Thursday, September 13, 2007

9-11 isn't a symbol

“The men on the plane decided to attack the hijackers. They learned what had happened in New York with the other hijacked planes; they figured their lives were lost already. They fought back. What it’s like to swallow your terror and act is beyond the imagination of most ordinary folks - but the point is, they were ordinary folks.” – James Lileks

James Lileks, a favorite author of mine, wrote prolifically in his blog – as he does anyway – in the days following Sept. 11. Observations posted in the heat and gloom of those moments have remained untouched on his Web site; the surprise at hearing an airplane overhead, the way usual office banter seemed nauseatingly trivial. It amazes me how much America has let those feelings pass, returned to the mindless everyday.
It couldn’t have lasted; everything ground to a halt for a few days as people, numb, went through the motions of work and school. But as a nation we spent very little time in shock. Americans – arguably some of the most adaptable people in the world – adapted to the seismic shift and moved on.
Even Soldiers.
Maybe we remember more than the average person; the song “Do You Remember” says “I’ve been there with the Soldiers who’ve gone away to war; you can bet that they remember just what they’re fighting for,” and I hope it’s true. We are in a battle of ideologies which will be to the death, whether we like it or not. Terrorists have shown us in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, England, Spain and Kenya that they are perfectly willing to die for their beliefs. Those of us who enlisted or were commissioned after that fateful day have also laid our lives on the line - but unlike the enemies we face, we’d prefer not to have to do it.
We see coworkers injured and killed regularly by Islamic fundamentalists and militias. We attend memorial ceremonies and wear engraved bracelets and search endlessly for Pfc. Byron Fouty and Spc. Alex Jimenez. We keep faith with Staff Sgt. Keith Maupin and Cpl. Ahmed al-Taiyye, and Lt. Cmdr. Scott Speicher, who ditched his crashing jet over Iraq in 1991. But as we live in detail, fighting on the ground for our buddies, do we forget to think in generalities and remember that our very culture and lifestyle hang in the balance? Or have we let that blur in the background, a memory of “Twin Towers, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bush administration, terrorism, and here I am sweating in a village named something I can’t pronounce”?
We cannot allow the memory of the terrorism being inflicted across the world to get too far from us, to let “9-11” become merely an emblem of something. It isn’t a symbol. Destruction of life and liberty in the name of Islam is an event that will almost certainly happen again.
In the Marine Corps’ Hymn, “the shores of Tripoli” are remembered. That was America’s first skirmish with Islamic terror.
In 1786, after years of paying tribute and ransom for hostages kept by North African countries of the Ottoman Empire, then-ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to negotiate with Tripoli's envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. They asked him by what right he extorted money and took slaves. Jefferson reported to Secretary of State John Jay, and to the Congress: “The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet (Mohammed), that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Muslim who should be slain in battle was sure to go to heaven.”
Congress did not take kindly to this, obviously.
The battle of Derne, in 1805, dealt a stiff blow to Tripoli, and the second Barbary War, in 1815, brought an end to Islamic piracy and hostage-taking. Derne was the first American battle fought on foreign soil, and the fledgling nation proved that it was every bit as capable of overseas operations as the mightiest in the world.
But the Barbary Wars were fought over a few hostages and money, an ocean away. Islamic militancy has struck our own shores – not once but several times – and the American people seem loath to acknowledge that it is truly a war of ideas, of lifestyles.
Initially, when the video of collapsing towers and the flaming Pentagon was everywhere, there was a steely resolve in Americans to fight back. Only six years later, there seems to be a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ refusal to acknowledge the threat that looms to our way of life. The only exceptions are those who have served overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan and seen firsthand the alternative.
Soldiers in Iraq find torture houses and murder victims on a daily basis; people are killed with incredible brutality for the slightest dissent or difference in religious opinion.
People in the United States complain about the criminalization of actions that harm no one, such as a stiff fine for use of marijuana. In Iraq, people are beheaded for having beards that do not conform to Wahhabist standards. Their fingers are cut off for smoking because it is a “Western” habit. They are executed for complaining about criminalization.
There is a moral gap here; there are many shades of grey in morality, but there are also absolute goods and absolute evils. It is to maintain that distinction and to fight those evils – even to the death – that Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have sworn.
The people on United Flight 93 were ordinary folks who took the reins, knowing that their lives were almost certainly forfeit. They fought – unsuccessfully, but by all accounts heroically – anyway.
We, too, are ordinary folks. By choice, we have signed a blank check for “up to and including my life,” payable to the people of the United States. Let us fight heroically.
We are on those planes, too.

No comments: