It was a road trip around the start of the Iraq War. Walked into some small-town Dairy Queen with my kids, and saw it on the backlit menu board above the counter: Freedom Fries.
Behind the counter was your typical small-town DQ employee. Female, teenager, skinny, with that hairdo where your bangs are pointed up, kind of like a garden rake on your head. Now I’d read all about the idea of changing the name of America’s favorite obesity fuel, but I had to ask:
“What are freedom fries”?
“That’s what we call franch frahs now.”
“Why is that?”
“Because the franch didn’t support us in eye-rack.”
And there it was, in a nutshell: Bush Jr’s “You’re either with us or against us”, the idea that any questioning of the War on Terror was equivalent to flying a plane into a building, the right wing’s “Surrendo-crats” and “Surrender Monkeys”, 67% of Americans in total support of Invading Iraq during the first few days.
Apparently, “we saved France” from Hitler and they didn’t pay-back when we went after Saddam’s WMDs. Which is kind of like your neighbor helping put out your blazing house fire, saving your kids, and a few days later saying, “would you help me murder my wife? You really owe me!”
By the way: France entered the American Revolutionary War in 1778, and assisted in the victory of the Americans seeking independence from Britain; by the war’s end, France’s U.S. expenditures accounted for about 1/3 of their national debt; France also provided large loans to the U.S. to cover war costs. So maybe, in 1945, we paid them back.
Honestly, France knows a thing or two about war; about being occupied, about refugees and the complete annihilation of centuries-old cities as an army makes its way to the channel, about civilian death tolls. About terrible loss. Maybe we should have listened to them. (I mean, they were right, right?)
Repeat that again - they were right. And thus, we could not even speak their name in McDonald’s.
And anyone who has much grasp of reading should have known the idea that Iraq was somehow a threat to us was ludicrous. It’s one thing that every claim Bush made was almost instantly debunked, that our sanctions had created the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world, that Iraq was isolated, sealed off, starving.
Then throw in that Bush was surrounded by neocons who’d been preaching that invading Iraq was the route to mideast democracy for over a decade; their insistence ousting Saddam and installing a western-style government would domino-effect Jeffersonian Democracy throughout the region. They’d been preaching this, in fact, for years, through the Project for a New American Century.
A New Century, or “Not”
On January 16, 1998, members of the PNAC, including later Bush administration officials Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Bolton, Richard Armitage, and Elliott Abrams, drafted an open letter urging President Clinton to remove Saddam Hussein from power using U.S. diplomatic, political, and military power. The signers argue that Saddam would pose a threat to oil resources in the region. (This ain’t some “truther” conspiracy theory - they were very proud of this big idea and touted it on their web site). The PNAC’s plans included the now infamous line, “Further, the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor“. An event which was handed to them by - not Saddam Hussein - but Osama Bin Laden.
At 2:40 p.m. in the afternoon of September 11, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was issuing orders to his aides to look for evidence of Iraqi involvement. “Best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H.” (Saddam Hussein) “at same time. Not only UBL.” (Osama bin Laden). “Need to move swiftly – go massive – sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
“Things related and not”. And now, there’s nearly 5,000 dead American kids - and tens, or hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians. All for “not“.
British Labour Party politician Tam Dalyell summed up the results: “This is garbage from right-wing think-tanks stuffed with chicken-hawks — men who have never seen the horror of war but are in love with the idea of war. Men like Cheney, who were draft-dodgers in the Vietnam war. These are the thought processes of fanaticist Americans who want to control the world.”
The Day After: Awesome Cruelty (and Awesome Stupidity)
On September 12th, 2001, Robert Fisk (mideast war correspondent for decades, winner of more British Journalism awards than anyone in history) wrote the following, just hours after the attacks (emphasis mine):
No, there is no doubting the utter, indescribable evil of what has happened in the United States. But we were warned. All the years of rhetoric, all the promises to strike at the heart of America, to cut off the head of “the American snake” we took for empty threats. How could a backward, conservative, undemocratic and corrupt group of regimes and small, violent organisations fulfill such preposterous promises? Now we know.
Ask an Arab how he responds to 20 or 30 thousand innocent deaths and he or she will respond as good and decent people should, that it is an unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, why we allowed one nation in the Middle East to ignore UN Security Council resolutions but bombed and sanctioned all others who did. And those basic reasons… must be obscured lest they provide the smallest fractional reason for yesterday’s mass savagery.
