A few minutes after 9:00 AM on September 11, I was getting ready to start writing for the day. An announcer came on the radio between songs, sounding a bit shaken, to say there'd been a terrible accident in New York City -- an airplane just crashed into the World Trade Center.
No details, just that. An airplane. Crash. The WTC.
I thought two things so close to simultaneously that I have never since been able to say which thought came first: Airplane; something small, say a Cessna, maybe a Piper Cub; Arab terrorists. Damn, but they've got it in for the WTC, I thought. How did I jump to that conclusion? Somehow I knew air traffic control didn't allow aircraft to fly close to the NYC skyscrapers, so it had to be deliberate rather than pilot error. Arab terrorists already tried to blow up the WTC once and have made other threats against it, so that was an easy conclusion to jump to.
The announcer came back after the next song to say it was something big, maybe a 737.
I've flown on 737s. They aren't big as airliners go, but they're a lot bigger than Cessnas. I started paying closer attention, mentally urging the radio to stop playing music and give more information. They did after the next song: Another airplane crashed into the other tower.
I switched to an NPR station, figuring they'd have coverage. They did for a short while. Long enough for me to hear about a 757 and a 767, long enough to jolt me with news of the crash into the Pentagon. Damn, they're serious, I thought then.
It wasn't long before I spun the dial all the way over to Channel 6, which in Philadelphia is ABC. I live in the central city and don't have cable. TV reception is abysmal, so I get network news on the radio. There was Peter Jennings giving details.
I spent the next week pretty much glued to ABC, and CNN on the internet, learning as much as I could about this act of war. For some time I was simply boggled by the sheer enormity of that monstrous act, my mind couldn't grasp it. Fury started creeping in, and once it got there, it grew. I've been to war, I know what it's like, it's horrible beyond anything else in the human experience. I really need to hate someone to wish war on them. I wished war on whoever was responsible for that heinous act. Eventually my fury ebbed. I still wish war on those responsible and everyone who supports or aids them. I want them dead.
All right, now we know who was responsible and we're making war on them. Two questions remain: Why did they attack us; how will our culture and lives be changed? I've heard a few answers to the first question and find them flawed.
U.S. policy in the Mideast has frequently been cited as a reason for Arab hatred of the United States, specifically our support of Israel in its oppression of the Palestinians.
Say what? Somebody, please correct me if I'm wrong, but I see that situation totally differently. America has repeatedly brokered cease fires between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Every cease fire has soon been violated by the Palestinians -- if it wasn't totally ignored from the beginning. Then we urge the Israelis not to retaliate, but to give the cease fire a chance to work. How are we supporting Israel in its "oppression" of the Palestinians? It seems evident to me that nothing we can do in that situation short of helping the Palestinians destroy Israel would be acceptable.
One of the stated problems in Israel is control of Jerusalem. The Arabs want control of Jerusalem because the Dome of the Rock is the third most sacred place in the Islamic world. So? The Israelis don't desecrate the Dome of the Rock, they don't prevent Moslem pilgrims from visiting it and praying there. On the other hand, Jerusalem is the most sacred place in the Jewish world. Weigh that one: If posession is the question, which should have primacy, third most sacred or first most sacred?
In the first days after the WTC act of war, President Bush used the word "crusade" to describe how America would go after the terrorists and their supporters. Osama bin Laden and his supporters jumped on that word. If you listen to them, the West has been oppressing and trying to destroy the Islamic World (let's be honest here and say what they really mean, the "Arab" world) ever since we started hostilities in the Crusades. Please note, there is an important difference between "a crusade" and "the Crusades."
Now what say we indulge in a little fact checking?
First, the ostensible purpose of the Crusades -- there were several of them between the 11th and 14th Centuries -- was to free the "Holy Land" from Islamic control, to return the most sacred places in the Christian world to Christian control. Gee, there we are again, first most sacred vs third most sacred. Hmmm... While the Crusaders were able to capture Jerusalem a few times and even hold it for a few years, the Arabs won all of those wars. This is oppression and destruction of Islam by the West? Not very good at it, are we?
Second, the European Christians (today's West) didn't start the armed conflict with the Moslems. Mohammed founded Islam in the early 7th Century. A mere century later, after having spread (unlike Christianity, which was spread in its first centuries by proselytization, Islam was initially spread by military conquest) through all of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, the "Moors" invaded and conquered all of Spain and part of France. After being driven out of France, they continued to rule the Iberian Peninsula for nearly a millennium. Following the Crusades, the Ottoman (Islamic) Empire invaded Europe from the other side -- the Balkans. The Ottomans controlled the Balkans until their defeat in World War I. Only after WWI did the European colonial powers take over and rule the Arab world, which they set free after less than a half century of colonial rule. So who's got the major history of trying to destroy who?
Additional fact: America was never one of the colonial powers that ruled the Arab world.
What other reasons have I heard? Let's see. How about rich America oppresses the poor Islamic countries to keep them poor and subservient.
