Respectful Insolence

There are some days when I just don’t feel like posting the usual stuff, and September 11 is just one of those days. So today there’ll be no woo-bashing, no evisceration of postmodernist nonsense, no sarcastic assaults on antivaccinationists. In a more serious vein, there won’t be any analyses of scientific papers, clinical studies, or the usual prolonged discourses on medicine, surgery, or science. There won’t even be any discussions of Holocaust denial, although a Holocaust denier is mentioned in the post that is to follow.

Instead, I’ll do what I’ve taken to doing every year or two and repost my memories of my experiences that day. I’ve updated and tuned it up every year; so although the core memories are the same I don’t quite tell it the same way every time. Such is human memory, coupled with the simple writer in me seeing something I wrote a few years ago, not being satisfied with it, and feeling the compulsion to improve it. The changes usually aren’t large, but over the years, I suspect it will continue to evolve.

September 11, 2001, approximately 9 AM

It was a Tuesday morning like any other Tuesday morning, except that the weather was spectacularly beautiful. My usual weariness notwithstanding (I am not a morning person), I couldn’t help but notice it during my drive into work at the cancer center. The first part of morning was almost painfulIy routine, with a stop at my office to check e-mail and messages, followed by our usual weekly Breast Cancer Tumor Board.

It was a around 9 AM, and we were wrapping up the last case under discussion, when a the Director of our cancer center poked his head through the door of the conference room and informed us that something big had happened in New York. Apparently a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers and that there was a huge fire there. As the meeting was ending anyway, we all got up and headed over to the chemotherapy suite, where there were several televisions provided to help our cancer patients pass the time while they received their infusions, some of which took hours. There, the staff and patients were all riveted to the screens of every available TV. I gently nudge my way in and what met my eyes was far worse than anything I had expected. By the time we had finished the last case and reached the chemotherapy suite, the second aircraft had hit the other World Trade Center tower, and enormous plumes of smoke and flame were pouring out of both towers.

All of us remained riveted to the television, with only breaks to tend to the patients, as the chaotic news reports came in, including news of the Pentagon attack, news of the crash of the fourth plane in Pennsylvania, rumors of multiple other planes still in the air. I forget what I was doing that resulted in my missing seeing the fall of the North Tower live on TV, but I was there watching with everyone else, jaw agape, when the second tower fell. I remember muttering intentionally loud enough to overhear something along the line of, “We have to get whatever fuckers did this,” with a quivering rage greater than any I could remember every having experienced before. I think I knew then what people must have felt like when they learned of the Pearl Harbor attack; only in 1941 people couldn’t watch it happening live on TV. They heard about it after it had happened. I called my wife, who was not working that day, to see if she had turned on the TV yet and just to talk. I called my parents to let them know I was OK, even though I was many miles from the carnage.

Now seven years later, knowing as much as we know now about how the attacks were planned and how they played out, it’s very easy to forget just how chaotic the reports coming in were that morning, how full of rumors, how full of fear over planes unaccounted for, how difficult it was to know what was really going on. Reports of additional missing planes were rampant, and all of us fully expected another plane to crash into another building somewhere. Given that our affiliated hospital was within helicopter range of Manhattan, all the medical staff at the cancer center assumed that we might be receiving casualties. The E.R. went on emergency footing; at the cancer center, we closed the chemotherapy suite and sent patients home as soon as we could. Orders came down that no physician was allowed to leave the facility. Not that any of us wanted to leave yet. We wanted to help if we could, if we were called upon. The rest of the day was a blur, as we scrambled to set up, and as others used the chemotherapy suite for an impromptu blood drive. We had more donors than we could deal with quickly. There they were, college students, medical students, townies. Everyone wanted to do something, and the only thing that anyone could seemingly do that seemed useful was to donate blood for what–again–everyone presumed would be large numbers of wounded. Meanwhile I made myself useless running around trying to find scales to weigh the blood bags after filled to ensure the correct amount was taken. Believe it or not, this was a difficult task, even in a cancer institute with many labs. There were scales in virtually every lab, yes, but not the right kind of scales.

