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The Line

June 12, 2013

“If you want peace, first quit fighting.”

-Bunk Johnson

The narrative usually starts on September 11th, 2001. Some people may include the previous year, or maybe when George W. Bush is presented with a file called “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike In US”. But most of the time, it starts on September 11th.

Visitors to our planet may not know the significance of that date. A group of men carried out a plan to take over commercial aircraft and crash them into high-visibility targets. Two of the planes destroyed the World Trade Center, also called the Twin Towers. One plane crashed into the Pentagon, the United States military headquarters. On the fourth plane, stouthearted American heroes sacrificed themselves for the greater good and prevented these men from carrying out their mission.

It was a horrifying event for the United States and for the world. Nearly everyone who was alive on that day can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news. Many people watched the second tower of the World Trade Center destroyed live on their televisions. It was an attack crafted to bring terror to the hearts of Americans, and seemed designed to remind them that their fortress was not impenetrable.

Once the shock had subsided, the reaction changed quickly from grief to outrage. The president went on TV and assured the nation that we would have revenge on these evildoers. We would hunt them to the ends of the earth and make them pay for what they had done. The nation was united in a quest for “justice”.

For many Americans, this is where modern history starts. The quaint domestic troubles of Bill Clinton were a thing of the past. The seventies and eighties are the property of another generation. For many people, anything that happened before the sixties (with the exception of World War II) is boring and irrelevant to the mad automated world we were born into. Everyone, young and old, has begun to mark time in terms of pre-9/11 and post-9/11, with no one willing to concede that the two eras might be connected.

The question everybody asked in the immediate wake of September 11th was “Who?” We knew the what and when, now we just needed to find out who we should focus our hatred on. The answer came quickly and in a matter of months we were an invading force on the other side of the world, determined to exact vengeance on those who had wronged us and those who had protected them. Our advanced military forces made short work of rolling through Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban, a government of religious zealots who had harbored fugitive members of al-Qaeda, the group that had claimed responsibility for the horrific attacks of September the 11th.

America never really bothered to ask why these men, members of al-Qaeda, felt the need to do what they did. “They hate our freedoms,” was the official answer. Not many people followed that up and asked for an explanation. Why do they hate our freedoms? Are they jealous? Do they think we should be more repressed? What aspect of our freedoms do they hate? It didn’t, and still doesn’t, matter to most people what motivated these zealots. They did harm to America and they would be paid back tenfold.

We would need to protect ourselves from these men who hate our freedoms. Military budgets soared. Black-ops proliferated. We expanded our morality to legally include torture and acts of inhumanity.

Saddam Hussein was named as a cohort of these freedom-hating men and the United States government set about explaining the actions it was going to take to the rest of the world. The reason we should invade Iraq, government officials said, is that this man Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. If we don’t stop him now, he could kill us all. With an American flair for the dramatic, General Colin Powell was sent to wave around a vial of anthrax at the United Nations. If me waving this around makes you nervous, imagine how you’ll feel when that mustachioed madman Saddam unleashes it using agents of al-Qaeda to spread terror around the world. Oh, and by the way, if you’re not with us, you’re against us. The world got in line, and in order to keep our country safe, we destroyed someone else’s.

We rolled in with state of the art technology and hubris on our side. We destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq and destabilized the lives of millions of people who had nothing wrong. Sorry, folks, it’s for our safety.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, a lot of people, who remembered a time before September the 11th, began to question some of the decisions the government had made in the aftermath. The war in Afghanistan was far from over and we were starting another one in Iraq. Revelations of torture and unlawful incarceration began to appear. The PATRIOT Act, which made it easier for the government to spy on American citizens and the world, was beginning to seem a little draconian. Don’t worry, folks, it’s for your safety.

Some Americans contended that they liked their morality better than their safety. Others said that they would sacrifice whatever it took to make these bastards pay for what they did. A nation that was so recently united in grief and purpose, fractured down the middle. America became a house divided. The lines that separated conservative from liberal were built into walls.

The government continued to devise ways to protect Americans. They started a program of targeted killing in which unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, bombed targets without putting any American personnel at risk. The accuracy rate is like 50 to 1 but there’re no American casualties, so no need to worry about it. It’s for our safety. In order to fly across the country or even across the state, a citizen should expect a full body scan and to be patted down by a TSA officer. Hey, it’s cheaper than an MRI and if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t need to worry about it. Oh, and also, you can’t be trusted with liquids. Oh, and let me see your shoes. We just need to make every effort to prove you’re guilty before we’ll consider you innocent.

It began to wear on America. The moral compromise, the government that asks its citizens for trust while regularly demonstrating its lack of trust in its own citizens, the ever-rising death toll and the never-ending wars, the collapsing economy, the unstoppable shouting from the morally outraged and those with outrageous morals. It was enough.

In 2008, America elected Barack Obama. He gave many hope and promised change for all. He espoused the “do unto others” mentality that seemed to have been left on the other side of the pre-9/11-post-9/11 divide. We could do better than what we have done and we will do better. That is what America is all about. He was unfathomable to those of us that had been raised in the dark, violent malaise that had dominated the 2000’s. He said what many had long suspected: that we are better than this. The country agreed.

The problem with peddling hope to get elected is that you can’t control it. Disappointment is inevitable. The only way to avoid it is to deliver on the hope you’ve inspired, to follow through on your promises and exceed them. But in the world of politics, it is all about compromises. You must compromise your morals and your own promises in order to get anything done. Of course, it is likely you will have already done so just to get elected. Politics is not about conviction, it is about compromise and if your convictions are only applicable when it’s convenient, then they are worthless.

