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.

Donald Trump’s Uncivil War on American Values and Human Decency

January 30, 2017

There’s been so much to write about in this new year, but last Friday’s immigration ban from Donald Trump was a call to arms to everyone in this country (and across the globe) who cares about the core values of American freedom and decency. Fortunately, thousands of Americans quickly flooded airports across the country to protest the ban and defend those trying to legally enter the country. Within twelve hours of Trump’s executive order, five federal judges (four who were female) struck down the provisions that detained individuals and families (including children) in several American airports. Many people are still stuck in limbo, but the pressure is on the goon squads.

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When he was on the campaign trail, I wrote more than one piece about how Trump represents a slippery slope toward fascism. A lot of mainstream folks poo pooed the seemingly alarmist concern. After he won the electoral college, his cabinet appointments, a motley crew of seemingly incompetent millionaires and Wall Street billionaires, began to worry voters. What does it mean when Rick Perry is the most shovel-ready guy in the room? And a waiver to have a non-civilian run the Department of Defense was certainly cause for concern. Then his dark inauguration address, where he painted a bleak picture of a ruined nation (actually in a bright economic recovery) brought a chill to all but the most gung-ho Trumpists. His “America first” refrain brought to mind for many another nationalist in Europe about 84 years ago. The silver lining was that Trump was coming in to record low approval ratings. The tide was already turning against him.

Friday’s executive order stopped cold immigration to the US from seven Muslim nations where no terrorists have actually come from. It excluded all the nations the 9/11 attackers came from (like Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and where Trump has significant business dealings. This meant that Syrian families escaping the hell in Aleppo are to be turned back, much like how we turned away Jews fleeing Hitler in the 1930s. Is this who we are as a nation?

That question is important.

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One of the people detained at JFK Airport (in handcuffs) was an Iraqi named Hameed Khalid Darweesh. He worked for the US government in Iraq for ten years as a translator at great risk to himself and his family. He was promised that for this sacrifice he would be granted a visa to emigrate to the United States. That was before Donald Trump arrived and killed all those agreements with our allies in the Muslim world. He reneged on America’s deal with Darweesh like he’s reneged on so many deals he’s made in the business world. But this betrayal has global impacts. Who in the Middle East will want to work with us now? (Is Trump for Russia and ISIS?) I think of the great shame America carries for all its broken treaties with Native Americans. How will history rank the shame we will inherit from the Trump Administration? Is this who we are as a nation?

It’s clear that the grown-ups have been kicked out of the White House. This executive order was probably the work of alt-right guru Steve Bannon and not any sane people in the State Department. Trump’s dismantling of the National Security Council was labeled as “stone cold crazy” by former National Security Advisor Susan Rice. His promotion of torture as an effective way to fight terrorism (when all evidence shows the contrary) rattled even his hand-picked generals. Besides the fact that all of this makes us less safe, is this who we are as a nation? This chaos?

The seeds of Civil War II

Just like Brits who regretted Brexit immediately after voting for it, there are scores of Americans who have had second thoughts about their vote for this madman. They were there with the millions who participated in the Women’s March and they were also some in the airports Saturday night demanding the release of immigrants who had followed all the rules. The civil rights movement was greatly energized by whites marching arm in arm with blacks in the 1960s. The anti-Trump movement to restore America is going to require conservatives joining progressives to try to make America great again. We will need our Republican brothers and sisters in this struggle.

The danger is in the fact-free environment that Trump and his alt-right cronies have fostered. There’s a certain chunk of the population that is easily manipulated by pressing a few racist buttons. They were the chumps that thought President Obama wasn’t legitimately American because Trump said so and they are the chumps that think crime by “illegal aliens” is a significant threat, despite the actual facts. Trump has said that he will publish a weekly list of crimes by “aliens” (which would include legal resident aliens, like my wife), stoking the fear mongering, negating the legitimate fact that most offenses in this country are committed by white male citizens. Facts don’t matter when fear of “the other” rules the day. This how fascism works.