As the day wore on, it had become clear that no casualties were coming, and the reason was becoming increasingly obvious. There were so few survivors that local hospitals in Manhattan and just across the river could handle them. As the medical staff had still been asked to stay, I went back up to my office and listened to the news reports on the radio. I couldn’t concentrate on doing any productive work and at the time didn’t much see any point in bothering; so I fired up my computer and browsed the Usenet newsgroup, alt.revisionism to kill time until word came down from above that the medical staff could leave. I had done the same thing during a break earlier in the day and seen something I ahd wanted to come back to. I immediately came across a thread begun by an angry post entitled Who Blew Up the World Trade Centers and Pentagon? It wasn’t long before I came across a post by a regular on the group, who said:

It seems manifestly obvious to anyone who surveys this afternoon’s festivities that the primary targets were not the American people but the financial and military installations of those who spread murder, poverty, death and despair throughout the world.

“Festivities”? Then unknown thousands of my countrymen had just been murdered in terrorist attacks, and this asshole was calling it “festivities” only three hours after the towers fell, as if it were a joke, a celebration? Suppressing the urge to respond immediately, I continued reading the thread, and came across this post by the same author in response to a comment calling him “beneath contempt” (a sentiment I thoroughly agreed with; this guy was and is scum):

For many months now the government of America, with the backing of the British government and other lackeys around the world, has been directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of children in the Middle East. Sometimes your filthy friends dropped death from the skies in the form of bombs directed at the people of Iraq. Sometimes your fellow vermin in the American government sponsored other governments to do their murderous work for them, as has been the case with their support for the strutting war criminal Sharon in Israel. Sometimes you people starved your victims slowly to death, depriving them of medicines and other essentials, as has been the case not only in Iraq but also in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The difference is that we never heard about those deaths. We were not shown the pictures of smouldering buildings crumbling to the ground when they were Iraqi buildings. We did not see the bleeding bodies when they were the bodies of Iraqis. We were not allowed to hear the cries of the dying children of Afghanistan or Palestine. Those things were kept from our television screens. And because you kept it from our television screens, you kept it from the minds of our poor, betrayed people. Now, however, the chickens are coming home to roost. This afternoon a truly wonderful thing has happened: the oppressed of the earth have turned around and have shown that they do not have to be nature’s eternal victims. They have shown that the poor, the downtrodden, and the powerless can strike back at the very heart of the dark forces that are oppressing them. This time it was not Palestinian children who cowered in fear as death came from the skies — this time it was the very fat bankers and financiers who sustain the terroristic regime of Sharon. This time it was those very military men who mastermind the attacks on the women and children of Iraq. They thought they were so safe as they planned death and destruction from their comfortable offices in the Pentagon, and as they did their dirty deals in the World Trade Center. Now they have been given a bloody nose that they will never forget.

Today was a glorious day. May there be many others like it.

Death to American capitalism!

Death to international finance!

I was flabbergasted. “A truly wonderful thing”? “Glorious day?” “May there be many others like it”? Here was a Brit who hated America so much that he was rejoicing in the deaths of thousands of us. Although I had become somewhat familiar with how much many Arabs and Palestinians hated the U.S., I had never seen such an intense hatred of the U.S. before coming from someone like this.

Time went by, and memory of the attacks became less intense. Then, a couple of years ago, I was reminded of this Usenet encounter when the Ward Churchill controversy arose. Ward Churchill, as you may recall, is a Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado who apparently had had a bit of his brain snacked on by the Hitler zombie, inspiring him to write an essay about the September 11 attacks that surfaced early this year and caused him no end of trouble, thanks to his referring to workers at the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns.” (NOTE: A university panel has since recommended that Ward Churchill be removed from his tenured position at the University of Colorado for plagiarism and other academic misconduct) His essay entitled Some People Push Back: On the Roosting of Chickens, written not long after the September 11 attacks, seemed to me to be an expansion of that Usenet post that I had seen mere hours after the attacks, so much so that I almost wondered if he was channeling that British Usenet poster. Consider this quote by Professor Churchill:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, a few more chickens – along with some half-million dead Iraqi children – came home to roost in a very big way at the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. Well, actually, a few of them seem to have nestled in at the Pentagon as well.

