Monday, September 11, 2006

The Hole In The Ground

Ground Zero: incredibly, still there.
Following another day of the same sanctimonious and empty gestures from our Fearless Leader, Keith Olbermann did it again. He's been on fire lately this season as the anti-Democrat/pro-fear rhetoric has ratcheted up yet again, and this is quite possibly the best special commentary he has done since his classic post-Katrina piece excoriating the government's clueless response to that epic disaster.

The full transcript of his words follows this paragraph, but I highly reccommend watching the video of this seething commentary (posted
here) to get the full effect.

Half a lifetime ago, I worked in this now-empty space. And for 40 days after the attacks, I worked here again, trying to make sense of what happened, and was yet to happen, as a reporter.

All the time, I knew that the very air I breathed contained the remains of thousands of people, including four of my friends, two in the planes and -- as I discovered from those "missing posters" seared still into my soul -- two more in the Towers.

And I knew too, that this was the pyre for hundreds of New York policemen and firemen, of whom my family can claim half a dozen or more, as our ancestors.

I belabor this to emphasize that, for me this was, and is, and always shall be, personal.

And anyone who claims that I and others like me are "soft,"or have "forgotten" the lessons of what happened here is at best a grasping, opportunistic, dilettante and at worst, an idiot whether he is a commentator, or a Vice President, or a President.

However, of all the things those of us who were here five years ago could have forecast -- of all the nightmares that unfolded before our eyes, and the others that unfolded only in our minds -- none of us could have predicted this.

Five years later this space is still empty.

Five years later there is no memorial to the dead.

Five years later there is no building rising to show with proud defiance that we would not have our America wrung from us, by cowards and criminals.

Five years later this country's wound is still open.

Five years later this country's mass grave is still unmarked.

Five years later this is still just a background for a photo-op.

It is beyond shameful.

At the dedication of the Gettysburg Memorial -- barely four months after the last soldier staggered from another Pennsylvania field -- Mr. Lincoln said, "we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

Lincoln used those words to immortalize their sacrifice.

Today our leaders could use those same words to rationalize their reprehensible inaction. "We cannot dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground." So we won't.

Instead they bicker and buck pass. They thwart private efforts, and jostle to claim credit for initiatives that go nowhere. They spend the money on irrelevant wars, and elaborate self-congratulations, and buying off columnists to write how good a job they're doing instead of doing any job at all.

Five years later, Mr. Bush, we are still fighting the terrorists on these streets. And look carefully, sir, on these 16 empty acres. The terrorists are clearly, still winning.

And, in a crime against every victim here and every patriotic sentiment you mouthed but did not enact, you have done nothing about it.

And there is something worse still than this vast gaping hole in this city, and in the fabric of our nation. There is its symbolism of the promise unfulfilled, the urgent oath, reduced to lazy execution.

The only positive on 9/11 and the days and weeks that so slowly and painfully followed it was the unanimous humanity, here, and throughout the country. The government, the President in particular, was given every possible measure of support.

Those who did not belong to his party -- tabled that.

Those who doubted the mechanics of his election -- ignored that.

Those who wondered of his qualifications -- forgot that.

History teaches us that nearly unanimous support of a government cannot be taken away from that government by its critics. It can only be squandered by those who use it not to heal a nation's wounds, but to take political advantage.

Terrorists did not come and steal our newly-regained sense of being American first, and political, fiftieth. Nor did the Democrats. Nor did the media. Nor did the people.

The President -- and those around him -- did that.

They promised bi-partisanship, and then showed that to them, "bi-partisanship" meant that their party would rule and the rest would have to follow, or be branded, with ever-escalating hysteria, as morally or intellectually confused, as appeasers, as those who, in the Vice President's words yesterday, "validate the strategy of the terrorists."

They promised protection, and then showed that to them "protection" meant going to war against a despot whose hand they had once shaken, a despot who we now learn from our own Senate Intelligence Committee, hated al-Qaida as much as we did.

