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
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
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
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
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
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 Whats Happening link.