Or this quote referring to the civilians killed in the World Trade Center:

Well, really. Let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire – the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance” – a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore” – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.

He went on to compare Americans to “good Germans” who supported Hitler’s aggression, at least until the defeat of the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad in January 1943. Sound familiar? Yes, it does sound a lot like that Usenet post I encountered that day four years ago, the one that turned my stomach. But what really caught my attention was the dichotomy between the two sources. You see, in marked contrast to Ward Churchill, the person whose post on September 11 churned my stomach was not a leftist, an aggrieved Native American, or an Arab. No, he was a British ultra-right wing white nationalist, Hitler apologist, and Holocaust denier named David Michael with whom I had been sparring in alt.revisionism for three or four years before. He had also admitted admitted involvement with the National Front and the British National Party in Britain and the Conservative Party, Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, and Afrikaner Volksfront in South Africa. Michael’s usual modus operandi was either to downplay the Holocaust as exaggerated or, failing that, to claim moral equivalency between the Nazis and the Allies because, according to him, the Allies did just as bad or worse. All the while he denied that he was an anti-Semite, even though he oozed contempt for Jews and blamed them for “exaggerating” the Holocaust. As an example of the sort of mindset David Michael was coming from, I quote one of his most infamous posts about National Socialism:

…National Socialism was a revolutionary movement that was based upon a wonderful dream. Forget the stories of corpses for a moment, and imagine a world very different from the world we inhabit today. Imagine a world free from the wars that have scarred the face of this tired old planet since the beginning of time; a world with no extreme poverty, with no disease, with no exploitation of worker by employer, no jolting financial crises (with the misery that such crises entail) — a world united in a common purpose and a common vision. . . Imagine, if you will, a world where, through a process of artificial genetic selection, mankind has been enhanced to heights undreamed of: when, year by year, mere human beings grow ever closer to becoming gods. Think of the beauty of those people, of their art, their music, their literature. Think of their levels of culture, their humanity, their nobility. Now contrast this with the world that has been bequeathed to our children as a result of that needless and miserable world war. Just pick up a newspaper and look around you — look at what your ‘liberals’ and your ‘democrats’ have left to them. Look at the dull-eyed teenagers, drugged to their eyeballs, staggering around bleak housing estates, their stereos blaring drum-beats! What do they know of the glories of a Bruckner symphony, or the heart-rending beauty of Nietzsche? What good have ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ ever done for them? Answer me that! Look at Africa and Asia — thousands upon thousands of square miles, characterized by war, starvation, famine, massacre, corruption, decay, filth. What good have ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ ever done for the inhabitants of those miserable regions? Answer me that!

If that doesn’t sound like Nazi apologia, I don’t know what does. Michael seemed to be arguing that it was a bad thing that the Nazis lost the war and that democracy is not a good thing. The funny thing is, he would somehow manage to get all indignant any time anyone accused him of being a Nazi apologist.

