By Corinne Colbert
Athens NEWS Editor
Last Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Of course you know that — if you listened to the radio, watched TV or logged into social media that day, you couldn’t have missed it. (On Twitter, you could choose between two “never forget” hashtags, one with a flag emoji and one without.)
Confession: I hate that it’s called Patriot Day. For one thing, we have a Patriots’ Day; it’s April 19, the date in 1775 when American colonists fought the British Army in the battles of Lexington, Concord and Menotomy. The term is apropos: A patriot is not simply someone who loves their country, but one who is “ready to support its freedoms and rights and to defend it against enemies or detractors,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Not everyone who died on 9/11 was a citizen of the United States: 12% of the victims were foreign nationals from 77 different countries (not counting the terrorists). So 88% of the victims were Americans, who may indeed have loved this country deeply. But how often do you wake up in the morning, look at yourself in the mirror, and say, “Today, I will lay down my life to defend the the United States and its way of life”?
The victims of 9/11 were going about their lives … and were murdered by terrorists.
Which is not to detract from the courage of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, who were attempting to retake control of the plane when it crashed in Pennsylvania, or of American Airlines Flight 11 attendants Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney, who calmly relayed information to officials on the ground until literally the last minute before the plane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. (If you want examples of courage, professionalism and poise under pressure, read “We Have Some Planes,” the first chapter of the 9/11 Commission’s report. Have tissues handy. Maybe do this when you won’t be bothered by a sleepless night.)
Patriotism has been linked with 9/11 by the media — such as NBC News’ flag-bedecked “Attack on America” special coverage of the attacks — and in iconic images like “Ground Zero Spirit,” the photograph of three firefighters raising an American flag amid the rubble of the Twin Towers.
And when President George W. Bush addressed the nation on the evening of Sept. 11, his remarks were designed to stir those feelings. Of the 589 words in his address, nearly half — the beginning and end — were an appeal to patriotism. He framed the hijackings as attacks on “our way of life, our very freedom” because “we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.” Alluding to the collapse of the World Trade Center, he vowed that the attacks “cannot touch the foundation of America” or “dent the steel of American resolve.”
“None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world,” he concluded.
He was more explicit n a private conversation earlier that day, with Vice President Dick Cheney. “We are at war,” Bush said. “Someone is going to pay.”
It took 10 years to catch Osama bin Laden, in part because the Bush Administration used the attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq in 2003. (On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had his staff looking for “best info fast. Judge whether good enough to hit [Saddam Hussein]. Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”)
The War on Terror that began when we invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 has cost over 1 million lives. Most of them were civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
More than 7,000 American service members have died in post-9/11 military operations. Nearly half of post-9/11 veterans have lifelong disabilities (compared to 25% for previous wars). More than 30,000 U.S. veterans of those operations have died by suicide.
Iraq now struggles to remake itself despite its destroyed infrastructure, fractured society, radicalized insurgents and hostile neighbors.
The United States recently withdrew from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. The Taliban — which harbored bin Laden and al-Qaeda as the attacks were planned — is once again in control.
Lots of someones paid for 9/11. But the cost in life, liberty and happiness should bring on some buyer’s remorse. How I wish that on that evening 20 years ago, Bush had built upon these words in his address:
“Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America. With the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”
But he didn’t. Yet as divided as we are today, what many of us remember 9/11 and its immediate aftermath was that outpouring of support and the shared burden of grief.
If you want to honor the lives of those who fell from the sky on 9/11, do something to help the living. Volunteer with a community service organization; give to a reputable charity.
Next September 11, make something tasty for your local firefighters or EMTs. Reflect on the joy of going about your day and coming home alive.
Just don’t call it Patriot Day, OK?