When the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City occurred on September 11, 2001, I was in a government office in Cincinnati reviewing a probate case. The young lady who was helping me was surprised I was working. She told me that New York City was under attack and she expected everyone to go home very soon. (At this point the attack on the Pentagon was not in conversation.) In truth, people did not go home right away; in the Recorder’s office, where I did the majority of my courthouse work, a television was placed in the center of the public office for public view.
To this day, what struck me about the incident was the fact that ordinary citizens were killed. After all, I lived during the 1960’s and had had my taste of public murder. I can remember my third grade teacher explaining to us that President John Kennedy had been shot and that Lyndon Johnson would become president of the United States. She was crying when she told us, but nonetheless attempted to turn Kennedy’s death into a civics lesson.
After President Kennedy, it was the killing of President Kennedy’s brother Bobby Kennedy, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr, and black leader Malcolm X. There were lots of others, good and bad, but the key factor in their deaths was their position of power. The conspiracy theorists said President Kennedy was deeply at odds with the Central Intelligence Agency since the disaster of the invasion of Cuba called The Bay of Pigs. Martin Luther King, Jr. was at odds with the United States government over his disenchantment with the Vietnam War. The list goes on.
The point is, what did ordinary citizens who died on 9/11 have to do with power struggles? The answer to this that I was given, once again, goes back to my childhood and the Vietnam War. When I was in the ninth grade, my history class spent a great part of the year on the American Civil War which, of course, took place from 1861 to 1865. At some point in our studies, we were taught about General Sherman’s famous March to the Sea across the American South, where he cut a vast swath of pillage.
“Remember,” my history teacher told us, “in the modern world there is no such thing as an innocent human being. In modern war, everyone is guilty.”
Again, this statement was made at the height of the Vietnam War, where night after night America watched tons and tons of bombs being dropped on Vietnam during the nightly news. By the time America ended up in Cambodia, President Nixon and his assistant Henry Kissinger were credited with dropping enough bombs to have killed over a half million people. What my history teacher was telling us was that, if I did not object to this wholesale slaughter, if I thought it was okay, and if I paid my taxes to the American government and gave them my tacit approval, then I was as responsible as they were.
I was told this in my childhood over and over and over by teachers and clergy. And despite all of their faults, many of the people of the 1960’s lived by this philosophy. If the government engaged in an action they did not agree with, they fought it. Those of us who did not fight it were required to accept our guilt, and more importantly, our responsibility.
The men who killed those thousands on 9/11 wanted to kill in general, not kill someone specific. After all, if the perpetrators hated Americans, they had no way to know how many people in the Twin Towers were American. In many ways the terror of terrorism is created by the anonymity of its victims. The dead have to be “identified.” In many ways, most people think of themselves as being anonymous. If I went to a baseball game tomorrow in a major league park, for example, there is a good chance none of the thousands of people who are there would know me. There was no way Mohammed Atta or the other hijackers knew exactly who it was that they were killing.
In my mind, the image I remember that day was seeing groups of people standing in front of the television in the Recorder‘s office, and by the looks on their faces they appeared to be asking, “why would someone want to kill us?”
There are many answers to this question. As I have said before in articles for America’s Right, I am fifty-six years old and can argue that I have not lived one day in America when it was not at war, either hot or cold. Supposedly, America has changed since 9/11. War is no longer “over there.” War is no longer merely “somewhere else,” like it was in Vietnam. It is here, on American soil. Even considering that, when I grew up I did drills at school all the time in preparation for the day the Communists dropped atomic bombs on the major cities of America. All schools had signs and arrows on the walls explaining where to go in case of radiation fallout. This war is fundamentally different, however. We were altogether unprepared.
There has always been someone in the world who wants to destroy America in my lifetime. This destruction, however, is often the destruction that comes from the modern industrial state. It is killing by remote control. From afar. If the Soviet Union had dropped an atomic bomb on my school in 1965, it would have been done by someone thousands of miles away who on a personal level had no idea who I was. I wonder to this day if President Richard Nixon had ever met an ordinary citizen from Cambodia.
This world of war I have lived in has made me see the world from two points of view. Yes, I understand the point my school teacher made that the ordinary citizens of the world have lost their innocence. I understand that I need to be responsible about what my government is doing. But I also realize that there are people in the world that want to kill me even though on a human level they have no idea who I am. Over the years those who want to kill me have changed from Communists to Islamic fundamentalists, and 9/11 made the reality of their desire to kill me very real. When I was ten years old and was told the Communists wanted to kill me with a nuclear bomb, I am not sure I believed it. 9/11, though evidence of a change in the nature of war, nonetheless made the possibility of dying very real.
I am reminded of a Sunday school class I had when I was eight in 1963. The two woman who were teaching us were talking, and the one lady asked the other if she wanted to visit Israel. Her answer was, “I will go when there is peace.” I could never think of a time when she could go.
I wonder if I will ever live in an America when it is truly at peace, or if I have to accept the possibility that until the entire world lives free, the war will never end.