As I first started to write this post many months before I ever posted it, spurred on by the Ward Churchill controversy, I still thought it odd that a leftist Native American “activist” could sound almost indistinguishable from a hard core British white nationalist Holocaust denier (who now calls himself a National Anarchist) in his contempt for America and its policies and that they could both argue that we “asked for” the September 11 attacks. [NOTE: David Michael's website no longer appears to exist, but, thanks to the Wayback Machine, you can get a flavor of his ramblings here.] I could fall back on the idea that the far left and the far right start to resemble each other as one moves away from the center as one explanation, but that doesn’t seem to cover it, even though both Ward Churchill and David Michael used very similar imagery and language in their indictments of U.S. behavior. In the end, I think it doesn’t necessarily boil down to whether one is left wing or right wing, but rather one’s sense of victimization–and upon whom or what one blames for that victimization. As the world’s only superpower, the U.S. represents a big fat target for blame for whatever goes wrong in the world–all too often deservedly so but also often not. Ward Churchill identifies with the victimization of Native Americans, even though he is probably not himself of Native American ancestry. Given the unfortunate history of how the U.S. has treated American Indians, it is not surprising that he would come to view the U.S. as a major source for evil in the world and behave accordingly. David Michael, who apparently lived in South Africa for a time, given his involvement with nationalist political groups there, seems to consider himself a victim of increasing liberalization that led to the loss of his privileged status as a white person as Apartheid ended. It is less clear to me why he would consider America to be a major source of his victimization, except that he seems to blame globalization and multiculturalism for his woes, and the U.S. is indeed at the heart of these. I also rather suspect that, as an anti-Communist, he still blames us for having aligned ourselves with Stalin to defeat the Nazis, rather than with the Nazis to defeat Stalin.

Although Churchill and Michael are generally nonviolent (although they appear to applaud violence against those they disapprove of), this same sense of victimization, whether justified, imagined, or exaggerated, very likely played a role in motivating the terrorists. I was not alone in being taken aback at the intensity of their hatred. Nor, I suspect, was I alone in being surprised by the number of our own fellow citizens who share a less homicidal version of that contempt and who, metaphorically speaking, spit on the victims of that attack by claiming that they deserved their horrible fate on that clear fall morning four years ago, as both Churchill and Michael have. Since adulthood, I had always recognized that my nation, as much as I love it, has done things throughout its history that did not even come close to living up to the lofty ideals expressed in our founding documents or the writings of our Founding Fathers, but I had always believed (and still believe) that, in the balance, the U.S. has been and is far more a force for good in the world than evil. In spite of what has happened over the last eight years, with an administration that has truly tried my faith in in our government and even in my fellow citizens, so many of whom supported its actions, I still believe that. Certainly, I’ve also always viewed it as a good thing that we try to strive for those ideas, even though we often fail to live up to them–sometimes, as in the case of our current President, spectacularly. I long ago came to the conclusion that the only thing that can allow us to reclaim that ideal is a change in leadership.

Maybe I was naïve or ignorant before, my contact with right wing Holocaust deniers notwithstanding, but 9/11 was a major wake-up call to me. Part of that wakeup call was the utter intensity of the hatred some have for us, to the point that some would be willing to commit suicide in order to commit mass murder of me or my countrymen and others like Ward Churchill, David Michael, and others willing to justify or even applaud that mass murder, representing it as “just” retribution for America’s sins, both real and imagined. The second part of that wakeup call was that the hatred of and contempt for America doesn’t just come from radical Islamicist or Jihadist beliefs, but can also arise from more conventional left wing and right wing radical ideologies in our very own country or in western Democracies. Paradoxically (or maybe not so paradoxically), whether this rhetoric comes from the right, the left, or from fundamentalist religious beliefs, it ends up sounding very much the same, and its results can be seen today in the empty site where two of the tallest buildings in the world once stood.

flag2
Never forget!

Comments

  1. #1 Dianne
    September 11, 2008

    Ward Churchill is an ass and an idiot, but in his EXTREMELY partial defense, the US is a democracy. We do vote for the government and if the government did anything we REALLY didn’t like, as in, allow a famine to occur, they’d be out. So aren’t we all at some level involved in what the US does in the world? If we disapproved strongly enough we could stop it. We don’t.

    That having been said, quite a few of the people who died in the WTC were not US-Americans and were therefore clearly completely innocent. Nor were those who were US-Americans in any way intimately involved with the military industrial complex or any other particularly “evil” part of the US. (Evil is in quotes because I believe there is a good deal of ambiguity in many things that the US and other countries do, including in their militaries.) The WTC were, in fact, back offices. The people killed were low level clerks. Outer party members and proles, if you’ll excuse the 1984 reference. As far as I know, no “inner party members” died.

