On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sleeping upstairs in a two-story shotgun shack in Locke, the rickety Chinese fishing village in the Sacramento River Delta some 30 miles south, down a winding levee road from the state capital.
“You gotta see this!” my roommate yelled from downstairs. It was early in the morning and the news was on the TV, which is always a dark premonition in my experience
The first jetliner had already struck the north tower of the World Trade Center; smoke poured out of a gash in the building’s side. Since I hadn’t seen the plane strike the building, I was just about to ask my roommate what happened when, live on TV, the second plane slashed through the south tower, creating a huge fireball.
“Holy crap!” We both jumped.
We sat riveted to the TV for the next hour-and-a-half. People on the upper floors of the burning skyscrapers began jumping to their deaths to avoid being burned alive. After a third jetliner crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania on the way to the White House, it was clear America was under attack.
Fifteen minutes later, the 1300-foot-tall south tower inexplicably pancaked in a pyroclastic cloud of pulverized concrete and shattered steel beams, just like in those slow-motion films of building demolitions that everyone has seen.
We were stunned. Before we could catch our breath, the north tower mirrored its twin, collapsing in a heap of steel beams and pulverized concrete, falling almost neatly into its own footprint as thick dust choked the streets surrounding the World Trade Center complex.
“So much for Francis Fukuyama’s end of history,” I said to my roommate. “We’re going to war.”
During the first weeks after the terrorist attacks, Americans came together in a way that I hadn’t seen during my lifetime and haven’t seen since.
We hung a large American flag off our balcony in solidarity with our stricken nation. The conversation at the only bar in Locke, Al the Wops, centered on getting even with the 19 hijackers, most of whom were Saudi Arabians, members of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida terrorist group.
Then what the media called “the new normal” set in.
My first brush with the new normal came exactly one month after 9/11, on October 11. Air travel had resumed in the United States and the national guard had just been deployed to guard the gates at major airports. I purchased a ticket to fly from Sacramento to Los Angeles International Airport to report on the Guard’s deployment. As I wrote in the cover story for the Sacramento News and Review, “Homeland Insecurity,” it didn’t go according to plan:
“In Sacramento, I’d taken photographs of Guard members, armed with M-16s and pistols, taking positions behind the personnel operating the metal detectors at the security checkpoints. I’d seen other passengers take photos. I figured I’d snap a few pictures of the LAX security checkpoint and board my return flight. I figured wrong.
“As I reached the checkpoint, I saw that the four guardsmen were deployed in exactly the same fashion as in Sacramento, behind the metal detectors. I removed the small digital camera from the right breast pocket of my leather jacket and took several photographs of the armed citizen-soldiers. I had just turned to head back to the gate when a loud voice boomed at me from the direction of the checkpoint.
“‘Hey you! What are you doing?’”
“A California National Guardsman, a big guy with a buzz-cut dressed head-to-toe in camouflage army fatigues, was moving rapidly toward me. I froze as he approached. He came so close it seemed impossible he wasn’t touching me.
“‘Did you take my picture?” he asked angrily. “‘Did you take my picture?’”
“‘I’m a journalist, working on a story about airport security,’” I told him.
“‘You can’t take pictures here,’” he said.
“‘Says who?’” I asked.
“Says me!” he barked.
He moved next to me, shoulder-to-shoulder, so he could view the camera’s display screen. “‘You are going to show me the pictures you took, you are going to delete the pictures you took, and you are going to show me that they are deleted!’” he breathed down my neck.
“‘This is a public space, I have every right to be here,’” I said. “‘There are no signs that say you can’t take pictures here.’”
“‘Either you delete the photos, or I’m taking you to a room, and you can talk to my superiors. You can talk to the FBI.’”
I’d like to say I stood my ground, but I figured discretion was the better part of valor and deleted the photos. They didn’t put me in a small room, but I was detained for three hours in a waiting area while I was interviewed by the airport police, the LAPD and the FBI.
“At least you got a story,” the federal agent joked after he cleared me.
Welcome to the new normal. We’re still living in it.
The United States under President George W. Bush had invaded Afghanistan in October, refusing to negotiate with the Taliban in the search for the elusive Osama Bin Laden, who was reportedly hiding out in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan.
Bin Laden was a member of the Mujahideen guerrilla force, trained by the CIA to oppose the then-Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Soviet Union, economically burdened by an unwinnable war, was forced to withdraw from “the graveyard of empires” by the end of the decade, and collapsed several years later.
In what is known as “blow back,” Bin Laden turned his terrorism skills on his former benefactors in the 1990s, culminating in the bombings of the U.S. embassy in Kenya and the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen.