There will be those swift to condemn any suggestion that we should look for real historical reasons for an act of violence on this world-war scale. But unless we do so, then we are facing a conflict the like of which we have not seen since Hitler’s death and the surrender of Japan.
The reaction to Fisk’s day-two observations? Rage, death threats, calls of “appeaser”… the same things people screamed at those who marched against the Iraq war here in Dallas (I was there, and was soundly screamed at. SCREAMED at). Re-read Fisk’s predictions above - of all the pundits and talking heads, he nailed what was to come. But he also dared to suggest a reason for what had come already.
Like our reaction to the French, many Americans seem to have a huge problem with… those who are right? Those with some small understanding of the world?
(An aside: the French didn’t invade our country to “bring us democracy” - they were inspired by our revolution, a revolution that led directly to their own. No Americans planted IEDs to kill French soldiers, there was no insurgency. Nobody gave us democracy - we rose up, against incredible odds and the world’s greatest military power, and created the freedoms we enjoy today).
Today, voice an objection to the Iraq War, and people will say “at least we got rid of that dictator!” Since when? Since when do we give a shit? Since when do we look up from our TVs and iPhones and say, “This crap in Somalia is OFF THE CHAIN - we got to get some soldiers down there and stop the GENOCIDE”. We’re the same country that watched Saddam attack hundreds of Kurdish villages with nerve gas in 1988; during the six months of those attacks, we courageously… called for sanctions! The bill died in the Senate.
You, the 67% who blindly cheered Bush on - do you feel a little cheated? The dialogue wasn’t about “removing a dictator” - that was icing on the (yellow)cake. (Get it? Yellowcake? Sorry.) Saddam was going to get us with his WMDs. And now there are 5,000 empty places at family tables across the US - there are holes ripped in the hearts of families that will never heal. For nothing. For a lie.
We Will Never Forget (Until we Forget)
In the weeks after 9-11, we were resolute that Al Quaida would not “win”. We showed the world the best of what democracy can create - even that morning, about a third of WTC deaths were responders, rushing IN to the chaos, to help, to save.
And now? We allowed a twisted administration to use those 3000 dead to achieve an end they had in mind for years. We’ve given up the cornerstones of our democracy for an elusive “safety”. We cheer the torture and lack of due process for hundreds or thousands of humans (and this is “exporting democracy”?) We actually had a national dialogue on “waterboarding”, while every expert on torture, from psychologists to CIA operatives said “it doesn’t work”.
Ahhh… there you go, you of the right wing. “These are the worst of the worst, the baddest of the bad - they deserve it”! So… you trust the intelligence types to make these calls. You’re fine with the ideals that George Washington raised an army to defend (2500 of whom died of disease and exposure at Valley Forge) being selectively trashed by the same guys who sent us after imaginary WMDs?
If the CIA comes to your door, and takes your son or daughter away, disappears her to some black-ops prison on foreign soil, pours water down his throat to simulate drowning, uses “enhanced interrogation techniques” (”slapping, noise, deprivation of clothing, extremes in temperature, and waterboarding”) (CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in) with no attorney, no phone calls, no hearings… just an open-ended sentence, no due process at all. You’d allow the CIA to walk your child into the black hole of our secret prisons, if they felt it was good for our country?
You would be OK with that? Since it’s not really “torture”? Or is it OK because you are you certain that we, as US-soil Americans with “rights”, would never be at risk for that knock on the door… but it’s OK for the rest of the world?
So you believe this is all just and right, Guantanamo and torture and secret prisons and years of “detention” without trial - yet you can’t see why someone might want to fly a plane into your office? Hey, I get it - many of those in US custody are likely evil people plotting our demise. But we should be able to prove it, openly, and prosecute those animals with full oversight and all of the due process that our founding fathers risked their lives for. If we want the world to have democracy, that would be a great first step.
What we really seem to have forgotten is that the deepest evils have been done in our names, under our flag, so we can have access to oil. Disagree? Study the CIA and British Petroleum’s installation of the Shah to Iran, read about his prisons and hidden graves. There actually was a democracy in the mideast, and it was in Iran. Until we took care of that nonsense, fearing people who can vote might vote for more control of their oil revenues.
