Unfolding the Map
On this day of remembrance for the heroes and martyrs of September 11, 2001 I do a reflection on where the United States has gone since that tragic day and where it might go. The opinions expressed are mine only. William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) quote is used only as a path to my own reflections. I do not discuss much about Fort Klamath, but offer some links below for your information. Feel free to leave a comment whether you agree or disagree with me, but regardless, let's honor the innocent victims of a horrible act of terrorism. Here's a map to locate Fort Klamath.
"I don't know whether Oregonians generally honk horns or whether they had it in for me, but surely they honked. Later, someone said it was part of the 'Keep Moving, Stranger' campaign. I turned off into the valley at the first opportunity, an opportunity numbered route 62 that ran to Fort Klamath....
"....I stopped at a wooden cafe....In front sat an Argosy landcruiser with an Airstream trailer attached; on top...was a motorboat and on the front and back matched mopeds....I stood amazed at this achievement of transport called a vacation.
"A man with a napkin tucked to his belt came out of the cafe. A plump woman...watched from the cafe.
"'What's up, chum?' the man said.
"We went inside, and I heard the woman whisper, 'His type make me nervous.'
"....I got reviled by people who could afford life at six-miles-per-gallon....After all, they read the papers, they watched TV, and they knew America was a dangerous place."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 1
Fort Klamath, Oregon
The quote today is a long one, and I had to do some manipulating so that it wouldn't be too long. The reason I chose to have such an extensive quote has something to do with the importance of this day, September 11, to many of us.
On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was getting ready to head from my home on Grand Route St. John in New Orleans to the University of New Orleans to teach my class. I was a graduate student, and as I ate and listened to National Public Radio, I heard the announcer say that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Curious, I turned on the television, thinking that I would see that a small plane, such as a Cessna, had flown into the side of the building. The flames and smoke from the tower immediately told me that something much bigger had hit the building. Like everyone else, I watched in rapt fascination as yet another plane hit the second tower, and when I tore myself away and went to school, I heard in the car that yet another plane had hit the Pentagon and a fourth plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. At that point, the announcers were reporting that the United States was under attack through acts of terrorism. At school, I fielded a call from a young woman who was terrified and did not want to come into class because she was afraid that terrorists might get her. I excused her from class, and told her not to worry because terrorists usually attack large crowds or very well-known symbols. Somehow, I knew that day that everything would change.
I was heartened when the world, in the aftermath of the attacks, turned out in force to support the United States. My heart swelled when I read that so many peoples from so many other countries were expressing solidarity with the U.S. and, in the headline of the French paper Le Monde, "We Are All Americans." Perhaps, I thought, the United States will use this opportunity to forge new bonds of friendship, cooperate with other nations, and work together with them toward a common, peaceful and prosperous future that we all seek.
But, it was not to be. The people of the United States turned inward in fear of other terrors out there, and outwardly, the U.S. took a belligerent stance, striking out wherever it smelled the whiff of terrorism. First it was Afghanistan. I watched the cheers of a crowd at a prison rodeo in Louisiana when it was announced that the first cruise missiles had launched into Afghanistan. Then, it was Iraq. Our leaders seemed to have a lineup of countries that they planned to invade in preemptive moves to bring democracy. Studying political science, I knew that tearing down nations and rebuilding them was hard work and could be impossible under certain conditions. I was saddened to see the U.S. reputation suffer, and all the goodwill from most other nations dry up and blow away.
I have also watched as the U.S. has become a nation that seems to be increasingly looking without and within for enemies. A column by Cal Thomas that I read in my local paper on September 9th, 2011 exemplifies this fear. Thomas writes that Americans must observe 9/11 because it is a constant reminder of the countries and entities out there that "hate us," and that are "plotting to attack us again...and again." In the ten years since the terrorist attacks, American citizens are subject to new rules and regulations designed to keep them safe, but which have increased the powers and latitude of our country's law enforcement and military forces. The U.S., in conducting its war against terror, has appeared to compromise some of the very ideals of democracy itself by profiling based on race and religion, capturing and renditioning suspects, using enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, and denying prisoners accused of terrorism basic rights under national and international law.
