With the perspective offered by eight years since al Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001, I’ve recently been pondering what they accomplished. Sadly, they succeeded in convincing many of us to abandon American values in tragic ways:
• We invaded a country that had not attacked us based on lies advanced by our leaders, and in the process spent treasure and lives, diverting our focus from al Qaeda, and fostering ill will.
• We turned much of the Muslim world into prime recruiting grounds for terrorist groups like al Qaeda.
• We shelved our obligations under the Geneva Conventions.
• We suspended habeas corpus.
• We tortured.
• We spied on Americans with a warrantless wiretapping program and with broad new governmental powers contained in the hurriedly approved and Orwellian-named Patriot Act.
Essentially, Osama bin Laden got Americans to ignore the fundamental principle that the ends do not justify the means, an edict that was stressed repeatedly at the fundamentalist Christian schools I attended in my youth, but one that far too many Americans willingly discard as they shake in their boots at the thought of another terrorist attack.
Were those bin Laden’s goals when he ordered those contemptible attacks eight years ago? I don’t know, but I’m guessing that he’s not too disappointed with those results.
I do know that bin Laden’s cronies aimed to terrorize Americans. Our actions following 9/11 show that they succeeded in scaring most of us witless.
How much better if Americans instead had found the courage and patriotism to quote Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty or give me death” — when our leaders proposed violating core American principles or eroding our precious liberties in response to the 9/11 attacks.
Instead, most of us seemed to whimper, “Keep me safe at any cost, forget blood-bought liberty, ignore precious American principles.”
Patrick Henry must have done a lot of spinning in his grave during the last eight years.
But those fear-based reactions aren’t just aroused by the prospect of another terrorist attack. Lately, it seems that most of us are scared of almost everything, seemingly addicted to hearing frightening lies.
We saw it during the presidential campaign: lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace, birth certificate, religion, friends, patriotism and politics ran rampant. Gullible Americans who believed those lies quaked at the prospect of an Obama presidency.
After Obama’s election, scary-lies addicts latched onto health-care reform: death panels, coverage for illegal immigrants, no private insurance, Medicare cuts, rationed care. These bald-faced, easily disprovable lies would be laughable if only so many unthinking Americans weren’t scared witless believing them.
As for the folks spreading these lies, whether they’re politicians or pundits, they ought to be ashamed of the damage they’re doing to this great nation. That many of them are motivated by political or fiscal gain just deepens the shame they ought to feel. Those who genuinely believe the lies they spew ought to be ashamed of their stupidity.
What happened to our “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” ethos inscribed on the Statue of Liberty? For many, it has withered into a confused, xenophobic zeal against the very kind of people who founded this nation.
What happened to our can-do spirit that put a man on the moon? That was a risky proposition, but Americans embraced the challenge and achieved the goal. In my lifetime, for far too many, that spirit has shriveled into a whimpering shadow of its former self, curled into the fetal position begging, “Don’t hurt me!”
What happened to the Founding Fathers’ example — rooted in the Age of Reason and The Enlightenment — of embracing logic and rationality? We’ve abandoned that for uncivil discourse based on falsehoods, or as Keith Olbermann put it last week, being “wrong at the top of your voice.”
Eight years after the attacks of 9/11, let’s take a long, clear-eyed look at what we’ve become, and vow not to give al Qaeda the victory of changing our spirit. Let’s reclaim our courage, our compassion, our critical thinking skills, our can-do spirit, our civil liberties.
Reclaiming those quintessential American characteristics not only diminishes al Qaeda, it also honors the victims of 9/11 and the sacrifices of patriots since the Revolutionary War to defend this great nation.
Reclaiming our American spirit is, quite simply, the patrotic thing to do.