September 11 - Seventeen years later

My freshman year at Gonzaga University was just beginning on September 11, 2001.  I was awoken with the news from my roommate that planes had collided with the World Trade Center, and I remember confusing it with the riots in Seattle surrounding the WTO the previous year in my groggy 18-year-old mind.  Very quickly, like the rest of the world, I was glued to the television to learn more about what was going on and I tried to wrap my head around this catastrophe and I very quickly became alarmed at the immediate scapegoating of Muslims for the attack.

Being a budding orator and political wonk, the next day I wrote the following and posted it on my ancient AngelFire website for no one to read.  I came across it a few months ago, and was struck by how optimistic I was about our future, and how things have turned out:

This is the second Pearl Harbor. I don't think that I overstate it,"
-Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska

December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy. Memories that lay dormant in the American consciousness suddenly take a prominent space in the minds of all. Yet this comparison is not nearly precise enough to represent the events of September 11, 2001.

The attack of Pearl Harbor came as a blow to the security of the United States. In a world raging with war, the American continent seemed a safe harbor from the terrors other countries were subject to. After Pearl Harbor this was true no longer. The United States pledged full fledged support to the Allies fighting in Europe, any citizen thought to be a security hazard was moved, and plans to use the most deadly weapon ever created were rapidly accelerated.

Nearly 60 years later another great blow to America has been dealt. Only this time, the world is relatively at peace, the only feuds are those that rarely cease; religious conflicts, ethnic disputes, and the occasional corrupt leader abusing his people. The United States is able to take a stand by pledging support or participating in peace keeping missions. All danger is to be found overseas, not in home territory. Yet the twenty-first century is also a time of globalism, where events in every part of the the globe, affect the entire world. Business, travel and communication all take place on an extensive level accommodating ripples of effect to spread to all countries, this makes the world a much smaller place, yet, it remains the same size, and those who take care to avoid notice are still able to hide and to make plans unknown to the rest of the global community.

This is what occurred Tuesday.

History rarely focuses on how events could have been avoided after they occur. History instead analyses why things happened and record the actions taken in response to disaster. September 11, 2001 is a day in history. America must make a response that fits the events that have occurred. While many cry out for revenge and retribution, the United States must acknowledge that what actions it takes now will become history and they will be critiqued and analyzed in years to come. America must pursue a course of action that will demonstrate that it truly is the home of freedom and righteousness. President Bush now has a difficult decision to make. He must either choose to gratify the bloodlust of the people who feel betrayed by this encroachment upon liberty, or he must chose to shine in history and make a decision to show that while America will not allow its people suffer, it also will not stoop to the level of the cowards who murdered thousands of innocent people.

Tuesday's events stir memories of Pearl Harbor, but the world is a very different place than the world of World War II. America must decide if it wants to reenact what it did after the first attack on US soil. Is relocation going to occur? Is America going to drive thousands of families from their homes because there is a suspicion that someone with the same color of skin assisted in this breach. Or is American freedom stronger, and wiser than that? Is America going to invade the countries where terrorists may have found support from a minority of the population. Or is American rationality stronger, and wiser than that? Is America going to prepare all weapons to strike against civilians where dissenters may be found. Or is American mercy stronger, and wiser than that?

Tuesday can become another Pearl Harbor, it can lead the country into a war that seemed distant. Tuesday can lead America to act against its own people, it can lead Americans to lash out violently because of suspicions. But Tuesday also gives a chance for the United States to show that it is the home of liberty and of righteousness, and even the most despicable act cannot shatter that bastion of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

As we all know, September 11 was the beginning of what's basically become an endless war and drain on the resources of America.  We've paved the wave for a corporatist take-over of our government and allowed nationalistic fervor to enable a charlatan to take the highest office of our country in 2016.

I had such high hopes for our country.  I imagined that we could react with grace and dignity, not just go into a blind rage and justify atrocities and slaughter of over a half-million civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 17 years.  On the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, I was in the middle of my bicycle ride around the US and had spent the night in Northampton, Massachusetts at the home of the father of some friends from Chicago, I got an early start on the road and was heading toward Boston to reunite with some other friends.

Central Massachusetts is hilly and the roads were windy with small shoulders, so it's far from an ideal ride with all the gear I was carrying.  That day was particularly hard, and I remember crying on the side of the road, overcome with emotions and frustrations and a feeling of just not being up to snuff. It was my plan to bike all the way to Worcester, which was about 60 miles. It should have been doable, however, I was just exhausted both emotionally and physically, and when I was just 25 miles into my ride I was ready to call it a day.  I was so drained that I thought I would splurge and rent myself a hotel room so that I could mentally regroup for the next phase of my ride.

I was in a tiny town named Ware, and to my dismay, there were no hotels, there were no places that I thought I'd be able to quietly pitch my tent either.  I was stuck, emotionally, physically and mentally. I had another cry, and then decided that my best bet would be to just ask for a place to camp.  I recalled passing by a Knights of Columbus hall that seemed to have some land, so I decided to backtrack a bit and ask if I could camp there overnight.

For some reason, asking for help is one of the hardest things for me to do, but I worked up the courage and fighting back tears, I approached the hall, and found people hanging out.  I asked if I could set up camp on their land.  They immediately agreed and I planned to just set up my tent and have some time to myself to reflect and to be alone. However, some of the club members came by to chat and ask me about my trip.

It turns out one of the KoC members was a clown, and we ended up having a mini balloon jam right there that night.  His name was Bill and we had a great time.  My soul was rejuvenated twisting balloons in a tiny town in Massachusetts. I taught some balloons, and drank beer from a vending machine in their hall.  Everyone was friendly and welcoming and my soul was rejuvenated.

Bill with some of our creations
A typical balloon jam

I think it was that night in Massachusetts when I really got an idea of what it meant to be an American.  We're a country that is welcoming to strangers. We strive to find a common ground and understanding. We can bond over our similarities and seek to become friends and neighbors and lend a helping hand to someone in distress.

Over the past seven years, I know that I've had a bit of an identity crisis, and I think our nation has as well. We've always seen America as being exceptional, but in the light of the atrocities that have been uncovered during the "War on Terror" and becoming enured to scandal and controversy, it seems like our country is at a precipice where we need to decide on our national identity. Are we more concerned with vengeance than justice? Do we still welcome strangers? How do we respect the memories of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice?

I know that I don't have all the answers for the quandary in which we find ourselves, but I do know that fundamentally, the United States of America is home to generous, giving people. People who welcomed me when I traveled, and encouraged me along the way. Even though we may be divided now, I still believe that my ramblings as an 18-year-old were not completely naive. Hopefully there is still time for us to regain what we've lost since the towers fell 17 years ago.


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