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Like many of you, I spent much of last weekend with an ear tuned to the radio, hearing tale after tale of heroism, bravery, horror and loss engendered by the terrorist attacks that rained from American skies in commercial jetliners on September 11, 2001. Widows talked about giving birth to fatherless children conceived before the attacks. Fathers told stories about their sons, firefighters and policemen, lost in the rubble at Ground Zero.
It was oddly comforting to hear women who’d lost the loves of their lives talk about finding new love. It was terrible to hear American Muslim children tell stories of being scorned and taunted in the halls of their schools after the attacks, a perverse byproduct of 9/11 that persists to this day.
It was all sobering and disquieting.
I remembered where I was on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, editing a weekly newspaper that was just about to be put to bed, but whose cover page and cover story had to be changed at the last minute. Images flooded the internet minutes after the twin towers fell, and it seemed most publications were choosing to use the towers-falling-down image — the giant rolling ball of smoke and whirling debris rising as concrete, mortar and steel plummeted downward — to further permanently imprint the horror on America’s collective visual consciousness. We followed in lockstep and plastered a picture of the second tower exploding into flames on our Sept. 13 cover.
We were a bit more sober and thoughtful the following week, and chose a beautiful black and white image of the Trinity Church Cemetery in lower Manhattan, covered with dust and fluttering scraps of paper. Our courage sought to quiet the clamor for war coming out of Washington and to ask what this event would mean for the future of our country.
I wrote: “[We are told] we must ‘act vigorously,’ though we’re not exactly sure against whom. The Middle East, apparently, is composed largely of ‘rogue nations’ — President Bush’s characterization — “many of which we’ve sold boatloads of deadly weapons to in recent years and whose leaders are our former and current friends.
“Above all,” I wrote, “I understand in no uncertain terms, we must not ask questions or flirt with alternative points of view [on the question of going to war].”
Ten years later, I think most of us can agree on a few things: $1.6 trillion spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has not brought peace or prosperity to the United States, to Iraq, or Afghanistan. The tally of human lives lost — some 200,000 civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, six-thousand Americans in combat — doesn’t even begin to measure the depth of destruction inflicted on bodies, minds, cities, villages, and country sides. And if we listen carefully to analysts and journalists who have spend the last ten years on the ground over there, we ought to agree by now that these wars are not winnable.
Four years after 9/11, when Cindy Sheehan led a band of mothers to Crawford, Texas, to demand an audience with President Bush, to force him to listen to their reasons for ending the war in Iraq, I arranged a telephone interview. Sheehan was tied up with national press when I called, but I was directed to another of the Gold Star Mothers for Peace, a soft-spoken woman from New York City whose name I’ve forgotten.
She said: “I remember the day the towers came down. I told my husband later that night, you know, we have an opportunity as a country to do the right thing, to refuse to meet violence with violence. But I knew that was not what we would do.” Her son, who had been headed for college, enlisted in the Army and was among the first ground forces killed in Iraq in 2003.
Ten years after 9/11, I wonder why am I not part of a groundswell of opponents of the wars, out pounding the streets demanding our withdrawal? Why aren’t we raising hell about our government’s budget priorities, even as poverty levels in the U.S. have risen in the past decade to the highest in 53 years?
I want to take that mother’s hand and tell her that I lost a son too, to rage and despair, after he deployed to Iraq but before he went to Afghanistan, not in combat but in his basement bedroom. I want to ask her and the President and the Congress and everyone else: Haven’t we lost enough?
I want to know what part of me, of many of us, of our national will, was crushed by those falling towers.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.