Twelve years ago today, thousands of people died.
It was a horrible day–one of the worst in our country’s recent memory–and everyone who’s reading this probably has a story about where they were when it happened.
Back in 2001, I was in 5th grade. I looked something like this:
Anyway! I was a cute, happy-go-lucky kid who liked to play dress-up in my older sister’s leather jacket and prep for a career on America’s Next Top Model. Fun times!
Little me was in school on September 11th, 2001. This lady was my teacher:
I knew her as Miss Maiorella, the pretty teacher with the awesome long hair, who was cool because she was young and encouraged us to doodle on our notes. Also, her Staten Island accent reminded me of my grandmother.
A real gentleman that guy is.
Anyway! Back before Miss Mairorella was Joni from the Jersey Shore, she was my 5th grade teacher. And she was pretty awesome. September 11th was not a good day for her.
Early that morning, the principal, Mr. Farley, came into our classroom. Our desks were arranged in little groups of four, and we were working on some kind of group project. I was seated towards the back of the class, right next to Nicole, my best friend from down the street.
Mr. Farley was a big dude–over six feet tall with a round, hard-looking beer belly–and he had an awesome gray beard. He was really nice and grandfatherly. One of the only principals I remember not fearing.
He came into our classroom and asked if anyone’s parents worked in the city. As a commuting suburb of New Jersey, lots of kids did–my own dad had been one of them up until a few years earlier. But in our classroom that day, there was only one. His name was Brian, and he raised his hand nervously. Mr. Farley reached to lead him out of the room, while Miss Mairoella asked what was going on.
“A plane hit the Twin Towers,” he responded, calmly. “We’re just going to go call his parents and see if everything is OK.”
Poor Brian must have been terrified. I don’t know what happened to his parents that day–hopefully they worked uptown and were totally fine. But Miss Maiorella started crying. She spent the next hour or so in tears, talking on her Motorola cell phone in hushed, urgent tones. My 5th grade self deduced she must have had family in the city that she was worried about.
Our little lives in that classroom went on more or less normally–I think most of us, myself included, thought that the plane Mr. Farley mentioned had crashed accidentally. We didn’t know that anything really bad or scary was happening. But then, kids were being called down to the office for early dismissal left and right. It was weird. Maybe two hours after Mr. Farley came into our classroom, I was one of them.
My dad came to pick me up, and when I saw the look on his face, I thought for a panicked, horrible moment that something had happened to Mom. Did she take a business trip into the city that day? No, he assured me, Mom was fine. But the Twin Towers were gone, knocked down. They didn’t exist anymore.
I felt my stomach drop out, like I was on a roller coaster. It just didn’t seem real. How could they be gone? How was that possible? We went into the city all the time for weekend day-trips. The Towers were always there, just like Broadway was always there, and Times Square, and the Empire State Building. Just a few months before, we’d even taken the elevator up to the very top of one of them, with an older cousin who was visiting us from Wisconsin to see Manhattan. How was it even possible for them to be gone? I couldn’t imagine it.
And because I couldn’t imagine it, I didn’t really believe it. I kept asking my dad, over and over again in the short car ride home, they’re gone? Really? Gone? I couldn’t understand. He kept trying to explain it, his face sad and scared, his body limp in the business suit he had worn to the office that morning. He was probably thinking that I shouldn’t have to understand.
When we got home, we turned on the news. And then I saw it. The replayed footage of the planes crashing, the Towers burning, and then toppling to the ground. They were gone. As a kid, it looked almost fake–like a scene from a movie, engineered with special effects and amazing editors. But it wasn’t. That was probably the first time I realized that things don’t last forever.
In the 12 years since 9/11, a lot has happened. For starters, as a direct response to the attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act. It’s still in effect today, and it’s supposed to prevent anything like 9/11 from ever happening again. Basically, it gives the government almost unlimited power to create an Orwellian, surveillance superstructure, granting intelligence agencies the right to gather any information they want about virtually anyone, using whatever means necessary.
But clearly, surveillance has gone far beyond simply keeping people safe from terrorism. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was earning six figures working for a government contractor in Hawaii, found the NSA’s surveillance so frightening and unconscionable that he willingly turned himself into a permanent, international fugitive in an attempt to stop it.
Then, there’s the Terrorism Act, which was similarly passed in an attempt to prevent future attacks. Effective only in airports, ports, and border areas, it states that anyone can be detained, searched, questioned, and held for a maximum of nine hours without formal arrest. No warrants, no probable cause, no proof necessary.
And then, there’s the practice of extraordinary rendition–when someone is detained and transferred to another country for questioning, without any kind of legal process.
One of the most famous instances was the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was born in Syria. After visiting family in Tunisia, Arar was on his way back home to Canada when he was detained at New York’s JFK Airport, where he was supposed to catch a connecting flight. U.S. authorities secretly sent him to Syria, where he was held for a year and tortured.
He was never charged with anything and ultimately made it home to his family, but not everyone who falls victim to this practice is so lucky. The U.K. funded Rendition Project has mapped the U.S.’s secret kidnap and detention program, finding it to be chillingly large and complex–its data includes details on over 11,000 flights that are suspected to be rendition related. How many people were kidnapped on those flights? It’s impossible to know, but only a handful of them have been picked up for representation by Amnesty International like Arar.
All of these changes are a result of the ongoing War on Terror, which was more or less declared on this day, 12 years ago. The results? The loss of basic rights and liberties, a lot of government harassment, and terrible violence. Also, a terrible, soul-sucking, treasury-draining war in the Middle East, which has won us little more than a pile of debt, more casualties, and a global reputation for warmongering. Plus, ADDED BONUS, an incredibly Islamophobic national attitude, which isn’t helping anyone.
All of these things are really important to remember everyday, but especially now, as we memorialize a 12-year-old tragedy and consider whether or not to attack Syria. In last night’s address to the American public, President Obama explained his desire to strike the Assad regime–in short, he wants there to be a serious consequence for the dictator’s use of chemical weapons against his rebelling people.
For a quicker, 3-minute recap of the speech, click here.
But what are we really doing, when we strike Syria? Are we saving children from being gassed to death, as President Obama claims? Or are we just killing more people? In his 2011 documentary, John Pilger reminds us that during the war in Iraq, 90 percent of the casualty list was populated by civilians.
That’s right–90 percent.
And weren’t we in Iraq to save the civilians from their evil dictator, Saddam Hussein, and show him that there were serious consequences for supposedly possessing weapons of mass destruction? Yup. We went in claiming we were there to help, and wound up killing more of the folks we aimed to protect than the enemy we were trying to defeat.
There are no good wars. There is no just violence. Adding to the brutality of an already heinous civil war will fix nothing. The consequence for using chemical weapons to kill people should not be to kill more people. There needs to be a better solution.
Likewise, the way to prevent future September 11th’s is not to wage a covert civil war on our own people–surveilling, detaining, and torturing people at random, creating a racist, Right-wing police state. That’s not the answer.
When we declared the War on Terror, we were really declaring war on ourselves. As a nation, we’ve let the fear and trauma of 9/11 drive a wedge between the government and its citizens, leaving us more fearful and distrustful than we were before. Is that how all the brave men and women who died 12 years ago want to be memorialized?
I don’t think so.
So let’s start now. Let’s start with our own unfettered, dysfunctional government. Let’s start with Syria. Let’s start doing things the right way, the way that doesn’t hurt people, or kill them, or ruin their lives.
What would that look like?
Let’s use today to start figuring that out.