Nick Biddle: 911 and Us

     People are beginning to think about the first anniversary of  911.  Activists are thinking about how to approach the commemoration.  I'm one of them.  A couple of weeks ago two colleagues and I thought we had improved on sliced bread when we dreamed up the concept of organizing town meetings across the country for 9/11/02. The next day, when I turned on my computer, Global Exchange and United for Peace with Justice had sent me emails announcing their plans for 911/2 (I'm going to call it).  I quickly read their promotions and blipped off because I wanted to keep focused on the notions our group had conjured, since I was the one appointed to develop them. 

      My first thought ran to patriotism, which will resound deeply on 911/2.  Patriotism is an excellent emotion, one that all members of the Alliance deeply share.  We care about America and its values: democracy, equal opportunity and justice.  And we want to safeguard our liberties for which so many have died.  In fact, those are the core motivations people have for joining the Alliance for Democracy. 

     Too often, however, patriotism runs superficially through the popular culture.  In that context, elected politicians want patriotism to amount to an unreflecting approbation of whatever the government is doing in our name.  Popular culture patriots (as contrasted to populist patriots in the AfD) exude machismo.  They can descend into xenophobia, or worse.  Some have a proclivity for violence.  We must transcend superficial patriotism and avoid unnecessary confrontation with superficial patriots.

      To that end, in order to summon the deeper meaning of patriotism and, simultaneously, to shield against those who might ask us to ask no questions, I  tentatively titled the program of town meetings a "Day of Freedom and Democracy.” After all, in his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, Bush said that the terrorists attacked the U.S. "because they hate our freedom and democracy."  Surely a day in which citizens utilize their freedom and practice democracy would be a fitting commemoration to those who died on 911.

      More to the point, much has happened and many decisions have been made in the wake of 911 that have neither undergone the scrutiny of Congress nor the rigor of public debate.  Four of the most grave are:

 a) Mr. Bush declaring war against a global, anonymous enemy for a long period of time (perhaps a generation) without defining what constitutes victory.

 b) Mr. Bush displaying a strategic intention to use nuclear weapons on a first strike basis.

 c) The government starting production of a new generation of nuclear weapons.

 d) Mr. Bush withdrawing from the ABM treaty to build a nuclear missile shield and weapons in space.

      Let me underscore that these decisions were taken unilaterally by the Bush administration without consulting Congress or the American people.

      Adding insult to this democratic injury, U.S. taxpayers and stock shareholders have been left holding the bag for what is mounting into tens of billions of dollars of corporate fraud while many of the perpetrators carry on as if nothing happened.  My favorite on this score is Army Secretary Thomas White, who entered the Bush administration in January 2001 after presiding over the Enron division that robbed Californians of billions of dollars in criminally inflated utility prices.  Not one congressman has called for his resignation. The executive elite at Enron, Global Crossing, Tyco and WorldCom have been caught hiding billions in losses, lying to investors while cashing out for hundreds of millions in personal profit.  They walk free, though tens of thousands of middle and working class people have lost their pension funds, retirement savings and jobs.  The American people are stuck in the headlights that were pointed at them on 911.  Where is serious financial reform?  When will Congress utilize its Constitutional powers?  When will we address global warming, corporate taxation, single payer health care, alternative energy, public funding of federal elections, etc., etc.?

     Fired up and enthused to promote a program of town meetings, I attended a strategy session for 911/2 in Boston with roughly 60 activists from various progressive organizations.  It was a disciplined meeting that started with introductory remarks, broke into small group discussion, and reconvened to synthesize ideas into the substance of a plan.  The timekeeper was prominent and polite.  The organizers were pros.

     The chair opened with an admonition.  We must respect the patriotic fervor of 911, he said, and make 911/2 a day for somber reflection and quiet presence.  It could not be a day for reaching out, as he put it, because that might cause "contention."  He did not elaborate.  Nobody contested the remark.  Apparently the group agreed, but a shadow shot through me.  Clearly he was saying that there should be no discussion of the war or its consequences on 911/2.  I thought to leave right then, but stayed the evening to witness and reflect on the very different perspective this diverse array of people articulated.

     I wondered if my previous thinking, and that of my two colleagues, was completely off the mark.  Were we being insensitive?  Were we being impolitic?  Were we being foolish?  The implication of the discussions in that room suggested so. 

     I expressed my opinion that 911/2 presents an opportunity to examine the course America has taken in the previous twelve months.  Surely many people want to unload their anxieties about the war, the economy and the future.  Surely many are angry about Enron et al., afraid of nuclear madness and worried about their civil liberties.  911/2 will be a focused moment, I urged, people will want to talk and their emotions will make the conversations purposeful.

     My remarks were met with silence.  The tenor and tone of the meeting followed the parameters sketched at its start.  The group agreed to organize a candle light vigil, a human chain, and on a day before 911/2, a panel discussion with guests from Afghanistan and maybe Iraq.  They emphasized being respectful at all events and expressed fears that even in their passivity some may not reach home with their teeth intact.

     As I walked to the subway my mind raced.  Has superficial patriotism transcended its superficiality through sheer volume, much as occurred during WWI, when those who suggested that J.P. Morgan had more to do with the war than the sinking of the Lusitania sometimes found themselves at the end of a mob rope, and more often behind bars?  It is a possibility.  Clearly the corporate media has met its mark -- has presented so unified an image of war fevered America avenging its sons and daughters that the peace community is intimidated.

     Again I thought about my position.  Had the evening swayed me to retreat from a program of town meetings on 911/2?  I thought not, but I looked for reinforcement.  I found it in a pamphlet published by WILPF that quotes the historian Henry Steele Commager from an article published in LOOK magazine on July 14, 1970:

          …we foster freedom in order to avoid error and discover truth; so far, we have found no other way to achieve this objective.  So, too, with dissent.  We do not indulge dissent for sentimental reasons; we encourage it because we have learned that we cannot live without it.  A nation that silences dissent, whether by force, intimidation, the withholding of information or a foggy intellectual climate, invites disaster.

     I've heard this moment we're living called a scourge.  Maureen Dowd suggested eloquently in the New York Times that all our worst paranoid nightmares from the 1960s are coming true.  "We wake up in our 50s," she was quoting a friend, "and our enemies from the 60s have crept back into power."  It is no time for weak knees.  It is time for populist patriotism, strong voices, big hearts and creativity.  It is time for the Alliance for Democracy.  If you are interested in our town meeting proposal, please go to the homepage and click ‘911 Actions’ under the ‘What’s Happening’ link.