Death By a Thousand 9/11s

September 11, 2021

They say one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. From the perspective of a lowly stormtrooper inside the Death Star, Luke Skywalker and his band of rebel fighters, guided by an archaic religion, were not heroes, but mass murderers. Was the U.S drone strike that targeted ISIS-K in Kabul on August 29th a part of our righteous war on terror or was it a terrorist attack that killed seven children (and no ISIS fighters)? Remember when Bill Maher said, on his show Politically Incorrect, the 9/11 hijackers were not cowards, but those who launch cruise missiles from 2000 miles away were and ABC canned him? Are we even allowed to ask these questions?

Today is not the day to debate whether or not the attacks twenty years ago were terrorism. They most certainly were. If they weren’t, the word has no meaning. Anyone who was alive and old enough to pay attention on September 11, 2001 (and now a quarter of Americans weren’t), felt the terror. I had just flown to Atlanta on 9/10 for my 20th high school reunion and my dad woke me up in time for me to see the second plane slam into the World Trade Center. I remember saying out loud, “What the hell is happening?” as Peter Jennings attempted to translate the untranslatable. It was about to get worse. Much worse.

The U.S. government defines terrorism as, ““the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85). Much of my work is built around the description of hate crimes as acts of terrorism. Why do we not think of the 9/11 attacks as merely 2,977 murders? Because all Americans were the targets. I had a friend from college who was in Tower 1. Osama bin Laden didn’t know about him, or have anything against him personally. (Three of my former Emory classmates were killed in the New York attacks.) He was a random target, a death meant to intimidate a larger civilian population. And it worked. It was several months after 9/11 before I could enter a tall building or drive over a Portland bridge without thinking of a passenger plane crashing into it.

Hate crimes work the same way. Like the victims of 9/11, targets are randomly selected for their symbolic value, to coerce others like the targets that they aren’t wanted here. Leave. A burning cross, a gay bashing, a swastika on a synagogue, all meant to terrorize large populations. After the 9/11 attacks hate crimes against American Arabs and Muslim (and people perceived to be Arab and/or Muslim) increased 500%. Four days after the attack a Sikh named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot in the head in a gas station in Mesa, Arizona by a white male who claimed he seeking revenge for the 9/11 attacks. Not only were Arab and Muslim-Americans living in fear, but so were Sikhs and others. (Here in Portland, an Italian man was beaten by three teenagers after the attacks because he was perceived to be Middle Eastern.) 2001 wasn’t an anomaly. Just this week, data released but the FBI revealed that hate crimes increased dramatically in 2020. Who is terrorizing whom?

On this sad occasion, I’m reminded of how the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton Administration tried to falsely pin 9/11 on Saddam Hussein, leading to the invasion of the wrong county, a protracted and completely unnecessary war that was responsible for the death in over 4000 U.S. troops, and over half a million Iraqi men, women, and children killed. But we were the ones fighting terrorism. We couldn’t possibly be the terrorists. Could we?

I visited Ground Zero the summer following the attack and I could still smell the dust of all the souls who had been atomized on that Tuesday in September. I’ve been to New York at least a dozen times since then and always notice what’s not there and what is. My recurring 9/11 dreams were central to my 2016 novel, The Dream Police. At the 9/11 memorial when I see the names of the victims who were pregnant women, I can’t help but convulse and every trip I make to Washington DC, I have a moment when I wonder what would have happened if the fourth plane had hit its intended target, the U.S. Capitol building. I carry this as trauma as does every American, to varying degrees, who remembers that day.

But we also carry the trauma of all the other acts of terrorism, many done in our name or done by people who look like us against people who don’t look like us. We’ve become blasé to the trauma and really good at rationalizing the traumatizing of others. We’ve become masters at dehumanizing the “other.” They see us as “infidels” and we see them as “fanatics.” They see us as “libtards” and we see them as “Nazis.” Nobody is just a human being capable of love and redeemable imperfection. If you told members of the radical right or the radical left they could push a button to launch a drone strike to wipe out the other side, the air would be filled robots on their death trips.