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As more Americans come out to defy the unconstitutional and unAmerican actions of Donald Trump, how will his loyal cult respond to the assault on their Dear Leader’s campaign to remake America in his image? The great hope is that we can convince them that he is bat-shit crazy and a danger to the core values all of us share, even the guy who only listens to Lee Greenwood records. But there are a bunch of Trumpies that are even more bat-shit crazy than our celebrity president and they have a lot of guns. They live in Trump’s land of wacky conspiracy theories and think “real America” is closer to the empty wilderness of Wyoming than the world millions of citizens on the east and west coasts live in. And they are ready to fight with God and his orange son on their side.

Trump has divided this country in a way that makes national unity now seem like a far off dream. All he needs is one terrorist attack (real or contrived) or one heinous crime by an immigrant (real or contrived) to take the next step in his clampdown. He’s already floated the idea of immigrants turning over their social media accounts to the Feds, as well as just “closing up” the internet. No wonder Amazon has sold out of George Orwell’s 1984. We are living in a dystopia.

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The demagoguery has proven Trump cares more about his ego than the survival of the nation. From his obsession with the crowd size at his coronation to his inability to get off of unsecured communication platforms like Twitter (Does anybody remember Hillary’s emails?) and now to this gift-wrapped present he just handed ISIS, it’s clear he could give a rat’s ass about national security. Let’s just hope the NSA was smart enough to give him fake launch codes for our nuclear arsenal. Trump is rapist Alex in A Clockwork Orange who will lead his moronic droogs into a war against the rest of us just to prove his hands aren’t that small.

It gets personal

This is just beginning. Out of this weekend’s chaos came the message that people from these seven Muslim nations with green cards shouldn’t expect to be admitted back into the country if they leave. That means, if your mother in Somalia is sick, you can’t visit her because the Trump kakistocracy thinks you might be a terrorist instead of a concerned child. And if you are student from Iran studying at an American university, you better hide in your dorm room for the next four years. (Again, no terrorist attacks in the United States have been committed by anybody from these countries.) Trump has stated his list of seven countries could be widened and what nation does he hold the most disdain for? Mexico.

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There are over one million lawful permanent residents in the US, known as green card holders, and 13% are from Mexico. That includes my wife who got her green card in 2010. We enjoy our trips to Mexico to see her family and immerse our daughter in her Latin heritage. I also teach a summer college course on a beautiful Mexican island each summer. If Trump widens his enemy nation list, that could all change. It’s already changing.

Reports are coming in of plainclothes ICE agents lurking in court houses looking for any potential “illegal” they can detain. Across America, immigrant communities from Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Libya are in lockdown, off the streets, for fear that Trump’s gestapo will come knocking; afraid to leave the house, let alone the country. Many of these people went through the absolute extreme of human suffering to find sanctuary here in the land of the free. Additionally, Latino immigrants are now being told by bosses not to complain about working conditions or pay or be reported to ICE. Middle-eastern immigrant kids are being told by bullies (and some teachers) that their parents are terrorists and are going to be kicked out of the country. Trump’s crackdown on “sanctuary cities” has already violated the 10th Amendment (see Printz v. United States, 1997), but the wave of fear will have countless casualties before the issue is re-argued before his stacked Supreme Court. This is not America.

The good news is the freedom-loving world has condemned Trump’s fascistic chaos. The images of refugee children dying to escape actual carnage (not Congressman John Lewis’s wonderful 5th district in Atlanta) are forever burned in our memories. Real American Christians are strong in the opposition along with every other demographic who wants to stand up to this insanity, this anti-American obscenity. Unfortunately, this call to the defense of basic human decency is happening as his cult rips the country into bits. Is this who we are as a nation?

Americans cannot wait until this lunatic destroys our great nation. He must be condemned and removed now. For the sake of all that is sacred to us.

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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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