“Look what we’ve done to ourselves”: My father on 9/11

NOTE: This was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten as an op-ed piece for a dai­ly news­pa­per. It was reject­ed by The New York Times, The Los Ange­les Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, and The Boston Globe.

When peo­ple ask me what my late father was like, I some­times say, “Have you seen DeNiro in ‘Rag­ing Bull’?” If they stare at me in dis­be­lief, they’ve seen it. “That bad?” replied one Ital­ian-Amer­i­can friend of mine who knows the movie and does some box­ing him­self.

No, not lit­er­al­ly that bad. It’s poet­ic license, though my hand­some father did look a bit like DeNiro. He was a prin­ci­pled, hard-work­ing per­son with a wife and five kids, a man who ran his own busi­ness and gave his fam­i­ly a com­fort­able life. But he was volatile and intim­i­dat­ing, occa­sion­al­ly vio­lent, what peo­ple call a hard guy, not what peo­ple call a sweet­heart. And he was most def­i­nite­ly a “my coun­try right or wrong” guy. Not a peacenik, like me.

So when he called me on 9/11, open­ly weep­ing, I wasn’t sure what to think. We were all in shock that day, but my father wasn’t the cry­ing type. True, he had mel­lowed by that time. Fif­teen years ear­li­er, the sur­prise would have been that he was call­ing me at all. Through my twen­ties and thir­ties we didn’t like or respect each oth­er much, and com­mu­ni­cat­ed rarely. By 2001, how­ev­er, I’d giv­en him a grand­daugh­ter and some prof­itable dot-com stock tips. My choice of pro­fes­sion (writer, teacher) was still an inex­plic­a­ble dis­ap­point­ment, but I’d deliv­ered val­ue on oth­er fronts. We got along and talked reg­u­lar­ly, though nev­er about pol­i­tics.

Look what we’ve done to our­selves,” he said through his tears. I assumed he meant the fail­ure of our defens­es. We’d let the ene­my get us. I wait­ed for the cry for retal­i­a­tion. But that wasn’t why he was call­ing. “Look what we’ve done with this Pales­tin­ian sit­u­a­tion,” he went on. “If we’d giv­en these peo­ple a home­land, this would nev­er have hap­pened.”

It was the most out-of-char­ac­ter thing I’d ever heard him say. Was he putting me on? Say­ing some­thing he sus­pect­ed I believed in order to mock it? It wouldn’t have been the first time. No, he was weep­ing and say­ing sin­cere­ly that we could have spared our­selves this night­mare by doing the right thing. Fur­ther­more, he had reached this con­clu­sion on his own, with just plain com­mon sense. Like most Amer­i­cans, he didn’t have much his­tor­i­cal back­ground.

He had no idea, for exam­ple, that in the 1950s the CIA helped to over­throw the demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed gov­ern­ment of Iran and install the Shah, whom the Islam­ic rev­o­lu­tion lat­er deposed. Or that in the 1970s the U.S. fund­ed a wide­ly dis­liked Osama bin Laden to fight the Sovi­ets in Afghanistan, thus help­ing to cre­ate the Al Qae­da we’d meet on 9/11. Or that when we lat­er invad­ed Iraq, the only WMDs we’d find were the ones we had sup­plied to Sadaam Hus­sein.

With­out know­ing any of that, he wit­nessed some­thing so hor­ri­ble that it short-cir­cuit­ed his reflex­es to fight and seek revenge. Instead, he asked him­self, “Why do they hate us?” And unlike George W. Bush, he came up with a decent, hon­est answer: If you do bad­ly unto oth­ers, bad things will hap­pen to you. It changed the way I looked at my father for the rest of his life.

As indi­vid­u­als we’re expect­ed to live by the Gold­en Rule, a prin­ci­ple uni­ver­sal­ly accept­ed as fun­da­men­tal to human decen­cy. As a super­pow­er, the Gold­en Rule is off the table. Men­tion it in con­nec­tion with for­eign pol­i­cy and you’ll be laughed out of the room. My hard-lin­er Repub­li­can father saw the moral rot of this, and saw that it would inevitably make Amer­i­cans unsafe on their own soil.

NSA direc­tor Kei­th Alexan­der tes­ti­fied recent­ly that secret mass sur­veil­lance of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens has helped foil ter­ror­ist plots. But no one asked Gen­er­al Alexan­der the for­bid­den ques­tion: “Of those plots, how many were the direct result of Amer­i­can provo­ca­tion, Amer­i­can injus­tice or aggres­sion, Amer­i­can vio­la­tion of the Gold­en Rule?” Sim­i­lar­ly, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma insti­tut­ed an “Insid­er Threats” cam­paign with­out ask­ing why insid­ers feel the need to reveal gov­ern­ment secrets. Nor has he acknowl­edged the damn­ing facts that the insid­ers have shown us.

It takes noth­ing away from my father to say that if he could cross the chasm of denial, any­body can. Remem­ber­ing his words on 9/11 gives me the audac­i­ty of hope, to bor­row a phrase. My auda­cious hope is that ordi­nary, hard-work­ing, non-rad­i­cal Amer­i­cans may soon arrive at his late-in-life real­iza­tion: “Look what we’ve done to our­selves.”

Comments 5

  1. We’ve been spun to death. Not many think for themselves…depend on news bites which flip you from one side of an argu­ment to the com­plete oppo­site side.
    We’re lazy…we often don’t have a POV about anything.…thanks mass media, crap­py junky cul­tur­al bea­cons, and an over­weight anti intel­lec­tu­al pub­lic in the most part…

    1. Sounds about right to me. The apa­thy and lazi­ness might change, how­ev­er, when nor­mal US streets are heav­i­ly patrolled by unmanned drones. Which is com­ing. So maybe we’re going in the only direc­tion that has a chance of wak­ing us up.

  2. Beau­ti­ful­ly spun sto­ry with impor­tant mes­sage. Loved it. You’re a fab­u­lous writer. I’m shocked that this was reject­ed by NYT, Globe, etc. Keep sub­mit­ting to others…it should be read.

    Bill

    1. Thanks, Bill. Yes, I had fan­ci­ful hopes of get­ting this in front of ordi­nary Amer­i­cans on an op-ed page, but at the same time its rejec­tion doesn’t sur­prise me.

      This lit­tle true sto­ry about my late dad con­tains dan­ger­ous infor­ma­tion. The entire fias­co called “The War on Ter­ror” rests on the idea that “we” are good hon­est peo­ple who are just try­ing to pro­mote democ­ra­cy around the world, and “they” are bar­bar­ians who want to hurt us because “they hate our free­doms.”

      That offi­cial sto­ry is non­sense, but ordi­nary Amer­i­cans must con­tin­ue believ­ing it. If they stop believ­ing it, our “lead­ers” are going to have a big prob­lem.

      1. P.S. I don’t con­done reli­gious fanati­cism or vio­lence (from any­one, “them” or “us”). But we helped cre­ate the “ene­my,” and we con­tin­ue to do so with our own ongo­ing ter­ror (unmanned drone mur­ders being only the most dra­mat­ic and vis­i­ble exam­ple). Want to make Amer­i­cans more safe? Stop cre­at­ing hatred.

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