Trauma requires healing and there has been a lot of healing in the last 20 years. New Yorkers are resilient. The passengers on Flight 93 showed great courage in the face of their own deaths. And the work of the war machine that launches drone strikes into wherever continues at the Pentagon. But the healing is hampered by all the other terror we inflict on each other. An open wound never truly heals.

I will never forget that day. The confusion of wondering if it was real or a movie. The image of people choosing to jump rather than burn. The realization that the world would never be the same. But I will also never forget a lot of other things, including what happened in a Mesa, Arizona gas station four days after the attack and what happened two weeks ago in Kabul. Never forget any of it.

The Man Way: The stupidity of fighting terrorism with more terrorism

July 6, 2016

I don’t know who first said, “War is terrorism with a bigger budget,” but it seems profound these days. Smart bombs away! Boys love war. They’ll lead wars against poverty, against crime and drugs.  And don’t forget the war against terrorism. All of which have been miserable failures. And yet boys think more war is the answer.

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When I was a boy, I loved war too. I played with G.I. Joe and my plastic machine gun. I did school reports on Sherman tanks and studied the dogfights of World War 1 pilots. I watched John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Green Berets. Like John, we boys played Vietnam War in the Georgia woods, only this time we won. I wondered what war I would fight in when I grew up. I imagined I’d be an Air Force pilot, safe above the clouds as I dropped bombs on the faceless enemy below. When I was 16, Ronald Reagan was elected on the promise of more and better wars and my testosterone pumped. Iran, Afghanistan, maybe even Mother Russia herself. But suddenly the 4 O’clock movie started to look like a reality and I began to have second thoughts about the thrill of war.

Then I grew up. In college I read Gandhi and Martin Luther King and The Gospel According to Matthew. And my love of war began to fade.  I met some of those soldiers I had romanticized and the dream of war became a nightmare. Over the years all the warriors I’ve met have told me tales of dead friends, sleepless nights, long waits at the VA, and 4th of July fireworks triggering PTSD. I haven’t met John Wayne once, just men and women who need support in managing the effects of politicians playing soldier.

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So you will excuse me if Mr. Trump’s talk of “bombing the shit out of ISIS” just makes me want to puke. We’ve dropped countless bombs on the middle east and people are still being killed by terrorists in cafés and nightclubs. The war in Afghanistan is in its fifteenth year and the place doesn’t look that much different than when we showed up in 2001.  And today we learn that 8400 US troops will remain in Afghanistan in the war without end. (But war profiteers have made billions of dollars so don’t expect it to end any decade soon.) George W. Bush’s (and Tony Blair’s) idiotic invasion of Iraq that opened the door for ISIS and Obama’s “clean” drone strikes in the region have only made us less safe while funneling trillions of dollars out of the American economy. Do you think those dudes sing along when they hear Mavin Gaye ask “What’s going’ on?” Maybe they just giggle at the “War is not the answer” part.

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The Obama administration released a report last week about civilians killed in drone attacks in Africa, Yemen, and Pakistan. They believe that between 2372 and 2581 “enemy combatants” were killed between 2009 and 2015. We trust that these “enemy combatants” were sociopathic terrorists who want to blow up shopping malls in Kansas and not kids who were forced into someone else’s jihad. For the same period, the administration estimates that between 64 and 116 non-bad guys (men, women, children, doctors, aid workers, etc.) were accidentally killed by our drones. Investigative journalists think that count may be ten times higher. And this does not include civilian deaths from the drone strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria that are a daily terror. By the way, the going price for a remote controlled MQ-9 Reaper drone is $12, 548,710.60. (The 60 cents is for the pine scent.) And we wonder why we can’t “afford” free college or health care.