According to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation article on the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Bin Laden once boasted “with just a few jihadists, he could draw the United States military to the ends of the Earth, and drag the superpower into suffering economic, political and human losses with no lasting achievements to show for it.”
Although historians debate whether Bin Laden, who allegedly planned the terrorist attack on 9/11, lured the United States into the “Afghan trap,” two decades of war in the graveyard of empires has cost us much in blood and treasure, as recently reported by the Associated Press. Here’s the cost in human lives, including nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians:
- American service members killed in Afghanistan through April: 2,448.
- U.S. contractors: 3,846.
- Afghan national military and police: 66,000.
- Other allied service members, including from other NATO member states: 1,144.
- Afghan civilians: 47,245.
- Taliban and other opposition fighters: 51,191.
- Aid workers: 444.
- Journalists: 72.
According to the AP, the Afghanistan War has cost the United States an estimated $2 trillion, most of it borrowed. If and when it’s paid back, the total cost with interest will be $6.5 trillion. The near instantaneous collapse of the U.S.-trained-and-funded Afghanistan army upon our departure, once again turning the country over to the Taliban, is not indicative of a good investment.
Like slowly boiled frogs, we’ve become so accustomed to the new normal that most of us don’t perceive the dramatic changes that have occurred during the past two decades of our War on Terror.
The United States has waged war and/or bombing campaigns against seven countries during that time period, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Libya. We’re responsible for the deaths of nearly a million people. Most Americans hardly bat an eye; the antiwar movement fizzled out after the ill-advised Iraq invasion, even after no alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction were found.
Not even the grotesque revelations of U.S. service members torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 were enough to generate massive demonstrations in the street and bring the War on Terror to a halt.
The same applies to the “Collateral Murder” video of U.S. Blackhawk helicopters gunning down innocent civilians, including a journalist. The video was leaked in 2007 by Army intelligence analyst and whistleblower Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley, to Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange.
For this act of courageous journalism, Manning was court martialed and sentenced to prison for 7 years. Assange remains in a high security prison in England awaiting potential extradition to the United States, where he could be imprisoned for life. Both Manning and Assange have been so demonized by mainstream media many if not most Americans consider them enemies of the people.
Edward Snowden, the CIA subcontractor who in 2013 revealed numerous global surveillance programs operated by the Unites States and the United Kingdom that can track our every move online, was similarly demonized by the U.S. government and mainstream media, forcing the whistleblower into exile in Russia.
In addition to all of these events, the U.S. investigation of the terrorist attack on America on 9/11, which ultimately held no one accountable for one of the largest intelligence failures in U.S. history, fostered further distrust in the government and an obsession for conspiracy theories, best exhibited by the 9/11 Truth movement.
That’s where I am now, today, in a nation where both sides of the political spectrum live in separate realities. In one reality, truth and scientific facts still matter. In the other, falsehood and conspiracy theories prevail.
There are of course many other historical moments that have brought us to where we are today. The election of our first African American president in 2008, Barack Obama, revealed that white supremacy still exists in America with the rise of the Tea Party movement.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 gave Americans permission to be openly racist, sexist and xenophobic. We’ve been at each other’s throats ever since.
Not even our withdrawal from Afghanistan can bring back the sense of togetherness we shared during that first week after the terrorist attack on America.
Despite the fact that Trump made the peace deal with the Taliban, the mainstream media, Trump Republicans and even a few Democrats jumped on President Joe Biden for a withdrawal that was always bound to be catastrophic.
It’s odd. I voted for Trump in 2016 in part because I believed he did want to end our endless wars, as he claimed on the campaign trail. At the time, I thought his racism was just schtick; I was woefully wrong about that. But at least Trump signed a deal with the Taliban to end the longest war in our history.
Now that appears to be a policy position not shared by enthusiastic Trumpers like Sen. Lindsay Graham, who recently told the BBC we “will be going back into Afghanistan” due to the threat from, you guessed it, a supposedly resurgent Al Qaida.
The Taliban, Graham said, want to “impose a lifestyle on the Afghan people that I think is going to make us all sick to our stomach.” The irony that Trump Republicans in Texas had just unconstitutionally banned all abortions in the state was apparently lost on Sen. Graham.
“But most importantly,” said Graham, “they’re going to give safe haven to Al-Qaeda who has ambitions to drive us out of the Mideast writ large and attack us because of our way of life. We will be going back into Afghanistan as we went back into Iraq and Syria.”
Good grief, Lindsay Graham.
That’s the same old spiel we’ve been hearing for 20 years. They want to attack us for our freedoms, not the fact that we’ve killed nearly a million people in the Middle East, the vast majority of them Muslims, during the past two decades.
“Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” said philosopher George Santayana. It remains unclear if we can extract ourselves from the graveyard of empires and the rest of the Middle East.