Our most Vulnerable Moment: 9/11, the flag, and losing our innocence

I was living in a 1950’s brick house in Ballard, a quiet Seattle neighborhood that feeds into the inland waters of Puget Sound. On that day, the breeze smelled clammy and the persistent salmon-stealing sea lion, Herschel, was braying as he lounged on a dock outside of Shilshole Marina some 3 miles away as the crow flies. The sky was blue.

The phone rang and my mom, sounding frantic, said, “Turn on your tv RIGHT NOW! If you don’t, you will miss history being made.” She knew I didn’t watch much television and wanted to make sure I was there for it. I turned on the tv in time to see the first plane hit the first tower.

September 11, 2011 was a shocking day, but for me, not the kind of jolt it was for many. For one, I was on the other side of the country and knew no one who worked in downtown New York.  Still, I sat glued to the television feeling sick and sad and wondering, fearing what chain of events was unfolding. When it became clear it was middle eastern terrorist-related, part of me thought, “welcome to reality, Americans.”

I was horrified. And disgusted. And grieved. But on some level I “got it.” This is not to say I agreed with it nor justified it.

Many of us lost our innocence on September 11. We really did not know what we had done around the world the past years in the name of democracy and protecting American interests. We, like most patriots, justified American wars and responses because we trusted those in power to know more than we did. We took it for granted that the United States was a unique, free, and morally superior country. Who would want to do this to us?

That part of my innocence was lost while traveling in Latin America in the 1980’s. (You may remember just a few mishaps in foreign policy in the Reagan years.) It was then and there that I discovered that the U.S. wasn’t as well-loved and virtuous as had been taught in our history books. And I discovered that all countries, political factions and terrorists have justified war, assassinations, regime overthrows, and torture in the name of protecting their interests. Including us. So I never thought, “Why us?” …  “What have we ever done to deserve this?” As if anyone deserves someone flying into your country and killing thousands of innocent civilians.

Our response just dug us in deeper. We all know by now that the “war on terror” is really an excuse to exert Rambo-type violence on the perpetrators. (More like a bad movie than real life.) It was the stated justification to  suspend habeus corpus, to torture, to bomb Afghanistan back into a previous age, to drum up a war in Iraq, and need I go on?

We were at a turning point then. And we blew it. We had an opportunity to take the moral high ground and use that opportunity as a time to build peace. We had the world at our finger tips during those tender times – far more powerful in our vulnerability than we ever were in our strength. It could have been the opportunity to change. To listen better to even our enemies. To speak and act a morality that shows an evolution of human consciousness. To recognize our hand in one of the world’s desperate situation and respond differently than the terrorists to their rage. We did not.

What will we do with this 10-year moment? Will our flag become a sword of “this will never happen again, dammit!“? Or will the flag be the symbol of a people’s resiliency and ability to honor our losses and build something far better?

We have had 10 violent, not to mention bankrupting, years of warring. What will it be, dear friends? You are changing the world every day just by being in it, as my friend David Lamotte likes to say, and I say: the only question is how.

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