September 9, 2003

When Looking Back, Remember to Look Where You’re Going

For the second year the date of awful remembrance is approaching. The day that for all of us alive today will never be just an ordinary date. September 11th is coming around again.

But the anniversary this year is very different than last year’s. For one thing we’d fought a big war in Iraq—are still fighting it. A war that we would have not have fought had 9/11 never happened. But on the other hand, this year’s memorializing will also be different because we are much further from that nightmare morning in 2001.

For most of us those horrible events are less present than they were a year ago. The intensity has faded. And the memories of 9/11 are becoming simply memories.

Kurt Andersen
Studio 360

So right. A year ago I was planning a memorial across from the Pentagon. This year the dread of the oncoming anniversary is gone. Instead I’ve had to work just a little to keep it in the forefront of my mind. The memories are indeed becoming more distant memories. But their effects are far from simple.

Tristan Louis asks “Who were you before and who are you now?” It’s a natural question at this point. Enough time has passed to begin to absorb the meaning of 9/11.

I am much more concerned about the future than I used to be. Looking back has forced me to look ahead. President Bush’s “Iraq Nam” and more precisely his foreign policy of American dominance has become a lightening rod for criticism and praise, both domestically and abroad. Through these reactions I have been able to observe how the rest of the world sees us and how we respond as a people. The Net has directly connected me with opinions I might have otherwise missed. Technology has brought me closer to the conflict (in the relative safety of my cocoon) and closer to others I would never have been able to converse with. The world has become both a larger and a smaller place.

The world is also much more dangerous than it used to be —and not only a result of malcontents outside America. This isn’t entirely true, of course. The world could be pretty dangerous before 9/11. Part of the challenge in post-9/11 America is separating real dangers from perceived ones. I’ve become more sensitized to the information I receive from our politicians, the Net, and other media. And I’ve learned to question its form and veracity.

Secrecy and less-than-honest answers in the name of national security can be dangerous. President Bush finally admitted to the nation on Sunday how difficult and expensive (both in fiscal and human terms) policing post-war Iraq will be. But hiding a truth he’s known for so long (and one very apparent to many citizens) only undermines the President’s credibility.

We’re still looking for Weapons of Mass Destruction and now we’ve been asked to “sacrifice” just $87 billion more to the cause. How much does his Administration really think this campaign will end up costing? When can we expect to see results from this investment? Does the President really believe an American-style democracy is possible in Iraq?

Condoleezza Rice stated the President’s most recent request should be “enough” to bring democracy to Iraq, but I just don’t believe it (money can’t buy everything). When I invest in something I require straight and honest answers before handing over the cash. This Administration’s record is so abysmal in disclosing accurate information to the American people, there is reason to be genuinely concerned about our country’s future.

The US Patriot Act, signed into law by Bush 45 days after 9/11 gives the Executive branch of the government very broad powers to fight terrorism. People on both the Left and the Right are concerned this law is curtailing people’s civil rights.

Yet the paradox of this debate is that it is playing out in a near-total information vacuum: By its very terms, the Patriot Act hides information about how its most contentious aspects are used, allowing investigations to be authorized and conducted under greater secrecy.

Amy Goldstein
The Washington Post

The American institution of “checks and balances,” which is at the very foundation of our country’s political system, cannot operate in this vacuum. Secrecy is preventing us from knowing how this law is being used. Special secret courts, in which the burden of proof is lower than in criminal courts, handle Justice Department surveillance and wiretap requests. Information on its procedures is classified (even to Congress) and abuses are hard to monitor. And John Ashcroft doesn’t think the law is powerful enough.

The media, in part, molds our sense of security And it’s often difficult to deconstruct its influence. After realizing I was in a much better mood when I didn’t read the morning paper, in April of this year I did an impromptu analysis of the first section of the Washington Post. I listed every story in one of three categories: depressing (22), interesting (3), and uplifting (1). The depressing list outnumbered the other two by wide margins. The nightly news warns us every day of new dangers emanating from al Queda to bacteria. Our media is as responsible for defining our post-9/11 world as are our politicians.

Living in Washington, DC we’ve become “accustomed” to 9/11 level traumas, from anthrax to suburban snipers. And I’ve learned to subscribe to something I call pragmatic paranoia. I listen carefully to the information I’m getting and take measured precautions that filter for these media and political distortions. I formulate my opinions and make security decisions by gathering information from many different sources. Harkening back to my 1960s upbringing, I question authority (while not automatically dismissing it). Those in power may have greater access to covert information than I have. But they don’t necessarily know how to respond to it any better than I do. Ultimately, my family’s safety is my personal responsibility.

If you want an excellent “no spin” primer on living in a post-9/11 world read Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World by Bruce Schneier. No duct tape required, Mr. Ashcroft.

We need creative leaders. Terrorism is a real problem. But Bush’s “good verses evil” unilateral approach is, at best, inappropriate for these times. It does nothing to insure our longevity. It represents a false sense of security. And Congressional politics, which places Party partisanship ahead of constituents’ interests, impedes our progress. Thinking outside the box to find new solutions while safeguarding our freedoms binds our past with our future. Like it or not, the terrorists of 9/11 are forcing us to rewrite this book.

On September 10th I will be attending a reception to to mark the formal acceptance of the September 11 Digital Archive into the Library of Congress’ collections. My 9/11 Storytelling project, Dichotomy: It Was a Matter of Time and Place is part of this archive.

On September 11th I will be watching two films I’ve collected since 9/11: the 1950s sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still and the French film Amelie. After 42 years, Klaatu’s departing words to an Earth on the brink of destroying itself still resonate. And Amelie’s quest for love reminds me that thinking outside the box should be revered in this culture, not the object of disdain and dismissal as is often the case.

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