Avoiding Another 9/12

Two years ago I had the honor to be the Piedmont Laureate, an honorific given to a writer each year in central North Carolina. I was very proud. As Laureate I got to write a blog, and this is a piece I wrote in response to the ten-year anniversary of 9/11.  I thought it was worth repeating, so today I share it again:

In a New York restaurant a couple months after 9/11 I witnessed a remarkable thing.

As my extended family and I sat around a big table there was some kind of hubbub across the restaurant. Those were nervous days, and we all responded anxiously — we tensed muscles, sat up, craned necks. Soon, though, it became apparent: it was just a drunk guy, standing up, waving a bottle of wine around, singing, as one did in those days, “God Bless America.”

You scarcely need me to describe: the touching, the hugging, the tears, as the whole restaurant swayed and sang together.

The whole restaurant, that is, except for me and my brother-in-law. We sat across from one another, sunk in our chairs, faces set, arms crossed. After the song came the fierce questions. What was wrong with us? What was wrong with a display of  patriotism? Why couldn’t we just enjoy the moment?

My brother-in-law delivered a small lecture about the word “jingoism,” as I recall, though nobody was really buying. For my turn, I came at it from a different angle.

“You think you are in the Marseillaise scene from ‘Casablanca,’” I said. “But you are not. You are in the beer garden scene from ‘Cabaret.’”

We didn’t yet have the full glory of the Department of Homeland Security finding a way to make airline travel even more hideous, but we already had the Patriot Act, of course. And we had already, like a heartbroken 1:30 drunk reeling around looking for someone to hit before the bar closed, found in Afghanistan a good outlet for our rage and madness. We hadn’t yet gone looking for trouble in Iraq, but with a government freshly empowered to tap our phones and read our emails and even look over our shoulders at our library books, that was already visible on the horizon to anyone who cared enough to pay attention.

Few did. We bought duct tape for our windows and put gallons of distilled water in our pantries. We wept on streetcorners and sang “God Bless America” — a truly crappy song, if we can just be honest — at sporting events and theaters and school assemblies. And we flew the flag and we went shopping. And oh, yeah, we spent a few trillion dollars or so on blowing up people and stuff in Asia. Feel better? Feel safer?
Ten years later we assassinated Osama Bin Laden, and I don’t think anybody is likely to feel too bad about that — he’s a bad actor and caused us terrible pain and we’re glad he’s gone.
The rest of it though, has been a mistake. Some terrible people did a terrible thing on 9/11, and since 9/12 we have been finishing the job for them. You can look for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction and threats all over the globe, but once you get your population to suspect everybody, to resist the conclusions of science, and to believe the solution to its problems exists out there somewhere rather than right here where we’re all sitting, there’s not much left to fight about. The bad guys win because we become the bad guys.
I explain it this way. A few years back in a garden-variety checkup x-ray, some freaky spots showed up on my lungs. A parade of increasingly scary scans and procedures led to scarier and scarier results until finally, to our great relief, I turned out to have nothing more than sarcoidosis. That’s an autoimmune dysfunction in which basically your immune system panics when it sees not very scary stuff — say, pine pollen — and instead of a light allergic reaction it goes nuts, encapsulating the stuff and forming nodules that look awful on x-rays and can actually affect function.
The doctor tried to explain it, but I completely got it. “Simple,” I said. “My body has what my computer has, what my country has.” Quizzical look.
“Incapacity to distinguish an irritant from a pathogen.”
Yep. That is, just like my body is willing to possibly compromise my breathing in order to protect me from the terror of pine pollen, I have a computer that very occasionally lets me write — when it’s not too busy protecting itself, and me, from Internet threats that it constantly wants to fight. And just the same, my country wants to spend all its time looking out there — in Asia, these days, but if we run out of Asian bad guys we’ll go somewhere else — when with millions unemployed, trillions in arrears on vital domestic spending, and a population gone mad and seemingly willing to believe the sun rises in the west, we’ve got stuff enough to do at home, to say nothing of securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.
Yes, of course — I’m a crank and annoyed. And nobody’s saying 9/11 wasn’t a terrible thing: 2,977 people died. But can we try to get some perspective?
That 2,977 was almost one-thousandth of one percent of our population. I’m not going to say that’s an irritant rather than a pathogen, but I’m going to note: Since then, we’ve spent a trillion dollars on those wars — that’s about 3 percent of our total spending in those ten years. And the U.S. alone has lost 1,760 people in Afghanistan and 4,474 in Iraq, to say nothing of that odd trillion dollars or so. That is, Osama Bin Laden caused almost three thousand people to die on 9/11. If you add up only coalition forces, more than twice that number have died in our response. As for the very lowest estimate of civilian deaths in Iraq? A hundred thousand plus, though estimates rise to ten times that. In Afghanistan? Estimates range all over, though 25,000 seems to be right around the middle.
And as bad as all that is — and please, can we just agree that it’s real bad? — the worst thing is what’s happening at home, with people so focused on threats to our freedom that money is no object, while kids go uneducated, streets go unpaved, wires unmaintained. We spend millions worrying about protecting the grid from attack — and then some guy pulls the wrong switch in Arizona and San Diego goes dark. The traffic stops; the pumps stop; computers go dead. Find money in the budget to improve our infrastructure? You’re crazy — we’re poor! But find money to go blow up some more people far away so they don’t attack the grid? We’ve always got money for that.
This is what started on 9/12. This is what comes of reacting; this is what comes of embracing fear. This is what comes of looking for enemies instead of looking to solve problems. Of worrying about perceived cultural impurities — gay marriage? a quarter of the population is out of work, the planet is frying in its own petrochemical oils, and we can’t afford to educate our children, and you think the problem to solve is gay marriage? — instead of tending to business.
And the candidates line up to ignore data and deny science — to find bad guys out there rather than right here; and now the climate-change deniers and the bad-guys brigade starts to get the upper hand. And I suspect even powerfully conservative planners are now asking each other what progressives have been asking all along — what in “Cabaret” Brian asked Maximilian as they left the beer garden:
“Still think you can control them?”
If we want the next ten years post-9/11 to go better than the last ten, maybe that’s something we should be asking every day.