And on it goes. But Bin Laden’s stated goal was to bankrupt the US, and to embroil us in mideast wars that we could not extricate ourselves from. His bonus prize? Showing what hypocrites many Americans actually are, that we either have no understanding of our ideals, or that those ideals are only for a select few, when convenient.
Fighting for out Freedom (Fries)
One of the most heartbreaking results of 9-11 is that there are now far more dead young Americans than those killed that morning in 2001. And that there are thousands more kids, mentally and physically broken, now having to fight for basic care. How have we allowed this? These kids trusted us - as voters, as citizens, as those who could speak out, to not waste their lives, to treat them as the precious future that they are, or were.
“They died fighting for our freedom” is the mantra, and I suppose that is comforting to those left behind. But they didn’t. They died fighting for our safety.
There are simply no, nada, zero, zip external threats to our freedom. Not one credible thing that could put us under communist rule or radical muslim law exists, outside of our borders. Journalists, again and again, gain access to leaders of the radical movements in Arabia, and the conversation invariably goes like this:
“So, what are your goals?”
“A world under Muslim Sharia Rule.”
“Come on - seriously? The whole world? Can you succeed?”
“Oh, allah-be-praised, no. It is impossible.”
“Then why even try?”
“It is in the trying. We are commanded to try”.
There are no external threats to our freedom, but plenty of internal threats. Some say the risk is Obama - he’s a socialist! A Muslim! Some say it’s the right, that they want our very morals policed, resulting in an anti-gay state where abortionists may be shot on sight.
In one decade, we’ve surrendered to fear, allowed wiretapping with no warrants, torture and the end of due process abroad, religious persecution within our own borders.
Myself, I think it’s a slippery slope - trading our safety for coupons made of torn-out pieces of the constitution and bill of rights. The end result is a few pieces of dust and lint where a grand document used to be.
I wonder if it’s silly to continually call the 9-11 hijackers “cowards” in this light. They boarded those planes knowing they would never return. They were fueled by an absolutism few of us can imagine, an absolutism that has created some of the greatest evil in this world. Where your cause is so huge and so right, you no longer see the innocents affected by your actions as meaningful or even human. The same absolutism that led Bush and Cheney to lie to every one of us.
Yet it’s the same absolutism we would feel if someone we loved was in, say, a burning office tower. We would run in, leap up those smoking stairs, without a second thought. We would fly in, through the flames, our own selves be damned.
This is what we’re up against. And in many ways, it is something we have helped create, blindly, caring only for our own power and comfort, not seeing the humanity in those ground beneath our own SUV tires. That does not give them the right to destroy lives and property and I don’t salute their twisted courage. But they seem far braver than us, as we pledge limp allegiance to a flag we are slowly unraveling.
The Terrible War™ on Terrifying Terror®
The “War on Terror” by now seems like something that should have a logo, a registered trademark, and a Facebook page. It’s like a brand, evoked to instantly affect our feelings and - like any commercial brand - to manipulate our thinking.
The thing is, “terror” - as in “terrorism” - is a tactic. It’s like declaring a war on land mines or hail-mary passes. We have certainly and rightfully declared war on terror-ists, and we seem to trust our intelligence community when a drone fires off a missile at a car in afghanistan, that they have indeed targeted a terrorist with no errors.
Terrorism has no universal definition; we generalize terrorism as violent acts which are intended to create fear by deliberately targeting or disregarding the safety of civilians. So one could say the Allied fire bombings of Dresden during World War II had hallmarks of “terrorism” (It is argued that Dresden was a cultural landmark of little or no military significance, and the attacks were indiscriminate area bombing and not proportionate to the commensurate military gains), as did the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In all of these cases, there was an expectation that the losses would be too much for the enemy to bear, and massive civilian deaths would cause the populace to support - or demand - surrender. Particularly in the case of Japan, the bombings did effectively end the war (though Japanese envoys were, at the time, trying to circumvent the emperor and plea for peace through Geneva, with many historians believing the US wanted the Soviets to see the immense power we now yielded). Throw in the fact that we considered the Japanese to be somehow “sub-human” at the time, making it easy to cheer the deaths of scores of thousands in a single flash of light and fire.