I think if I was a young man in Yemen and one of those 116 “non-enemy combatants” killed was my child, I might be a little angry. In fact, when I found out my child was killed by some American sitting in an air-conditioned office in Colorado, manning a flying robot bomb with a joystick, I’d want revenge. I’m like that. I’d find Al-Qaeda or ISIS, or whoever was screaming the loudest in my village and ask what I could do to strike back against these terrorists. Strap a bomb to my chest and walk into a crowded European airport? No problem. And I get to see my child again. I want them to hurt the way I’ve been hurt. It’s the cycle of pain that war perpetuates and we are all guilty.

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It’s easy to talk about how Presidents Bush and Obama and Prime Minister Blair (and Secretary Clinton) have blood on their hands, but there’s plenty of blame to go around as we fan the flames of war in somebody else’s backyard. We don’t want to be accused of not “supporting the troops” as a another generation of young warriors gets sent into the meat grinder only to become the next generation of old vets standing on an offramp asking for spare change.  They’re keeping us free, right? Why should we stop that?

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So that brings us to Mr. Trump. After the mass shooting in Orlando, Trump renewed his calls for an all-out ban on Muslims entering the U.S.. Omar Mateen, the shooter, was born in Queens, New York, just like Trump, so I’m not sure what his ban would have accomplished. He repeatedly tells his crowd that his strategy will be to “bomb the hell out of them” and his sub-moronic loyalists scream in approval. The problem is the recent attackers in Turkey and Bangladesh (and Orlando and San Bernardino) did not come from the battlefields of Syria. Like Mateen, they were most likely radicalized online. So I guess Trump’s plan is to bomb the hell out of every Muslim with a laptop or a smartphone. Gee, I wonder what the unintended consequences of that type of genocidal violence might me.

Do you think President Trump might end up creating more terrorists than he kills? You could make the case that lesson should have been learned by Bush, Blair and Obama. Oh, never mind. His fans love war. Trump is John Wayne! More bombs! That’s the answer! Today, a sister of one of the British soldiers killed in Iraq called Blair, “the world’s worst terrorist.” Tony has some competition for that honor. (4,486 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq.) Maybe President Trump can win that title. Winning!

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Of course, Trump wants to make this about Islam and not the conditions that push young men into war. (Our war on their terrorism or their war on our terrorism.) The attacks this week in Saudi Arabia should prove that ISIS is not a real Islamic organization any more than the KKK is a real Christian organization. What could be more anti-Muslim than blowing up Muslims in Medina on Ramadan? (Wait, is ISIS a Trump front?)

Scholars have described the bulk of the rank and file members of these jihadi groups as being either illiterate or barely literate. They’re not reading the Koran; somebody is telling them what it says. Sort of like that backwoods Pentecostal preacher telling some hill person that dancing with a poison snake will make Jesus happy (and killing gay people is God’s will). You don’t stop their anger at the world with more bombs.

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“So what are we supposed to do, Professor Blazak?” Here’s the part you don’t want to hear. Terrorism is a complex issue, with a lot of moving parts (including a military part). But in an election year,  Americans want simple, bite-size solutions. Most could care less about the difference between Sunni and Shia followers of Islam. Just bomb the hell out of all of them. Am I right? Maybe not. Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the face by the Taliban, famously said, “With guns you can kill terrorists. With education you can kill terrorism.” But what does that kid know? And old guy in rural Georgia knows that our bombs can beat their bombs. “More war! (As long as I don’t have to go,)” he bleats.

Look, can we have a moment of national honesty? We’ve finally admitted that the War on Drugs was a horrible waste of lives and tax dollars. Republicans and Democrats actually have some agreement on this. Can we just admit the war on terrorism is sucking the soul of America dry and making the world less safe with every “smart” bomb we drop. Are we ready for a permanent state of world war or are we intelligent enough to imagine a more effective strategy? Just maybe war is the problem, not the solution. The answer is probably not going to come from a boy (or a girl who acts like a boy). I might listen to Malala. Just sayin’. War is over, if you want it.

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