We’ve learned the wrong lesson from 9/11

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

So said George Santayana, a Spanish-born American author, in 1905.

Perhaps that’s why my wife and I, during a long weekend in New York for a wedding, took a train and subway ride into the Big Apple to see the 9/11 memorial.

As a friend told us, that’s something you do only once. It’s a sober reminder of what happened on one particular day 18 years ago.

Once is enough for a powerful reminder like that.

Cannot forget

If you were old enough to remember that day, those two airplanes crashing into the iconic World Trade Center towers provided memories you’ll never forget. I was a newspaper copy editor in Michigan at the time, watching the surreal events unfold on deadline.

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Our daily newspaper published several editions that day, because the news happened so fast. Our first edition didn’t even mention the attack. The last edition – literally a stop-the-presses moment – reported the panic and shock of a nation-defining tragedy.

Since that day, our society has changed permanently, and not necessarily for the better. We no longer trust each other, not in airports – security is tighter than it’s ever been – or even on the sidewalk, where we stare at our phones or listen to our music, oblivious to the world around us.

Burned-out fire trucks and ambulances. Twisted steel of the north and south towers. Charred pieces of the airplanes-turned-weapons. Snippets from the morning TV talk shows, interrupted by updates from Ground Zero. Smoke billowing in New York, at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania.

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The memorial captures all of it. And much more.

As if we could ever forget.

Fear replaces trust

It struck me that people in other parts of the world face these fears every day. Imagine the Kurds in Syria right now. Will they be alive tomorrow?

We lived through that once.

Just once.

We have the capability to prevent such attacks, for the most part anyway, by stepping up security. Cameras watch us everywhere – not just at airports, but at businesses, street corners and even some private homes.

We don’t trust anyone anymore.

Why is there so much evil in the world today? Because that’s what we expect of each other.

We act out our fears.

If, instead, we would look for the good in the world, we’d see it. I discovered that as we raised our three sons. Give them a little age-appropriate responsibility, and they’ll step up. A little alone time because Mom and Dad both need to run a short errand. Then, our oldest driving to an out-of-town event with his best friend as a teenager. Eventually, all three of our sons went away to college.

We trusted them, because we’d prepared them. And they passed with flying colors.

Perhaps that works at home, but society no longer operates that way.

Unity, for a brief moment

If your skin color is different, if your nationality or religious beliefs are different, you are not to be trusted. That didn’t start on Sept. 11, 2001, of course, but it sure increased after that date.

Immediately after 9/11, this nation unified like I’d never seen it do before. That lasted about three weeks. Then people stopped going to church and praying for each other, seeking solace in the unity that comes from a shared experience.

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In a sense, we’ve forgotten the past already. We’ve forgotten what unifies us.

We care only about what divides us. Our politics, our religion, our nationality, our social values, our language. We build walls, literal ones and figurative ones in our hearts.

Every one of us, including me, does this.

When our sons were learning to drive, I told them not to trust any other driver on the road. Act as if all of them are idiots, so that when another driver does something stupid, you won’t be surprised. And you’ll be ready to react.

That’s good advice on the road. Unfortunately, we live all of our lives that way, don’t we?

We prove ourselves untrustworthy. Every time I drive on a highway – every single time – I get passed by drivers going 15 mph or more over the speed limit. So do you, unless you’re the speeder. There aren’t enough police cars out there to prevent this.

Identity theft. Robo calls. Inferior products (we don’t build things the way we used to; I could write a column just about this). I’m renting a tux for an upcoming wedding; the company doesn’t want me to pick it up early, and they want it back on Sunday, the day after the wedding. They don’t trust me to keep it even one extra day, even though I’m paying more than $200 for the privilege of holding onto that tux for, like, four days. Not five.

The new normal

Why do we remember 9/11? Is it to point fingers at the bad guys?

Is that all we learned?

Have we forgotten what unifies us?

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Every one of us is the bad guy, actually. Each of us, including you and me, is an enemy to someone. If you call yourself a Republican or a Democrat, you’re an enemy. If you’re white or black or Middle Eastern, you’re an enemy to someone. If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, you’re Satan personified to someone.

We have more in common than we think we do. 9/11 proved that, if only for three weeks.

The fallout proves how much we’ve forgotten.

Why visit the 9/11 memorial in New York?

How do we prevent such a tragedy from happening again? While we haven’t had an attack of that scale on our soil since, we have mass shootings all the time. Most of them are internal, not from outside terrorists.

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We no longer trust each other. We put up walls and stockpile weapons to protect ourselves. The spiral deepens.

I went for a jog through the neighborhood shortly after we bought our house two years ago. I left the front door open, since I wasn’t planning to be gone long. My neighbor noticed and said I shouldn’t do that, because there’s teenagers around who will steal stuff.

Even in suburban America, this is the world we live in. We’re hardly safe even in our own homes.

The world has come to our front porch. We’ve slammed the door, and locked it out.

This is our 9/11 legacy. I’m afraid we’ve missed the lesson we needed to learn.

Hamilton: Early lessons still apply

I just finished reading Alexander Hamilton, the 731-page opus that the current Broadway play is based on. Author Ron Chernow claims, with extensive research, that Hamilton was one of the nation’s most influential founders. He was George Washington’s right-hand man, among many other things.

I underlined various phrases, sentences and quotes throughout the book, published in 2004, that seem applicable even today. I haven’t seen the play, but if it’s anything like the book, it’s easy to relate to, as well as a wonderful history lesson.