Why does all of this come to my mind with the above quote? Feelings of being hated and persecuted are woven into the deepest and earliest fabric of this nation. The original settlers arrived in North America with very recent memories of political and religious persecution in the Old World. Even though the South was persecuting a significant portion of it population through slavery, the South always made the argument that it was the persecuted party. Today, a white majority facing the possibility that it will not be a majority within a decade or two, now claims that it is persecuted by illegal immigrants taking jobs and racial minorities getting taking advantage of social welfare policies. Businesses claim that they are persecuted by onerous government regulations. What is overlooked is that often, those claiming the loudest about persecution have been persecutors themselves.
The 20th century international environment cemented in U.S. opinion that there were others out to get us. Some of the threats were real, some were overblown. If it wasn't the Hun in World War I, it was the Nazis and Japanese in World War II. It was the Soviets and Chinese in the Cold War. The enemies recently have been the Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians, Cubans and especially fundamentalist, Islamic Arabs today. Supposedly, all of these entities are spending a lot of time and brainpower trying to bring down the United States.
All of this has coincided with a concern that within society, American are not safe. Children are at risk from pedophiles, women endangered by rapists, ordinary folk by thugs, gangs, or psychotic mass murderers. At the expense of social programs, enforcement has been stepped up and government has turned over the building and running of prisons to corporations to meet a perceived need to house all the criminals in our midst. The most popular solution seems to be the notion that everyone needs to arm themselves so that they can shoot back if fired upon. It's the same idea that drove the violent society of the Old West, with a civilized veneer. If the United States could be encapsulated in one person, it seems to me that this person would be lonely and afraid, holed up in a house, gun pointing out a slightly opened window and ready to fire at anything suspicious but not quite sure that the house he is in is really all that safe.
Yet we seem to partake in actions that do nothing to increase our safety even if it makes us feel better for a little while. We look with suspicion on those who are different, and distrust their motives even though we know little about them. We have marked certain groups and people, in general, as being potentially dangerous and treat them as such. Thus, every Muslim is a potential terrorist, and anyone who questions this generality is treated by some as at best naive and at worst a traitor.
LHM's quote, above, reminds us that we cannot, as a country founded on ideals of freedoms and rights, succumb to such falsehoods. After all, LHM was a long-haired guy in a van that invited suspicion and contempt from an older couple, yet he wrote a piece of literature that is beloved by many today. We invite nothing but polarization in society if we suspect everyone, and as Lincoln very wisely reminded us, "a house divided against itself cannot stand."
E.J. Dionne, also on September 9th, wrote a column that stands in stark contrast to Cal Thomas. Dionne wrote that we should remember the heroes and martyrs of 9/11 on the 10th anniversary of their sacrifices, but that then we should, as a nation, move on. He felt that it is dangerous to build a nation's policies around an horrific event in the past at the expense of the pressing problems that it faces in the present or looking toward the future. He writes that our nation has never been in danger of falling to entities that wish to put a pan-Islamist fundamentalist empire in place. Instead, we are more in danger from the mistake of not remembering what made the United States great in the first place.
I agree. 9/11 should unite us. After all, the victims of 9/11 were a cross-section of American ethnicities, religions (including Muslims), political beliefs, and classes. The terrorists of 9/11 did not warn Muslims to get out of the World Trade Center. They didn't care. We were attacked as a unified, diverse and free nation. If all we learned from 9/11 is to be suspicious of everyone and everything and to always strike before we are struck, then we keep our world dangerous place for ourselves far into the future. Instead, we should, as good democracies do, learn from our experience and take hard and sober looks at our actions. We should honor the heroes and martyrs of 9/11 by being wise in our collective decisions and by continuing to uphold our democratic ideals of freedom, rights and justice. Let's not be the old couple in LHM's quote, convinced completely that the world is a dangerous place, and that others must always be suspected and feared.
If you want to know more about Fort Klamath
Next up: Crater Lake, Oregon