That day in September 2001 and today, the day on which I write, are carbon copies. There were many victims, as there have been for millennia. Our species at its worst, though not always, has the propensity for violence that predates recorded human history. Despite attempting to make aggression limited by a set of rules, we most often abrogate those rules in the name of empire. Others, with less power, often do the same with hideous consequences.
The attacks of September 2001 had their inception in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan at the end of the decade of the 1970s. The intention of the US was to make Afghanistan the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. The US achieved that goal and created its own Vietnam-style quagmire there. History doesn’t often repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. We will never know how many trillions of dollars were pissed away beginning in the 1980s, but Brown University’s Costs of War project gives a good reckoning of the trillions, $8 trillion, pissed away in the wars of the post-9/11 epoch and the lives ended.
In August 1970, I climbed the stairs to the roof of my graduate dormitory on Washington Square South in Greenwich Village in New York City. The view of the towers of the World Trade Center was breathtaking. Almost forgotten were the environmental costs of such a project, in concrete and steel alone. In the night, it felt as if by reaching out, a person could touch those towers and the golden glow from the work lights of the South Tower that was reaching its completion gave the buildings a magnificent and eerie glow.
Thirty-one years later, it was inconceivable that workers in those buildings would jump to their deaths as fires raged, fueled by the explosive jet fuel of two commercial airliners. Much of human history deals with the unfathomable and inconceivable.
At what can be best described as a teach-in at Brown University a few days after the September attacks, different perspectives were voiced about the tragedy, its historical roots, and plans for moving ahead with ways to avoid and counter what turned out to be the endless wars that we did not realize then would follow.
We soon took our antiwar demonstrations, supported by students and faculty from Brown University and elsewhere, to the front of the federal courthouse in Providence, Rhode Island. Death threats against us predictably followed. The rumor among the demonstrators was that radio talk shows received death threats against our demonstrations. Right after the September attacks, a passenger on an Amtrak train in Providence, a Sikh, was escorted from the train because of the demands of some passengers. They believed he was a terrorist. National heritage, personal identity. and manner of dress were all that was needed to cast suspicion on countless people. We could not know that the administration of George W. Bush would soon create the spying apparatus to make us all targets of their lust to destroy our right to freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures. Our routine communications became suspect and the subject of government surveillance. Bush’s Department of Justice provided the illegal underpinnings of that surveillance apparatus. We were all potential enemies of the state and its spy apparatus.
Continued protest of the war was nearly impossible because there was so much fear generated by the attacks and their aftermath. Militarism and unending wars became the driving force of large segments of the population. The US misread the goodwill of most around the world and the coffers of war contractors expanded enormously as the death toll mounted.
Against the odds of success, we organized and demonstrated and taught until we knew it wasn’t working. Two years later there would be more success, but endless wars are hard to counter without a groundswell of opposition and that opposition was never present. The idealism of many fell prey to fear and disinterest.
Outside the window where I write, a semaphore peace flag waves gently in the breeze of this late summer’s day. The symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is emblazoned in black on a field of white and green. Not all too distant from here 20 years ago on this day, one to the south and one to the north, two planes flew past with religious zealots bent on ending the innocent lives on those planes and those of thousands of others. The dictates of empire would provide additional masses of people in faraway places who would meet the same fate. Those with greed and hate in their hearts seemed to have seized the day both before and after the attacks of that day in 2001.
To someone young, the images of those work lights, images of endless wars, and images of the peace flag outside seem like images not meant for inclusion in the same narrative. A jet trail appears among the clouds and blue sky of this day and in its wake, the silence and mourning are very real. Why are there so many who are willing to sacrifice innocent lives?
Consider a different world where the US would have had a different response to the September 2001 attacks and its history to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. But a different perspective and actions would have been nearly impossible because of the thrust and appetites of empire.