll have left around us - that's if there
are any of us left to look around, of course - and let's drop
any pretense we might have that we're somehow "noble" or "righteous."
We should also forget for a while about exploring space, or
researching stem cells, or trying to figure out the mysteries
of the universe, or other such pursuits. Those are activities
for a mature species, and it'll be all too clear that we'll
still have a lot of growing up left to do.