9/11, Seven Years On
September 11, 2001, came during the year I lived in Australia, and on that day I was helping my brother paint his house. Even now I feel pangs of guilt when I remember seeing the surreal, agonizing spectacle of the two smoking towers on my brother's television.
It doesn't make any sense, since I would have been in Arizona, thousands of miles from New York, if I had stayed in the US. But there it is: the feeling people say they get when they return to work from a vacation and find that during their absence, a co-worker died in an accident. A vague feeling that you should have been there and taken part in the grim lottery.
Sometimes, when I think of the people who were murdered that day, I feel a great weight of sadness. And sometimes I go to Legacy.com and read brief profiles of the dead. I find that grieving for a few individuals is more cathartic than gnashing my teeth for the faceless 3,000. Here's a few of the profiles I reviewed last night:
Some people say Rose Riso saved 39 lives on Sept. 11. Others say it was 184. Diane Fattah knows she is alive now because of Ms. Riso, a senior tax auditor at the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, where she took her responsibilities as fire warden seriously.
"When we used to have fire drills, she would put the little red hat on and the whistle and get out the flashlight, that's how she was," Ms. Fattah said. And Joyce DeSantis, another co-worker, said, "You'd get that look if you passed remarks during fire drills."
Their office was in the south tower, the second to be hit. On Sept. 11, after the first strike, "Rose told us we all had to get out and all had to get out now," Ms. Fattah said. "This building was going to be loaded with smoke and we had to get out." Ms. Riso kicked Ms. Fattah off the phone, allowing her to reach the lobby 35 seconds before the second plane hit. Ms. Riso never got out.
"It didn't look bad to me until I was downstairs," Ms. Fattah said. "From up there, it just looked like a little dent in the building. Who knew? But she did."
Ms. Riso, 55, lived in New York with two cats that made her face light up whenever she spoke of them. Her co-workers are planning a memorial service for her on Wednesday.
Leon Smith Jr.
Leon Smith Jr.'s boots just might be impossible to fill. He wore the only size 15's in the Fire Department, said his mother, Irene, and he had to have them specially made, once he had attained his dream of joining the department.
Mr. Smith, 48, was the chauffeur — the driver — for Ladder Company 118 in Brooklyn Heights. "He would wash his rig every single day, and when he went off duty, he'd say, `Listen, my baby better be clean.' " Mrs. Smith said. "He called that his girlfriend."
An only child, Mr. Smith showed his compassionate side when he was just 7 or 8. His mother often took him to the zoo or a play, but just before departure time the doorbell would ring, and a few neighborhood children would be waiting to come along. They never got to go anywhere, he explained.
"He'd say, `Oh, Mama, please let them come,' " she said. "I always made sure I had extra money and extra food."
Mr. Smith, who had three daughters, was known for fixing the cars of his brothers in the firehouse, and those of their wives or girlfriends, even if the repairs came after a 24-hour shift. "I can just see you up there in heaven, with St. Peter's car on the lift, telling him it will only be a couple more minutes," a friend, Paul Geoghegan, wrote on a Web site in his memory.
Richard K. Fraser
The focus of Richard K. Fraser's life was his 22- month-old son, Aidan, who suffers from neurofibromatosis, a disease that causes tumors to grow at the end of nerves. "Aidan was the joy of his life," said Mr. Fraser's wife, Suzanne. "He came home at 7 every day and played with Aidan. He would talk to him about the Giants, tickle him, everything."
Aidan called Saturday Daddy's Day, because on Saturdays Mr. Fraser, 32, took Aidan out to see the big city, where he worked as a manager at Aon. The father and son went to the Central Park Zoo, the museums, the playgrounds and the public library. "He was the kind of guy who wanted kids even when he was quite young," Mrs. Fraser said. The couple planned to have three more children, but they postponed conceiving the second one to the end of the year because of Aidan's illness. "I told Aidan that Daddy was an angel," Mrs. Fraser said, "and he thinks it's really cool that Daddy can fly."
When I read those profiles, I can't help but feel a lot of rage mixed with the sadness. Mostly, my anger is focused on one individual: Osama bin Laden.