    Unlike, apparently, Churchill, I don’t admire the hijackers. I don’t like their goals or their methods. And I don’t wish the kind of destruction we saw on 9/11/01 on anyone, not even if their governments were involved. There must be a better way. If there isn’t, it’s past time to invent one.

    Oh, and incidentally, the WTC site is not just an empty hole in the ground any more. Five new buildings are going up. One will be much taller than the others. The middle one, from some angle, I hope. New York F!cking City sending its sincerest greetings to the terrorists who utterly failed to destroy us.

  2. #2 cptchaos
    September 11, 2008

    Well with 9/11 and the reactions to it a long hold suspicion of mine became an insight. We need something like a second enlightenment. With focus on ideology in general not just on religion. Many if not most ideologies seem to corrupt the ability for compassion and reasoning in one or another way.
    However, this won’t be easy. I think, at the moment postmodern views are one of the major obstacles to get an enlightened western civilization. Because, if all narratives are of near the same value, there is hardly an Argument against any ideology which might be well meant but hazardous. Frankly, i think postmodernism exists primary for the reason that many people were not able to give up their Ideologies in spite of overwhelming counterarguments.

    best regards
    Eike

    PS: I hope this is understandable. I almost never say anything in English.

  3. #3 tinker
    September 11, 2008

    I read your post with great interest and I thank your for sharing it.
    Let me start by stating categorically that I believe that nothing can justify the slaughter of innocents that happened on that day. If anything further calls that into question for you, please back up and read the first sentence again. Also Ward Churchill et al. can fuck off.

    When I saw those towers go down, I was not very surprised. I did in fact think ‘the chickens are coming home to roost’. I thought of this as consequence of decades of bad foreign policy, not as justification. I was wrong about the particulars though, I thought it might be someone who had been more directly wronged. It turns out that the Saudi Arabian terrorists who did this were religious fundamentalist fanatics directed by another fanatic who has a beef with U.S. presence on his ‘sacred ground’. They are murderous, and should be stopped. I’m not a pacifist, and I thought that they ought to be hunted down. I also think we should stop propping up the fundi Saudis.

    However, I was and am truly disturbed by the apparent naiveté on the part of some (not necessarily this blog’s author, but more generally) regarding criticism of the U.S that some people here have. Let me state that I believe deeply in the egalitarian and democratic ideals of the U.S. and I believe that they are shared by the majority of the good people here. However, ideals are really for shit if they are accompanied by profound ignorance of the state of the world and the tremendous damage that we have done for years to developing countries and people who have the misfortune to live under dictators that we favor. And it is important to realize that this has been going on for decades, not just the last 8 years.

    Its fine to say that one believes that America has been a net force for good, but what does it mean when part of that equation actually translates into millions dead? All of the dictators we have propped up, all of the damage in the Iraq war, the Vietnam war? Other smaller wars? Please don’t get sidetracked here by natural psychological defense mechanisms which are probably now shouting, “But we were in those things for good reasons’ or ‘Other countries like China and Russia were also doing terrible things’. These are distractions. We can and should do a lot better, and to do it, we need to be informed. Please don’t ever confuse legitimate criticism for hatred, and please don’t ignore or discount criticism, even if it comes from assholes.

    I do think we need a change in leadership. I also think that that can’t possibly happen without an educated and informed public. That can’t happen without better schools, and it can’t happen with a corporate press monopoly. So we need better education, and a truly free press. That doesn’t mean a press that agrees with me, that means a press that isn’t owned and beholden to corporate interests.

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    September 11, 2008

    All well and good to “Never Forget!”

    My concern isn’t for what we forget, it’s for what we remember that just ain’t so.