The polite phrase for how so many of us were duped into supporting a war, on the false premise that it had 'something to do' with 9/11 is "lying by implication."

The impolite phrase is "impeachable offense."

Not once in now five years has this President ever offered to assume responsibility for the failures that led to this empty space, and to this, the current, curdled, version of our beloved country.

Still, there is a last snapping flame from a final candle of respect and fairness: even his most virulent critics have never suggested he alone bears the full brunt of the blame for 9/11.

Half the time, in fact, this President has been so gently treated, that he has seemed not even to be the man most responsible for anything in his own administration.

Yet what is happening this very night?

A mini-series, created, influenced -- possibly financed by -- the most radical and cold of domestic political Machiavellis, continues to be televised into our homes.

The documented truths of the last fifteen years are replaced by bald-faced lies; the talking points of the current regime parroted; the whole sorry story blurred, by spin, to make the party out of office seem vacillating and impotent, and the party in office, seem like the only option.

How dare you, Mr. President, after taking cynical advantage of the unanimity and love, and transmuting it into fraudulent war and needless death, after monstrously transforming it into fear and suspicion and turning that fear into the campaign slogan of three elections? How dare you -- or those around you -- ever "spin" 9/11?

Just as the terrorists have succeeded -- are still succeeding -- as long as there is no memorial and no construction here at Ground Zero.

So, too, have they succeeded, and are still succeeding as long as this government uses 9/11 as a wedge to pit Americans against Americans.

This is an odd point to cite a television program, especially one from March of 1960. But as Disney's continuing sell-out of the truth (and this country) suggests, even television programs can be powerful things.

And long ago, a series called "The Twilight Zone" broadcast a riveting episode entitled "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street."

In brief: a meteor sparks rumors of an invasion by extra-terrestrials disguised as humans. The electricity goes out. A neighbor pleads for calm. Suddenly his car -- and only his car -- starts. Someone suggests he must be the alien. Then another man's lights go on. As charges and suspicion and panic overtake the street, guns are inevitably produced. An "alien" is shot -- but he turns out to be just another neighbor, returning from going for help. The camera pulls back to a near-by hill, where two extra-terrestrials are seen manipulating a small device that can jam electricity. The veteran tells his novice that there's no need to actually attack, that you just turn off a few of the human machines and then, "they pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it's themselves."

And then, in perhaps his finest piece of writing, Rod Serling sums it up with words of remarkable prescience, given where we find ourselves tonight: "The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men.

"For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own -- for the children, and the children yet unborn."

When those who dissent are told time and time again -- as we will be, if not tonight by the President, then tomorrow by his portable public chorus -- that he is preserving our freedom, but that if we use any of it, we are somehow un-American...When we are scolded, that if we merely question, we have "forgotten the lessons of 9/11"... look into this empty space behind me and the bi-partisanship upon which this administration also did not build, and tell me:

Who has left this hole in the ground?

We have not forgotten, Mr. President.

You have.

May this country forgive you.

Moving Ahead, Guardedly

Sign of the times: don't do, just support.

(the following is reprinted sans permission from

9/11 Has Changed Few Lives
Surprisingly, the mind-sets of most Americans haven't been greatly altered.
By Stephanie Simon, Times Staff Writer
September 11, 2006

Airport trash cans overflow with toothpaste and deodorant.

Thousands of college students bend their heads over Arabic texts.

In Minneapolis, networks of sensors continually sample air for anthrax, smallpox and bubonic plague. In Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman is alerted when cars with out-of-state license plates are spotted cruising cattle feedlots.

On a gravel road in rural Indiana, the Amish Country Popcorn factory makes the federal list of potential terrorist targets — a list of 77,069.

Five years after Sept. 11, this is the new normal.

Nearly 3,000 Americans died when terrorists hijacked four planes, crashing two into the World Trade Center's twin towers, one into the Pentagon and another into a field in Pennsylvania.

Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns calls the attack "as seismic as an event can be …. Rarely does the future announce itself so vividly and horrifyingly."