Could have fooled me. The United States, Europe, Japan, and many other countries pour billions of dollars per year into Arab countries and Indonesia, also part of the Islamic World, to buy petroleum. We pour more hundreds of millions of dollars in aid into Islamic countries that don't have oil wealth. If the oil money isn't spreading out enough to raise the average Achmed-on-the-Street out of poverty, it seems to me the fault lies with the few who control the oil wealth and use the money to live in princely splendor, not with the countries that buy the oil. If the aid isn't reaching Achmed-on-the-Street, maybe we shouldn't be giving it because it isn't going where it's supposed to go.
But, you know, I have a lot of trouble with the idea that the average Achmed-on-the-Street hates the West in general and America in particular. If he did, tens of millions of Arabs and other Moslems wouldn't be so anxious to emigrate to America or Europe. Life as a minimum wage convenience store clerk in the U.S. is so much better than it was back at home.
Hmmm. Achmed-on-the-Street doesn't hate us. Then who does? "The true believers," religious fanatics. They say we are materialistic, soft, and evil. Here, simplistically, is how that works:
Even though on the surface we are relatively hedonistic and quite wrapped up with material possessions, on a very deep level we believe in people. Have you ever noticed that religious fanatics insist that God is to be feared? Look at that for a moment. If God is good and just, what is there to fear? Unless you're evil. Evil people have every reason to fear a good and just God. But religious fanatics believe people are intrinsically evil, people who don't fear God are the most evil, and evil people must be destroyed lest they contaminate those who fear God and stop them from reaching heaven. We believe in freedom, particularly freedom of choice, the freedom to make one's own decisions. We may think someone else's decisions are stupid, ill-informed, self-destructive, or just plain wrong, but we respect their right to make those decisions. To religious fanatics, freedom of choice is anathama. There is only one way, they say. The more fanatic the believer, the narrower and harsher the way. People who are free, who have choices, can expose the fanatics for the hollow, repressive shells they are. People who are free and can choose for themselves serve as an example to others that they don't have to obey the restrictive dictates of the fanatics.
That's what it is about. We are free, and freedom threatens their control over others.
Now to the question of how our lives and our culture will change.
During the first weeks after the attack you couldn't tune into a news broadcast without hearing that our lives were changed forever by it. Everytime I heard that I thought, No they aren't.
On reflection, I've changed my mind. We've got a change under way, and it's definitely a change for the worse: Travel security.
Once upon a time, we had a relatively minor problem with airplane hijacking. I say relatively minor because it wasn't a daily, weekly, or even monthly occurance. The odds against any given flight being hijacked weren't an awful lot worse than the chances of that airplane crashing. But people were upset about it, so some security measures were instituted. Passenger access to the cockpit was eliminated. Metal detectors were installed in airports, you couldn't get on your flight without going through one. The Federal government hired sky marshalls to fly anonymously. None of these measures were intrusive, and they didn't cost much, but they were effective in putting a stop to hijacking.
Then a baggage handler in Frankfurt, Germany put a bomb on an airplane that then exploded over Scotland. New security measures were instituted: Passengers on domestic flights in the U.S. were required to produce photo ID before boarding, and only ticketed passengers were allowed beyond the metal detectors.
Beg pardon? You lost me there. How will making passengers show photo ID before boarding domestic flights prevent baggage handlers overseas from planting bombs on airplanes?
Not only is having to show photo ID intrusive (not everybody has a drivers license or other government-issue photo ID), it doesn't even work. Most of the nineteen hijackers on September 11th used their own real ID -- and several of them were on lists issued by the FBI or INS!
Allowing only ticketed passengers beyond the metal detectors is simply petty. It means good-byes have to be said in crowded corridors instead of the more spacious waiting areas, and travelers have to spend that last half hour or hour alone instead of with friends or family. No way on earth is this going to keep a hijacker off an airplane or prevent a baggage handler from planting a bomb.
Now they want photo ID to board a train. The next time I travel I'm going to carry one of my books and use the author photo in it as ID. I wonder if that'll get me on the train?
"What's Sherman ranting about this for," you wonder. Glad you asked.
It starts with the America I grew up in. I watched a lot of World War II movies on TV and went to a lot of Cold War movies in theaters. WWII movies about the OSS or partisans in Europe all had a major concern: The Gestapo. There was a chilling moment (or more than one) in everyone of those movies when the obviously very nasty Gestapo agents went through trains or randomly stopped people on the street to demand, "Your papers, please." Anyone with suspect identification and travel documents was subject to immediate arrest as a spy. CIA, MI5, or other spies behind the Iron Curtain were equally subject to random ID and travel document checks and arrest by the GRU, NKVD, or whoever.
All that checking and arresting was done by the Nazis and Commies. You know. The bad guys.
I was so proud to be an American. Unlike the bad guys, we were free to travel anywhere we wanted in our own country. We never had to prove who we were, we never had to get permission from the government to go anywhere. We didn't need government approval to move away from where we lived and take up residence and a get new job anywhere else in the country.
Today we have to prove who we are to get on an airplane or a train. How soon will we have to show ID to get on a bus? Are travel documents beyond a ticket next?
The terrorists are turning us into the bad guys. That's how they're changing our lives. That I cannot forgive.
One last comment. All of this is in the name of "security." One of the hallmarks of a free people is, a free people are not fully secure. Slaves and prisoners are secure -- secure from outside assault, but not free from their masters. I don't want to be in danger when I travel, but I am less willing to be held prisoner by my own government.
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