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.”