Neverending Remembering: 9/11 Comes Around Again

We are nation of a rememberings.  The birthdays of two presidents, Washington and Lincoln, and one revolutionary minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., Income Tax Day on April 15th, which also happens to be the day that Abraham Lincoln died. The nation’s presumptive birthday on July 4th each year.  Memorial Day for our war dead, and to kick off our summer vacations.  Veterans Day for the survivors.  Labor Day for workers. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and New Year’s Day, not to mention the religious holidays belonging to one religion or another, or the sectarian holidays celebrated only in one region or another.

Sometimes,  our rememberings bring surges of pride and pleasure. Take 1969, for example.  Oh, what a year that was!  The three days of peace, music, sex and rain – lots of rain – at Woodstock. Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, viewed by thousands on a huge television screen in New York’s Central Park that night.  The Marvelous Mets and their miracle season, ending with a World Series Championship.

Then there are the days we remember because they are seared into our memories.  D-Day, while not an official holiday, is remembered each year as we watch the surviving members of “the greatest generation” pass away before our eyes.  Assassination Day, when Kennedy was shot, and Patriot Day, better known as 9/11.

If you are old enough to remember John Kennedy’s assassination, you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard that news.   (I was in a high school English class where I had to tell the very young teacher to sit down and shut up as she went on about how we had to forge ahead with our school work.)  If you are old enough to remember Dr. King’s assassination, you knew where you were and what you were doing that day too. (I was in a planning session for an anti-war demonstration at City College of New York.)

It is 9/11 again and, once again, we involuntarily remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news.   If you were alive, and above the age of five, you remember that very well.  (I was pumping gas into my car, late for work, in Somerville, Massachusetts that day, when I heard the news over someone’s car radio that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. Interestingly, the moment I heard the announcement, I knew that it wasn’t an accident.)

We all know where we were and what we were doing when we heard about the World Trade Center, and where and when we saw the second plane strike the other tower on live television, not yet realizing that there were people in those buildings that we were never going to see again. Nevertheless, as soon as the second plane struck the second tower, we all knew what the score was.  We knew that the world had changed right before our eyes, and that 9/11 would always be the line of demarcation between then and now.

We are not as free as we were before 9/11.  Everyone knows that.  Everyone agreed tacitly to surrender some of our historic liberties for the illusion of security, forgetting that anyone who trades liberty for security will never have either, but we really weren’t consulted in the matter. We will never again be as free as we were before 9/11.  Everyone knows that too.  We put up with routine invasions of privacy that our grandparents would never have tolerated.  We are more circumspect about expressing our opinions, unless you happen to work for certain cable network news programs, in which case you say whatever comes into your head, never fearing that your journalistic exemptions could ever fail to protect you…but they will.

Since 9/11, we have prosecuted two major wars and a dozen minor ones attempting to punish someone – or, as it sometimes seems – anyone in retaliation for what was done to us, despite the obvious fact that the people who perpetrated that atrocity were already dead.  We triggered an Arab Spring, and then watched as our covert allies were toppled from their perches at the pinnacles of power, only to be replaced by increasingly more fundamentalist regimes, or at least that is the way it seems right now.

So, now, finally, the president upon whom many of us pinned our faint hopes for a return to sanity in our national government has taken the bit between his teeth and what we get instead is another incursion into a country where we have no vested interests, sticking our noses into a war that has been going on for 1,383 years, and shows no signs of an early cessation of hostilities.  The two major factions of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shia have been at each other’s throats since  632, the year the Prophet Mohammed died.  That is six times longer than the United States has been in existence.

ISIS or ISIL is a Sunni faction, and their jihad is against the Shiite faction in Islam. When we attack ISIS, we are aligning ourselves with the Shiite faction against the Sunni faction.  What’s wrong with this picture?  There are five times as many Sunnis as there are Shiites, which makes backing the Shia against the Sunnis a sucker bet if there ever was one.  Most of the Shiites, by the way, are Iranians.

Right and wrong don’t matter here.  President Obama is stepping into a blood feud that has been going on since the beginning of the Middle Ages and as blood thirsty and reprehensible as ISIS or ISIL is, the fact remains that, sooner or later, we are going to have to do one of two thing, go in big, or go home.

There’s a very significant difference between what is going on in Iraq now, and what was going on during the first and second Gulf wars.  In those wars, it was the Iraqi regime against us, and many Iraqis had no more use for Saddam Hussein than we did. In Afghanistan, on the contrary, it was very much a war between the Afghan people and the U.S.   In both cases, however, those wars could be easily resolved simply by going home.

True enough. American military strategists were very clear about one thing:  by bringing the war to Afghanistan, they thought they were distracting Al Qaeda from attacking us in the United States. This is a very different situation.  This time around, we are stepping into a civil war and, as we learned from our own Civil Wars, no one wins a civil war because, in the end, you are fighting against yourself.

By sticking his nose back into this mess, President Obama, far from being diplomatic, is being very political, attempting to diffuse criticisms of his administrations by those who feel that we have not done enough in Iraq.  On the contrary, we have done much too much already, and it is time for us to wake up to that fact.

The strategy of lopping the head off the snake, which worked with Al Qaeda, won’t work here because there is an inexhaustible supply of young Sunnis who really believe the ISIS rhetoric that the Shiites are evil and must be exterminated.  Every time we kill off the heads of ISIS, we aren’t lopping the head off the snake; we’re creating new opportunities for other people to step into those leadership shoes.  ISIS or ISIL  isn’t a snake.  It’s a Medusa, and two heads will grow back for each one that we lope off.

Having succumbed to the clarion cry that his administration should do something, the Obama administration has gone ahead and done the wrong thing because it was the only thing they could do.  The right move was to simply pull out, pick up our sticks and head home, letting  them kill each other and depending upon Allah to sort them out. Not willing to do nothing, the Obama administration, in our name,  will take pot shots at ISIS leaders hoping that will do the trick.  It won’t.

The Obama administration, facing an off-year election in which the smart money is betting that the Democrats will lose the Senate, decided to do something presidential to staunch the bleeding.  Sticking our nose into other people’s business isn’t good diplomacy, nor is it good politics, because the American people are very, very, very tired of this endless, unwinnable war.

Believing that we can change the facts of life in the Middle East isn’t far-thinking, far-reaching, or even feasible, and announcing this on the day before 9/11 was a calculated move, but it was a blunder, because it seems to pander to the American taste for vengeance which finally, thankfully, appears to be waning.

It’s not even good politics. It’s just chutzpah.