I’ve divided the applicable parts of Hamilton into nearly a dozen themes, which should give me plenty of fodder for this post and several upcoming ones. Perhaps we as Americans can understand a little of who we are today based on how we began as a nation.

Here’s the first theme I’ll discuss:

The authority of central government

… (Hamilton’s) encounters with the two obdurate (American) generals (in 1877, at age 22) strengthened his preference for strict hierarchy and centralized command as the only way to accomplish things – a view that was to find its political equivalent in his preference for concentrated federal power instead of authority dispersed among the states. (p. 103)

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Hamilton, as a top aide to General George Washington in battles against the invading British, ran into two American generals who didn’t respect Washington’s leadership. Washington supported his youthful aide’s admonishment of the “obdurate generals,” both of whom refused Washington’s requests to send some of their troops to help him in New Jersey.

The future of the nascent nation was in serious doubt at this point, and Washington hadn’t yet earned the respect that would eventually propel him to become our first president. The British – and the French – had strongholds on our soil, and Washington needed all the help he could get to establish the Union.

 

… the Constitution transcended state governments and directly expressed the will of the American people. Hence, the Constitution began “We the People of the United States” and was ratified by special conventions, not state legislatures. (p. 574)

 

The division between federal and states’ rights provided one of the first debates in our country. It wasn’t a simple discussion then, and it still isn’t today. Immigration, same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana: Are these federal or state issues?

How about standards for public education? Road repairs? Police issues?

Who gets the final say?

In 2017 on illegal immigration, the federal government gets the final say. Here’s stories of two undocumented immigrants, one of whom in Willard, Ohio, was deported to Mexico this morning (July 18, 2017) and the other in Ann Arbor, Mich., who faces deportation, also to Mexico, on Aug. 2.

 

http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2017/07/willard_father_says_goodbye_to.html

http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2017/07/ann_arbor_council_takes_stand.html

 

Both have families in the United States, and have lived here for well over a decade. The stories are gut-wrenching, and that’s the media’s point. Policies affect specific people.

But officials of the federal government, in the form of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), see the bigger picture. In the Ohio case, as reported by Cleveland.com:

 

According to ICE, “Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly has made it clear that ICE will no longer exempt any class of individuals from removal proceedings if they are found to be in the country illegally.”

 

That’s two sides of the same coin: Living in the U.S. illegally while at the same time contributing to society here.

Which side should prevail?

Hamilton most likely would have sided with the Trump administration on this issue:

 

Hamilton probably had the gravest doubts about the wisdom of the masses and wanted elected leaders who would guide them. This was the great paradox of his career: his optimistic view of America’s potential coexisted with an essentially pessimistic view of human nature. His faith in Americans never quite matched his faith in America itself. (p. 232)

 

In the same vein is this quote later on in the book:

 

“… it is long since I have learnt to hold popular opinion of no value.” (p. 476)

 

Why did Hamilton have this paradox? He felt that he knew how best to run the new country, which angered his opponents. (Hamilton was a federalist and his opponents, led by Thomas Jefferson and others, were republicans, by the way.) He studied European models extensively, even though he never visited Europe, and read voraciously about numerous topics – finance, politics, government, military force, the judiciary and many others.

 

If politics is preeminently the art of compromise, then Hamilton was in some ways poorly suited for his job. He wanted to be a statesman who led courageously, not a politician who made compromises. Instead of proceeding with small, piecemeal measures, he had presented a gigantic package of fiscal measures that he wanted accepted all at once. (p. 324)

 

Hamilton had proposed an extensive, detailed system of banking, finance and public debt that intertwined with each other, that once established became impossible to overturn or replace. This might be Hamilton’s greatest legacy today. (More on that in a future post.) His economic system required federal oversight since its scope was so broad, and states’ rights advocates opposed it on those grounds.

Jefferson was one of Hamilton’s primary antagonists throughout his political career.

 

“I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government,” (Jefferson) told (James) Madison. “It is always oppressive.” (p. 311)

 

One of those oppressive acts was enacted during John Adams’ presidency at the end of the 18th century. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts that did four things:

  • They lengthened from five to 14 years the period necessary to become a naturalized citizen with full voting rights.
  • The president was given the power to deport, without a hearing or even a reasonable explanation, any foreign-born residents deemed dangerous to the peace.
  • The president was given the power to label as enemy aliens any residents who were citizens of a country at war with America, prompting an outflow of French emigres.
  • It became a crime to speak or publish “any false, scandalous or malicious” writings against the U.S. government or Congress “with intent to defame … or to bring them … into contempt or disrepute,” with the guilty facing a stiff fine and a prison sentence. (p. 570)

Sound familiar?

Less than a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court enacted a temporary travel ban for certain people from six primarily Muslim countries, which President Donald Trump has declared as terrorism hot-spots. The court is to take up the issue again in October.

In 1798, Hamilton supported the Alien and Sedition Acts – even though he himself was an immigrant, born in the British West Indies. He was upset with the writings of certain foreign-born journalists, to the point that he was willing to support radical measures to silence them.

Jefferson took the high road.

 

Jefferson professed a serene faith that the common sense of the people would rectify such errors. (p. 572)

 

Eventually, Jefferson’s faith prevailed.

Whether Hamilton’s harsh view of public opinion or “the common sense of the people,” in Jefferson’s words, will prevail in today’s political climate remains to be seen.