Friday, September 11, 2015

Fourteen years

A litte over fifteen years ago, we went through a minor trauma referred to as Y2K, the coming of the year 2000, when the clock turned into a new millennium. Some folks thought it would mark the beginning of the end, the dawn of the apocalypse, the day of reckoning, you name it. Even rational people had some legitimate concerns as it didn't occur to computer programmers around the world to accommodate their data bases with the extra two digits to differentiate the year 2000 from all the previous years that began with the digits 1 and 9. By late 1999, just about everything was run by computers and no one knew exactly what havok would be wreaked when the clock struck 12 on New Years Day 2000, as millions of computers around the world would think it was January 1, 1900.

I remember it well. On December 31st, 1999, I paid close attention and breathed a sigh of relief as Australia and all the time zones ahead of us brought in the new year with little incident. We celebrated that evening with a big party at our home, secure in the fact we passed through the eye of the storm and there would be nothing but blue skies ahead.  

Little did we realize at the time that the real day of reckoning was still at hand.

It would come precisely 21 months and 11 days later. Fourteen years have past since that dreadful morning, and superficially one might think not much has changed. People still go on with their lives, they go to work, eat sleep and drink, sometimes too much. People still die, the lucky ones only after living a productive life, experiencing the number of years normally allotted to members of the species Homo sapiens. People still make love and produce offspring that continue the cycle.

Yet I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the world has inexorably changed since September 11, 2001, and little of it for the better. That dawned on me most recently yesterday while filling out forms and signing documents which was required as I am occasionally responsible for the packing of art objects for shipment. Among the information I was asked to digest, was the rule that all printed matter containing any information regarding issues of transportation, must be securely stored in locked boxes while not in the possession  of anyone who is not on a "need to know" basis with the information they contain. When not of further use those same documents were to be destroyed by a paper shredder whose specs were explicitly described in the document. This brought to mind images of the old Mission Impossible TV show which began with Mr. Phelps receiving his marching orders via a hidden tape recorder (I'm really dating myself here), which like clockwork at 9:03 every Saturday night, self-destructed five seconds after the message was delivered. The officiousness of these forms as you can imagine, produced chuckles at the proverbial office water cooler. You can bet the words: "thank you Mr. bin Laden" were uttered at some point in the conversation.

I mention this only to illustrate how pervasive the threat of terrorism has become in our lives. It would be impossible to imagine making light of something like this before the attacks, but such is life post 9/11. Dealing with the rigmarol of paperwork and strict rules of course is trivial stuff, a small price to pay when you consider how easy it would be for someone with the motivation and the will to sabotage an aircraft and with it, the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent people. This awareness also comes courtesy of Osama bin Laden and his al Queda charges who planned and committed an act so dastardly brilliant, that few people could have conceived, let alone carried it out.

The handful of people involved in the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington DC were able to accomplish something that legions of armies, their generals and national leaders could only dream of, bring a superpower to its knees. As a result of those attacks and our country's reaction, going to war explicitly against several nations, and implicitly against Islam, much of the fragile "New World Order" stability we briefly enjoyed after the fall of the Soviet Union at the tail end of the twentieth century, came to a screeching halt. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never in human history has so much misery been brought upon so many, by so few.

The misery inflicted on the victims of the September 11 attacks was merely the tip of the iceberg. Our incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq brought with them death and destruction in numbers far exceeding those we experienced in this country. Al Qaeda's actions combined with ours helped inspire and embolden a new generation of jihadists who were greatly assisted by the power vacuum we created especially in Iraq. Foolishly we expected the death of Osama bin Laden would end the threat of terror coming from that part of the world. Unfortunately bin Laden was practically irrelevant at the time of his death, and a new group would emerge that was so extreme even al Qaeda kept them at arm's length. We continue to believe we can defeat ISIS and similar groups of religious zealots by using our superior technology to bomb them into submission. We have yet to learn from our experience in Vietnam and the Soviet Union's in Afghanistan that superior weapons are no match for people devoted to a cause for which they are gladly willing to die.

Things on the home front are not much better as this country is more divided now than it has been at least during any time in my life, and that includes the War in Vietnam, and the contentious battles for civil rights in the sixties and seventies. We can't give al Qaeda all the credit for that, but their handiwork on 9/11 and the subsequent events set in motion an unprecedented period of fear, loathing and distrust in this nation. 

So have the terrorists won? Well they certainly succeeded in tearing us apart more than we had been before. That manifests itself everywhere we look in our distrust and hatred of immigrants, of minorities, of the police, and of anyone who has a different opinion from ourselves. The good will that most of the world felt toward us following the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, evaporated quickly after the wars we started in Afghanistan and  Iraq. I'm afraid to say that justified or not, (I'm of the opinion that one war was justified and the other was most definitely not), more harm than good came from our involvement in Iraq, and perhaps to but a lesser degree, Afghanistan. It has been repeated enough to have become a cliche but it is still very true that we may have managed to win the war, but have failed to win the peace. The shooting. at least as far as our military is concerned may be over, but the battle continues, led by an adversary who would like to turn the clock back not to 1900, but more like 900, The cycle continues with no end in sight. I'm afraid it will take a few generations to see any true resolution to the battles we had a large part in exacerbating in the Middle East and Central Asia; I certainly don't expect to see one in my lifetime.

As we observe this solemn anniversary, we remember and mourn the lives that were lost on September 11, 2001, as well as those who perished in all the acts of violence committed as a direct result of the attacks. I would add that we should also grieve for our world and the opportunity and potential lost to the fear and hatred that continues to tear us apart.

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