by William Rivers Pitt
"All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die."
- W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"
The sky above me today is as hard and bright and blue as it was one year ago. The air carries that same hint of crisp autumn that lies in wait within the yellow becomings on the green leaves shivering in the breeze outside my window. It seems, somehow, utterly terrifying that the weather today is a mirror image of what it was a year ago. I might not be so afraid if it were cloudy and raining. Bad things happen on sunny days. This is one of the superstitions that has taken root inside me over the last twelve months.
Sometimes the world can turn inward on its axis. Nothing seems to change - the surfaces remain as familiar as the pattern of veins that sit close to the skin of your right hand. Yet that inward turn looses a wind as ferocious as the growling throat of a hurricane. You may batten down your home as best you can, but that wind will come and tear all that you love and cherish up from the foundations and fling it, shattered and bent, far beyond sight.
The world turned inward on its axis one year ago today. With the exception of the smoldering ruins in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, everything remained the same on the surface. The attacks were pointed, aimed with brutal accuracy at symbols of our might. Beyond the charnel houses those targets became, the nation was unmarked in any physical sense. The wind blowing from that inward turn was a psychic one, howling in our minds and souls. The only indication of damage to be found beyond the targets rested uneasily in the anguished, furious, terrified eyes of your neighbor and your spouse and the face that stared back at you from your bathroom mirror.
A week after the attacks, I found myself playing a game as I waited for the bus to work on the heavily-traveled street by my house. I called the game, "Count The Flags." I stood there and tallied how many American flags I saw on car bumpers, windows and radio antennas. My wait for the bus lasted less than ten minutes, but I managed to count 163 flags before I was finished.
This we called "Unity," and there was strength in that. America had been attacked, and the citizenry roused itself to display the colors on every flat surface and pole available. It reminded us of the police officers, firefighters and rescue personnel whose unbelievable bravery - they ran between falling chunks of building and human bodies, ran up stairs choked with fleeing survivors, ran without pause into their own deaths, because it was their duty - made us all humble and awed and proud to be Americans. Shirts and hats bearing the FDNY or NYPD symbols could be seen on every street and in every town.
Two days after the attack, I summoned the strength to go out for the evening. This was no small thing; the shock of it all was nowhere near over, and everyone was bracing for the other shoe to drop. Some friends and I went to the House of Blues in Harvard Square to see a jam band named Umphrees McGee play. Before the show started, the building's fire alarm began to bray, and the effect was dynamic; Once upon a time, a fire alarm was an annoyance to be ignored until the flames reached your table, but on this night everyone was up and out in thirty seconds.
When the fire trucks arrived and the firemen clambered down, all of us in the street roared and cheered and clapped for them. When one of them mentioned that their whole crew was leaving the next day to help with the cleanup in New York, there were more cheers and even some weeping. Several people embraced the firemen before they pulled off into the night. That's how it was a year ago, and for the most part, that's how it still is. You don't forget the kind of heroism we saw on that terrible day. True heroes are hard to come by.
You can still see those flags today. They are weather beaten and torn, frayed and tattered. Sometimes you'll find one in the gutter on the side of the road. There are two metaphors to be seen in this. The first describes an America that was attacked and wounded, but still stands strong and proud and free despite the damage done. The second describes an America falling to pieces in the wind of that axial turn, murdered by inches. The latter, sadly, seems far more appropriate.
In the aftermath of the attacks, George W. Bush told us that the blow had been struck by evil men who hated our freedoms. We were told that the perpetrators would be captured dead or alive. Our cause, we were informed, was a crusade. The nation became familiar with the names Osama bin Laden, Taliban, and al Qaeda. We all quickly reminded ourselves where Afghanistan was on the map.
As all of this unfolded, Muslim Americans were beaten and murdered in the streets, their stores vandalized, their places of worship desecrated. Christian leaders laid the blame for the terrorist attacks upon feminists, gays and the ACLU. The rest of us hunkered down and waited for daylight, anticipating the siege but not sure if the walls would hold. They had, after all, so thoroughly failed us on that bright September morning.
The months that have passed whisper a tale almost too bleak to be repeated. The Attorney General stood before Congress to defend the incredible revisions he shepherded into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and claimed that anyone who questioned these actions was either aiding terrorism or was a terrorist themselves. Today, Federal authorities can arrest and detain you without the benefit of a lawyer or a trial if they decide you may be supporting terrorism. These authorities can also enter and search your home, tap your telephone and computer, all without a warrant or notification if they suspect you of supporting terrorism. By Ashcroft's definition, supporting terrorism means questioning the reasons for annihilating two hundred years worth of constitutional protections.