Barack Obama has made some bumbling attempts to follow through on the promises he made America. His healthcare bill, while noble-minded, has heightened the walls that separate the American conservative and liberal. His efficacy in fixing the economy has been lackluster at best. While he has made efforts to wind down the wars, he has been unsuccessful. He has often promised, but has yet to follow through on closing Guantanamo Bay, which is a military prison on foreign soil, where suspected members of al-Qaeda and similar organizations are kept. Many of the incarcerated have been proven to be innocent but have not been released. The prisoners have protested their treatment by going on hunger strike. The US military has been force-feeding them, a process so cruel that most other civilized nations consider it abhorrent. Revelations over the last year or so of Obama’s presidency paint him as a man with either flexible morals or a man with no idea.

There have been questions about an act of aggression against the United States embassy in Libya and the subsequent handling by the State Department. People uncovering and sharing the secret and often morally questionable actions of the government have been labeled traitors and prosecuted vigorously by the Justice Department, more so than any other government in American history. It would appear that, with or without the administration’s knowledge, the Internal Revenue Service targeted for special review members of the party opposite the sitting president. Under Obama, under his direct control, the program of using UAVs, sometimes called drones, for targeted assassinations of suspected members of Al-Qaeda has proliferated, killing hundreds of people, including children and American citizens.

It was revealed this week that the National Security Agency, the NSA, has been secretly spying on our phone calls and Internet usage. Obama, echoing the previous administration he had promised to take us away from, defended the program saying it was necessary for our safety and those doing nothing wrong would have nothing to worry about. Trust us, folks. We don’t trust you to even make a phone call, but you can trust us. And don’t worry: we’re only targeting foreigners. But, just to be safe, we’re just going to consider you guilty till we can prove you’re innocent.

Which brings us to the start of this little narrative, this simplistic story of the American world. We are told the story starts on September 11th, 2001. 9/11 was a game-changer. Everything changed on 9/11. But it’s not true. The only thing that changed was us and the story didn’t begin on that ill-fated September morning. There was an America before this story started. There was a whole world.

American history started two hundred years ago, a relatively short amount of time in the history of the world. Americans have short memories as a result. We are instructed in global history as it relates to our own nation. There are vast areas of the map beyond the oceans that surround the United States that are so far-removed from the American consciousness that they may as well exist on another planet. Since these distant dark spots on the map don’t even enter the American consciousness, much of our shared history with the rest of the globe is forgotten, or worse, ignored.

America is the self-proclaimed “greatest country on earth”. If you met a person who claimed to be “the greatest person alive” you would either demand proof or you would have a good laugh at the incurable hubris of humanity. The thing about a person that believes that about himself is that he has excused himself from learning, growing, or experiencing humility or empathy. He is already great. He has no need to learn or become better. Of course the stagnant nature of a life so lived automatically excludes him from true greatness. That fact discourages “the greatest person on earth” from introspection or reflection because introspection or reflection might make him aware of his shortcomings and the fact that he not great. When someone attacks the “greatest person”, he never stops to think why they did it, just that he will make them pay for it. His arrogance keeps him from engaging in meaningful dialogue, which in turn keeps him from the ability to dissuade his attacker. The only way through for the “greatest person” is to fight and win to prove his assertions.

America, young as it is, has a history full of questionable morality, the morality you would expect from a nation that calls itself “the greatest country on earth”. From it’s founding, despite whatever noble stories are told, America has compromised its stated principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While espousing high-minded concepts about everyone’s right to be free and to be treated equal, the founders displaced the native population and took their land. They built our nation with slave labor. We have invaded countries; we have stolen states. We have aided those we would later call terrorists; we have overthrown democratically elected governments. We have turned a blind eye to genocides; we have protected brutal dictators. We’ve tortured; we’ve killed. Our political leaders have used wars to win elections and our business leaders have perpetuated slavery into the modern age. We have spied on everyone we can. We’ve killed innocent people without a flutter of guilt. We have behaved, in general, with all the morality and intelligence of a drunken frat boy who also happens to be a psychopath. And this is all in the so-called pre-9/11 world.

So, why? Why would anyone want to harm us? It’s not because they hate our freedoms, is it? It might be as a result of some our behavior. Maybe because of all the horrible things we’ve done to everyone over the years, maybe some of them have begun to hate us and as a result might want to hurt us or kill us or terrorize us. So, what should our response be? Overwhelmingly, the government’s response has been to kill more people, to spy on more people, to torture and imprison more people. That’ll make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

Obviously, that approach has yet to make any advances toward making America safe, despite the fact that we have been made to sacrifice life, liberties and the pursuit of happiness. We have been too busy pursuing revenge. We are perpetuating a world of violence and unrest. Under the auspices of keeping us safe, our government has made the world a much more dangerous place to live, giving people across the globe more and more reasons to hate us. Perpetuating suspicion and fear is not the way to win a war on terror and an olive branch extended in a clenched fist will be regarded with justifiable wariness. America needs to take responsibility for its own actions before we can ever hope to change the actions of others. That might mean reconsidering our flexible morality, our convictions of convenience, and deciding what kind of nation we truly want to be. Is greatness really just the brute strength that the arrogant bully believes it to be? Or is true greatness achieved through humility and forgiveness? Which takes more strength, forgiving or fighting? Which is the harder task, taking responsibility or ignoring the truth? Can America ever live up to the ideals our founders hoped for? Can we?

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