  5. #5 DLC
    September 11, 2008

    It’s easy to point at The United States as the author of all the world’s ills. We’re what the old WW2 bomber pilots would have called “a fat target”. But by and large, the United States has done far more good than ill.
    As an interesting side note, one documentary I saw last year showed some number of Arabs who happily mouthed variations of “I hate America” while also admitting that they would love to come here to study, or just to visit. It was an odd dichotomy.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    September 11, 2008

    Its fine to say that one believes that America has been a net force for good, but what does it mean when part of that equation actually translates into millions dead? All of the dictators we have propped up, all of the damage in the Iraq war, the Vietnam war?

    There’s a common thread here, as I see it: American leaders who didn’t (and don’t today) believe in our stated values. Who, like Joseph McCarthy, believed that the people of the USA would prefer Communism unless they were lied to. American leaders who believed that people of other countries would prefer Communism if they were given a choice — and never dreamed that Thomas Jefferson was more of a radical reformer than Mao Zedong. Or maybe they did and preferred Mao for our little brown brothers.

    And, yes, it still goes on today with 9/11/01 being used to justify a “Department of Homeland Security” and every wet dream the FBI has had since J. Edgar Hoover got caught using the might and majesty of the United States Government to play Peeping Tom.

    So, as always, the events of history may be objective but the lessons we take from it have more to do with who we are than with what happened. So what lessons do we take from the last seven years? Answer that and you’ve said a lot about who we are.

  7. #7 Dianne
    September 11, 2008

    But by and large, the United States has done far more good than ill.

    I think that one could have a lively debate about that one and it isn’t clear to me which side would be right. However, unless someone here is suggesting nuking the US into a pile of radioactive glass, I don’t see the relevance. The good is…well, good, but it doesn’t excuse the bad. And, because of the level of power the US has compared to other countries, the bad can be very bad. At least several hundred thousand people died because Bush wanted to prove himself a better leader than his father. Three hundred million US-Americans failed to stop him from causing those deaths. The level of malice may not be as high as that of, say, Mohammed Atta or even Osama bin Laden, but the damage was worse because Bush had more power. So we need to be not just as good as other countries, but better–because the ill we can do is so great.

  8. #8 D. C. Sessions
    September 11, 2008

    At least several hundred thousand people died because Bush wanted to prove himself a better leader than his father.

    I wouldn’t go that far. When you have people who are bent on bringing Ragnarok, there will be a body count. There are enough of them in the Middle East today that no mortal could possibly have prevented a bloodbath — at best the targets change.

    IMHO the fundamental reality in the Middle East isn’t Western culture vs. Islamic culture, or Western oil needs vs. Middle Eastern autonomy, or Israel vs. Palestine, or imperialism, or … Those are simply fault lines along the main confrontation. What is happening in the Middle East is a collision between the 7th century and the 21st, and there are going to be a lot of people ground up between the crustal plates before it’s all over because neither is really capable of giving in or of compromise.

  9. #9 Tracy W
    September 12, 2008

    I attended a impromptu memorial service for the victims of September 11 in New Zealand. One of the speakers talked about how the September 11 attacks were an attack on workers and on unions. Not as offensive as the examples you offer, but a sign of how people can get a really really weird viewpoint.

  10. #10 Dianne
    September 12, 2008

    When you have people who are bent on bringing Ragnarok, there will be a body count. There are enough of them in the Middle East today that no mortal could possibly have prevented a bloodbath — at best the targets change.

    The Middle East is not going to be a peaceful place any time soon and certainly not all problems there are caused by the US. However, the estimates of deaths in Iraq are estimates of excess deaths, over and above the number of deaths that would have been expected had Hussein stayed in power and the sanctions stayed in place and the intermittent bombings continued. Hundreds of thousands dead, unnecessarily, to feed Bush’s ego. That’s evil on a grand scale.

    This is getting pretty off topic, though, since the Iraq war was something he planned long before 9/11. Though the post-9/11 fear made it easier for him to get it accepted. (Which, from al Qaeda’s point of view, was a free bonus: get rid of the evil secular Bathist and get a new training ground for terrorists. Bush and al Qaeda were in perfect agreement about the invasion.)