Residents of New York and Washington remain edgy. And those who lost loved ones, or have relatives or friends serving in the military abroad, can't help but be reminded all too often of Sept. 11.

Remarkably, though, the day-to-day lives of most Americans have changed very little. We have found it easy, perhaps startlingly easy, to stick to routines and habits and mind-sets forged before we could have conceived of planes as missiles. Last month, the Pew Research Center polled about 1,500 adults across the country. More than 40% said the terrorist attacks had not changed their personal lives at all. And 36% said their lives had been altered "only a little bit."

Sept. 11 is often compared to another day of infamy, Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Historians, however, see no comparison. World War II demanded personal sacrifice from every American family. The global war on terrorism has touched only a few directly, even as the threat level bounces from orange to yellow to orange to red.

"Many of the predictions made five years ago by cultural pundits about positive long-term changes on our behavior, on our attitudes, even on the art we make, have proved largely untrue," says novelist Julia Glass, who won a National Book Award for Three Junes.

She finds the lack of transformation depressing, a moment missed. "You could say it's because human beings are so good at adapting," Glass suggests. "Or because we tend toward a certain set point of selfishness and complacency."

That capacity for moving on, for getting back to normal, infuriated Army Staff Sgt. Jay White when he was home last summer between tours of duty in Iraq. "It used to drive him nuts when we were standing in line and somebody was complaining about their Frappuccino," recalls his wife, Jessica.

Jessica feels that same frustration at the high school in Cromwell, Conn., where she teaches history.

"It's a feeling of isolation and loneliness and confusion," she says. Her husband left on his most recent deployment less than three weeks after their wedding. "You hear about the dramas of the 16-year-old girls all the time, and I want to go: 'You don't even know what people are going through. What your own teacher's going through,' " she says.

Though most Americans have seen little change in their lives, many do recognize the effect Sept. 11 had on their neighbors and on society as a whole. In the Pew poll, 51% said their country had changed "in a major way."

Those changes are not exactly what the pundits predicted in the days after Sept. 11.

Back then, President Bush publicly wrapped the top Democrat in the Senate, Tom Daschle, in a bear hug; unity in the face of adversity seemed the only possible course. But fighting terrorism proved a sharply partisan issue — and all too susceptible to fear-mongering.

"National security has become just another political weapon to beat each other up with," says Leon E. Panetta, White House chief of staff under President Clinton.

It has also become a top priority for many voters, a noted change from decades past.

"Generally speaking, you could almost [always] gauge the outcome of elections by the economy," says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. "Now that issue has been trumped by the war on terror … and understandably. We received a national shock on 9/11."

Immediately after the terrorist strikes, 64% of Americans said they trusted their government to do the right thing all or most of the time. By the summer of 2002, the figure had dropped to 39%.

These days, the paradigm has shifted so dramatically that 36% of Americans say it's at least somewhat likely the federal government was complicit in the attacks, according to a recent Scripps-Howard poll.

Tens of thousands of people have viewed an online film that asserts the government plotted to bring down the twin towers and blow up the Pentagon — and then pin the blame on Arab hijackers as a pretext to invade the Middle East. In the weeks after the attacks, when American flags seemed to fly from nearly every home, when nearly every marquee proclaimed "God Bless America," it would have been impossible to imagine such a dark conspiracy theory gaining such traction.

In those days, many pundits predicted Americans would turn to God in their moment of stress, and, for a time, church attendance shot up. Polls showed Americans grappling with big questions about God and salvation.

The revival lasted three months.

By January, church attendance was back to normal. The Barna Group, a polling firm for religious groups, found no movement in standard measures of faith, such as Bible reading. "Spiritually speaking, it's as if nothing significant ever happened," says David Kinnaman, a Barna vice president.

So what, then, has changed since Sept. 11?

