Bender: Reflections on 9/11

Tony Bender
Local Columnist

Millions of Americans like me knew when they heard the news, that it would change everything. The radio newscast told us only that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, but I knew instantly what it was and what it meant. Terrorism and war.

It was a short trip from our rural home to town; I was driving past the school, my kids buckled in, when I heard the broadcast, but in the next few blocks on our way to daycare, I processed what it meant: things would change, and the world I grew up in, a more innocent world my kids would never know, was suddenly less innocent. 

More:Afghanistan will never go away

It was my birthday.

So many mistakes. We've just removed ourselves from Afghanistan, where a necessary mission to destroy Al Qaeda morphed into an impossible if well-intentioned, nation-building task, our exit a reminder that wars are unpredictable and messy. And sadly, seemingly, ongoing.

Amidst the fever of war, the Americans were sold on a war against Iraq under false pretenses and the concept of preemptive war. Maybe it's old-fashioned and irrelevant when it comes to military strategy, but Americans hadn't seen themselves as people who would throw the first punch. We thought of ourselves as angels of righteousness. Then came state-sanctioned torture. Incarceration without due process. Ongoing violations of the 4th Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure through electronic surveillance—mass data-gathering. Security screenings where there had been none before.

Perhaps it's naive to think that a constitution crafted 250 years ago can be so enlightened and sacrosanct that it transcends modern realities and shouldn't evolve, and hey, we do it with religious text. However, that we so blithely have gone along with it, in the name of patriotism, without a national conversation seems to me, well, unAmerican. When President Bush warned the rest of the world, “You're either with us or against us,” I found it chilling. We'd become bullies or at best, an awakened beast reacting in anger and less so in logic.

As a journalist, I can remain objective and dispassionate about most things, however, the ignorance of so many Americans appalls me. As was intentioned, people believe today that Iraq attacked us on 9/11. No, those planes were loaded mostly with Saudis, the guys we arm and buy our oil from. H.L. Mencken, has been credited as saying “No one has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the masses...”

Such was the tone of my columns 20 years ago, and in an environment in which Bush's press secretary Ari Fleischer chillingly warned the press to “be careful what you say,” numerous publishers of my columns dumped me. It was their right, but was it right? I rest easy knowing that I was right and that I was right for speaking unpopular truths to a country swept up in war fever. 

One should always be suspicious of government-fueled patriotism. That's not because you don't love your country, but because you do. Waving a flag over a conflict like some kind of holy blessing doesn't make it right. 

There was a sincere national unity we've not seen since—now we fight over basic common sense public health issues like it's a Medieval crusade—and that emotion and love of country can be used for good or evil. Check your history books.

I visited the Twin Towers site a couple of years after 9/11, and I remember talking to a bartender in Manhattan about the change in the city. “I think it's made everyone nicer,” she said. For a time, it did but look at us now.

The cause against bin Laden was righteous, and I grew frustrated by Bush's outward casual indifference to finding him, so when Barack Obama announce that the terrorist leader was dead, it became the only time I celebrated another human's death. 

It felt like I had my birthday back.

More:That's Life: Near death experiences on independence day

Although I opposed the war in Iraq, I've reserved judgement about the evolving outcome. Ridding the country of Saddam Hussein was a righteous cause. Every war and political action of the past is connected to the present, sometimes for the best, often not. Likewise, I'm reserving judgement on Afghanistan. After all, Vietnam is now a trading partner. Things may well work out. Eventually, if clumsily, at a great cost of lives and national treasure.

What's done is done, but perhaps we can learn from it even as we remember and mourn those good people who died on 9/11 and those warriors who died or were forever damaged. Sadly, as a suicidal species, we need warriors, so God bless them. And God bless America. 

I sincerely mean that.