It’s an inescapable fact that western military strategy has often “disregarded the safety of civilians”; even our nuclear “strategy” - our strategic (vs. tactical or “battlefield” nukes) are aimed at cities; the whole concept of Mutually Assured Destruction was to keep an entire planet in low-level terror.
There’s a further belief held by many that civilians in cases like Dresden or Hiroshima were “complicit” to some extent; that they supported war efforts and failed to “rise up” and take control to end the war. But imagine trying to do that in 1940’s Germany, with their ruthless methods to quell any dissent - torture, the lack of due process, and extra-judicial killing (methods, by the way, which we seem glad to use in the war on terror - ironic to say the least).
So there’s indeed a military precedent, one used by stateless terrorists - the concept of complicity of civilians (how many Americans give a thought to conditions the Palestinians live under or the civilian deaths in Lebanon? How many demand our government re-assess our support of Israel?) and an “end justifies the means” attitude, mixed in with a “they don’t look just like us and are thus less human than we are” attitude - an attitude many Americans seem to have towards Arab Muslims, and they towards us.
This doesn’t make the crimes of, say, the 9-11 hijackers any less hideous - but the adage “know they enemy” is wise advice, and summing up these guys with “they hate freedom” or “they’re insane” gets us nowhere closer to ending cycles of violence. Sadly, much of our society equates trying to gain some historical and psychological understanding of “Terrorism in support of a Radical Muslim agenda” to be tantamount to “surrender”, and for this we have paid - and will pay - dearly.
The survival instinct is about the strongest essential force in human beings, trumped sometimes by our social instincts: to face danger and save loved ones, or perform duties we feel serve a greater good (recall those firemen pouring into the towers). Understanding what forces could drive a person to strap a bomb to themselves - or fly an airplane into a tower - is essential to ending suicide attacks. And we may find the forces that drive the murderers to forego their own survival are a twisted version of the positive things listed above. But what we fear is we’ll find their rage (though not their actions) is completely justified. How hard is it for a twisted leader to find someone, eaten by rage, sorrow and hopelessness, ready to be manipulated, in a culture with so little power and so much loss?
Shock and Awe and “Awww, Hell”
- The 9/11 Commission, chaired by former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, was formed in late 2002 to prepare an account of the circumstances surrounding the attacks. The commission made numerous recommendations on how to prevent future attacks, and in 2011 were dismayed that most of their recommendations had yet to be implemented.
- According to an estimate by Ohio State University, the cumulative increase in U.S. domestic homeland security spending since the 9/11 terror attacks totals about $580 billion. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Committee on Homeland Security identified about $50 billion in waste, abuse and failed contracts since the department’s founding.
- The famous terror target list used to allocate DHS grant money listed 77,069 sites under possible threat, including the Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo in Woodville, Ala., the Amish Country Popcorn factory in Berne, Ind., and the Mule Day Parade in Columbia, Tenn.
- A trove of over 750 US military dossiers on Guantánamo detainees leaked to international media revealed that many inmates were kept incarcerated for years on flimsy evidence, or information extracted under torture, including an 89 year-old Afghan villager suffering from senile dementia and a 14 year-old kidnap victim.
- And so on…
Ten years after the attacks, Newsweek’s Andrew Sullivan wrote, “We need to understand that 9/11 worked. It worked as a tactic to induce American self-destruction, even if it failed spectacularly as a strategy to advance Al Qaeda.”
Rumsfeld’s “Cake Walk” goes on, with more kids dying each week. Europe is demanding an accounting of our secret prisons overseas. Hundreds languish in Guantanamo. Our economy has hit the skids - almost completely due to relaxed federal oversight of the financiers who own our political process - and the Tea Party fights for reducing oversight even further; our lawmakers are paralyzed with a take-no-prisoners inability to compromise on anything. In a country that manufactures almost nothing, 10% of the populace is jobless while we fight over the national debt ceiling, gay marriage and the budget of Planned Parenthood.
I remember my response the moment it was clear we were being attacked on September 11, 2001. Threaded alongside the shock and sorrow was something like, “This is the real world, America. This is how the other half lives, with bombings and death and buildings falling to the ground, where there’s no guarantee of safety, where you’re just a pawn in a vast and violent game.” Rawanda, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, now even Mexico… how the other half lives.
Maybe we’ll never forget. But the bigger question is, “have we learned anything?” I do wonder if we have.