The American Civil Liberties Union has devoted vast amounts to fighting Bush administration policies such as eavesdropping without a warrant on certain phone calls and imprisoning American citizens indefinitely without charges or access to a lawyer. Those efforts have clearly resonated: ACLU membership has grown more than 80%, revenue has jumped 34%, and the group has nearly doubled the size of its national staff.

Other civil liberties groups have been equally charged. At New York's Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Director Bill Goodman has handled cases brought by terrorist suspects imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay and by U.S. soldiers forced to serve beyond their terms of enlistment. He has sued on behalf of immigrants detained after Sept. 11 and foreigners who allege they were tortured by American agents.

The center's caseload has "been taken over by post-9/11 litigation," Goodman says.

The government, too, has been consumed by its new focus on terrorism. The FBI's budget has doubled. Federal spending on air security has quadrupled. The Department of Homeland Security has checked 2.7 million truckers against a terrorist watch list.

In Los Angeles, Edina Lekovic, a Muslim, senses Sept. 11 fallout when she leaves the house in her head scarf. Strangers stop her in the supermarket to ask if her father forces her to cover her hair. They wonder aloud if she's oppressed. Then they grill her about jihad.

"Life has gotten a lot more complicated," says Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national policy group. "To be a Muslim in this day and age is to be in a pressure cooker, 24/7. You have to constantly explain your faith…. [We] went from private citizens to public ambassadors."

For Chris Simcox, the new normal means a new vigilance — and long nights pacing the Mexican border with a gun. Long disturbed by illegal immigration, Simcox says he had an epiphany after Sept. 11: "The next terrorists are not going to come in on visas." So he moved to Phoenix and founded the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to help guard his country.

Simcox says he has signed up 8,000 volunteer Minutemen. His themes are also seeping into election-year politics. Randy Graf, an Arizona Republican running for a U.S. House seat, explains his call for a crackdown on illegal immigration this way: "We all remember what happened on Sept. 11."

"I tell you," Simcox says, triumphant, "the sleeping giant has awakened."

The fallout from Sept. 11 has affected the world of culture as well.

Musicians have channeled sorrow, rage and fear into anthems to that indelible day. Classical composer John Adams gave us a haunting elegy with "On the Transmigration of Souls." Country singer Toby Keith served up a lusty cry for vengeance with "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." And Bruce Springsteen poured out his empathy for terrorism's victims — and its perpetrators — in his 2002 album, The Rising.

With his novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Ken Kalfus brought black comedy to the age of terror. He sets his satire about a divorcing couple in Manhattan in 2001; at one point, husband and wife each think the other has died in the World Trade Center — and each is secretly delighted. It's a deliberate effort, Kalfus says, to disprove what "we were told after 9/11, that irony was dead."

For her part, New York writer Martha McPhee, a former National Book Award finalist, had one of the main characters in her cross-cultural love story, L'America, die in the collapse of the north tower.

"It's not surprising that novelists want to try" to take on Sept. 11, McPhee says, "because what a novel tries to do is make sense out of something that makes no sense."

That's what Americans have tried to do as well these last five years: make sense of the senseless. Shock waves from Sept. 11 reverberate still, but carrying on with the familiar humdrum of our lives lets us feel stable, even as radiation detectors are installed at the Super Bowl and security guards at the airport order us to toss our bottled water.

"Probably no American life is totally unaffected by 9/11, but very few people are immobilized or totally preoccupied with it," says Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.

Lifton studies the psychology of survival, and he says we as a nation have not fully come to terms with the fear, the anger — or the humiliation — 9/11 evoked. We have learned to live with the new normal, yes. But that doesn't mean we've moved past that bright September day of unthinkable horror.

"It's a powerful event which has not been fully absorbed," Lifton says, "and in many ways floats in and out of our psyches."


Times staff writers Richard Fausset, Janet Hook, Jenny Jarvie, Lynn Marshall, Scott Martelle, Charles McNulty, Ann Powers, Maria Russo, Mark Swed, David L. Ulin, Henry Weinstein and Robert W. Welkos contributed to this report.