Here is the tally Government may now monitor religious and political institutions without suspecting criminal activity, thus abrogating our freedom of association. Government has closed immigration hearings, holds people without charge, and resists public records requests, thus abrogating our freedom of information. Government has levied veiled and not so veiled threats ("Watch what we say." - Ari Fleischer), and has accused many who criticize the administration of treason, thus abrogating our freedom of speech. Government may monitor conversations between inmate and counsel, and may in many cases deny access to counsel, thus abrogating the right to legal representation. Government may hold people without trial, and deny them the right to face their accusers, thus abrogating the rights to liberty and a speedy trial. This list goes on and on.
The war in Afghanistan has left more innocents dead than the attacks upon New York and Washington combined. That body count has become so extreme that the rank and file in Afghanistan, once grateful for the destruction of the Taliban, has begun to turn upon us in fury. The Taliban regime was shattered, and al Qaeda was scattered, but Osama bin Laden and the henchmen who aided him are still at large. In seven months, between September 2001 and March 2002, bin Laden went from Public Enemy No. 1 to a man of such paltry significance that the Bush administration almost completely refused to speak of him in public. The mastermind remains alive and free while hundreds of Afghans rot in detention centers, uncharged and without trial.
Americans, in the days between then and now, have been introduced to a new kind of terrorism. The names Enron, Harken, Arthur Andersen, Halliburton and WorldCom became familiar in every household that had a retirement stake in the market. These entities dropped massive bombs on Wall Street, burning profit reports and accounting balance sheets into worthless ash, ruining with their shameless criminality the dreams of millions of Americans. We have only begun to reap the whirlwind spun by these white-collar McVeighs.
We don't hear much about them these days, though. The word on everyone's lips now is Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. We are preparing to attack, unilaterally and pre-emptively, another nation. No proof has been offered that Iraq poses a threat to this country. No proof has been offered to tie Iraq to the September attacks. NATO, the European Union and the entire Arab world stand vehemently against any attack. If we go in there with no UN mandate and against the will of the world, we will create the very battle - Islam vs. the West - that Osama bin Laden was hoping for. We will guarantee another day of mega-terrorism on our shores. Along the way we will kill tens of thousands more innocent civilians, and lose many American soldiers.
Someone once said that when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back, and it is there that you discover your nature. We have stared into the abyss in the last year, and have found our nature damning. Covert American dalliances in Afghanistan created, funded and trained the groups that became the Taliban and al Qaeda, starting in 1978 with Zbignew Brzezinski's "Afghan trap" that drew the USSR into invasion. The decisions of that time birthed Osama bin Laden. Covert American dalliances with Iraq birthed Saddam Hussein, whom we armed and funded during the Reagan administration despite his use of chemical weapons on the battlefield against Iran. We made fast friends during the Cold War, and turned on them even faster. That they have turned on us has spawned our common woe.
There once was a dream called America, and it was beautiful indeed. It spoke loudly of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The dream was never fully realized, but the promise implicit in its creation swore that, some day, every day, we would stride in strength towards that more perfect union. So long as one living person holds that dream in their heart, it will never die. Even the horrors of the year we have passed are not strong enough to destroy that dream, and no force from beyond our borders could ever hope to end it. The dream has no borders. It lives in the soul.
The only ones capable of destroying the dream called America are those who live within its warm embrace, those who are motivated by greed and power to act in ways guaranteed to bring fire and ruin down upon us all. The only ones capable of destroying that dream are the citizens, the average folk, who surrender their right to governance to those who value petroleum and profit above life and liberty. The dream is not dead, not yet. But we walk along the keen edge of a knife. One slip, and we shall fall. America will remain, but the dream will be no more.
The world sometimes turns inward on its axis. It can be turned again. Two hundred and twenty six years of democracy cannot be undone in one year, unless we the people let it happen. Another autumn is upon us, its hard blue skies reminding us of everything we fear to speak of. As we remember the year that has passed, a year that has brought so many wrenching changes, we must remember the simple words of Mother Jones.
Remember the dead. Fight like hell for the living.
William Rivers Pitt is a teacher from Boston, MA. His new book, The Greatest Sedition is Silence, will be published soon by Pluto Press.