How could he? How could a person plan, over a period of months or even years, a plan designed to kill hundreds or even thousands of innocent people? What's worse, he planned attack was designed to provoke exactly the sort of over-reaction that we saw from the US, the UK, and Israel. The bloodbaths in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq were not byproducts of the 9/11 attacks. They were the intended consequences of the attacks. Bin Laden didn't intend to kill a few thousand Americans, he intended to provoke a series of wars that would stretch on for decades, and which would leave millions of Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims dead.
Especially Muslims. Like all fanatics, bin Laden reserves most of his hatred for the moderates that are closest to themselves, the so-called "enemy within". Bin Laden had to know, as he plotted the attacks, that there would be massive retaliation, and that most of the coming battles would be fought in the Middle East and Central Asia, and that his forces would not be able to kill more than a few hundred in the West. But from bin Laden's perspective, the deaths of millions of Muslim civilians was the best possible outcome. More than a million people are dead today, and millions more continue to suffer the effects of the wars that bin Laden deliberately caused.
I find, though, that I still have plenty of anger left over for the so-called "9/11 Truth Movement." Despite mountains of evidence, some of which was obtained by people who lost their lives to get it, the "Truthers" are willing to absolve bin Laden of his ghastly crimes so that they can indulge in preposterous fantasies.
There is as much evidence against Siegfried and Roy as there is against Bush and Cheney, but the Truthers' need to pin the blame on someone close to them, on an "enemy within", is such that they are willing to pretend that bin Laden is nothing more than a harmless Middle Eastern political leader. Read the profiles of Rose Riso, Leon Smith, and Richard Fraser again, and see if it doesn't make your blood boil when you realize that their fellow countrymen are actively making excuses for their murderers. Here's President Clinton putting some Truthers in their place:
Clinton's response to the Truthers makes me feel a little better, but I find that I'm still angry at another person: President Bush.
I can forgive the negligence during the lead-up to the attacks. The fact that Bush received a briefing from the CIA entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" and responded by going on the longest vacation in presidential history is inexcusable, but they are forgivable. But Bush's actions after the attacks are not.
Starting on September 12, Bush began trying to tie the attacks to Saddam Hussein. When no evidence for Hussein's involvement could be found, Bush invaded Iraq anyway, diverting manpower and material from Afghanistan, which was and is the central front in the fight against al-Qaeda. In doing so, Bush did gave bin Laden the wider war that he wanted, a war that many in the Middle East and Central Asia now see as a new Crusade. And he also did what his supporters constantly accuse the president's critics of doing: he undermined the fight against the terrorists.
For almost seven years, the 30,000 troops that Bush decided he could spare for the war in Afghanistan have been losing ground, and al Qaeda's Taliban allies have been entrenching and gaining strength. Now Bush's top military officer is begging him to send more troops to Afghanistan and warning that he's "not convinced we're winning it in Afghanistan", and that "we're running out of time." So far, Bush has sent less than half of the additional troops that were requested.
As if that weren't bad enough, Bush has also repeated the sins of the 9/11 Truthers, and tried to blame a favorite scapegoat for the sins of bin Laden. He even tried to do so during his first debate against John Kerry:
LEHRER: Mr. President, new question. Two minutes. Does the Iraq experience make it more likely or less likely that you would take the United States into another preemptive military action?
BUSH: I would hope I never have to. I understand how hard it is to commit troops. Never wanted to commit troops. When I was running -- when we had the debate in 2000, never dreamt I'd be doing that.
But the enemy attacked us, Jim, and I have a solemn duty to protect the American people, to do everything I can to protect us.
Who among us, as we watched the towers collapse, could have imagined that Bush would deliberately try to divert blame from the people responsible? Who would have thought that he would be so cavalier about pursuing the killers, first letting them slip away at Tora Bora, then declaring that he didn't care whether or not bin Laden is ever brought to justice:
Honestly, I don't think President Bush could have acted more disgracefully if he had tried.
So now it's seven years after the 9/11 attacks, and I'm still feeling the pangs of guilt, and the anger at the perpetrators, and the anger at the frauds and fools who try to divert the blame. But mostly, I'm feeling a sadness for those who lost their lives that weighs on me this morning like an iron anvil. But I do believe that some day, perhaps not too far in the future, we will get justice for them. And that thought gives me enough hope to get up and face the day.
(cross posted at Liberal Avenger and appletree)