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September 11: a Bloody Ending or a New Beginning Baptized in Blood?

By Cheryl Seal (cherylseal@hotmail.com)

The night before the terrorist attack, I received word that my father had died. It was not a shock – he was 96 years old, had been in a nursing home for three years and had lost touch with the here and now some time before then. But no matter how prepared you are for it, there is a finality to death that shakes you to your foundation and marks the end of a small universe and of an historic “micro era.” Something is suddenly, irrevocably gone. No matter what role the deceased may have played in your life, they were a part of it – whether they were the main course or just seasoning, things will never taste the same again.

I was still deep in the process of dealing with this news when the terrorist attack occurred. Although I knew none of the victims, the event hit me on a far more personal level than it might have because of my own loss. I was much more acutely aware of the sense that hundreds, thousands of micro eras, of small universes, had come to an end, that millions of fibers had been yanked from the fabric of the lives of countless others left behind. As I groped for a way to make sense of it all, to place it into “the bigger picture, the strange timing of my father’s death – as expected as it was – took on a new dimension.

Drew J. Miller had been born in 1905 in St. Joseph Missouri, back when it was still the edge of the “Wild West.” (People used to joke that my mother had been shopping for a father, he was so much older than she!).Drew’s father had been a cattle rancher who had, as a young man, fought in the so-called “Indian Wars.” In the 96 years of his life, my father saw horses give way to cars, telegraphs to telephones, and gas lights replaced by electric bulbs. He heard his mother describe in amazement the first flight of the Wright Brothers’ winged contraption at Kitty Hawk and read in the papers about the Titantic. He saw the older brothers of friends marching off to World War I, saw skirts going up and the ban on women’s voting come down.

He lived through a depression as a young man trying to make his fortune, riding the rails across the Midwest as a hobo worker. He read about the rise of Hitler, was shocked by the invasion of Poland and France and later served in World War II stateside. He listened firsthand on the radio to the announcement of Pearl Harbor and later, to the news that Hiroshima had been bombed.

He followed the Cold War commie hunt in the news, appalled by Joe McCarthy’s vitriolic diatribes (though he still voted for Ike). He came home from work (by then an office in Manhattan) early the day Kennedy was shot and a half-year later drove my sister and her friends to Shea Stadium to see the Beatles on their first U.S. tour. He sat in the living room with my sisters and I one evening in the summer of 1969 and watched the first man set foot on the moon. He sent condolences to friends whose sons were killed in Vietnam and pondered the photos of all the young faces in Life Magazine’s monthly gallery of the war dead. He spent hours trying to figure out the manual for his and mom’s first VCR, then a few years later stared in somewhat suspicious wonder over my oldest son’s shoulder as the latter booted up his first computer and signed onto the Internet. My father’s life spanned more historic changes occurring in the world than any human who lived before the 20th century could possibly imagine.

But then his life ended on the very eve of the worst terrorist attack sustained on American soil. It seemed to me a sign that the curtain had violently been yanked up on a new era. But the newness will not lie in the problems – it will lie in the solution.

Although Bush and company would say that we are now confronting a “new kind of warfare,” this is simply not true. Violence is violence and although terrorism is a plague of the 21st century, it is in essence, nothing new. It is the same old story: the irrational rage of fanaticism or racism. The annihilation of Christian villages by Pagan warriors in the Dark Ages, the raids of Samurai warriors on fellow clans in Japan, the unprovoked burning and looting of Muslim towns by Christian crusaders, the unpredictable pogroms against entire communities of Jews in Eastern Europe over centuries, the lynching of blacks by the KKK (America’s oldest terrorist group) and on and on.. Even germ warfare terrorism is not new. On more than one occasion, white soldiers in America wiped out entire tribes of native Americans by providing them with blankets known to be have been contaminated by small pox.

The only thing that has really changed about terrorism is the context and the means. Now terrorists can gain access to high-tech tools, such as sophisticated bombs, biochemical materials and, yes, jet planes. The modern terrorist also has the mobility and communications network of the 20th/21st century at his/her disposal and the most destructive have money – lots of it. It has been suggested that the Sept. 11 plot had to have been “state sponsored” because of its scope and cost (thus justifying bombing a “state” in revenge). But this isn’t so. Osasma Bin Laden is the quintessential terrorist of the 21st century: He is a multi-millionaire from a Saudi construction industry family. He has more than enough cash to mount extraordinarily elaborate campaigns of terror.

But in the final analysis, the cataclysmic damage and loss of life that occurred on the morning of Sept. 11 was related more directly to characteristics of our times than to characteristics of the terrorists. Before the 20th century, there were no super skyscrapers, no jet planes, no flight sim programs. Manhattan did not have many millions of people pressed into such a small space, where a single building can hold as many people as might populate a good-sized town. The opportunities for such mass destruction simply were not there. Natural disasters have worsened in the 20th century, too. For example, hurricane damage in the past 50 years in billions of dollars has steadily increased. However, the number of hurricanes and their intensity has not increased – it is just that there are now more homes and businesses built in their paths in coastal areas. In other words, although there is nothing different about the storms themselves, the opportunities for destruction have geometrically grown.

Throughout my father’s life, human nature did not change. Greed, vengeance, bigotry, intolerance – all were the same. But the means to act upon these things changed dramatically. A Panzer tank could do far more damage than 10 of Hannibal’s elephants, a single conventional bomb dropped from a plane could wreak more destruction than all of the cannons used in the 19th century firing all at once. The net result: In the 20th century, more human beings were slaughtered in armed conflict than all those claimed in all the wars in all the centuries of civilization that went before.

Now, at the opening of the 21st century, we now have the means to blow away every man, woman, child, plant and animal everywhere on Earth if we go for an all out nuclear war. Or we could poison everything with chemical warfare, or kill them all with bioengineered anthrax. In short, if we continue to apply the same old solutions to the same old problems, but using bigger and better weapons. the end result will be the same, but on a larger, bloodier scale.

I wrote a statement for Democrats.com’s first national press conference, which was to happen on Sept. 11 (and was, needless to say, cancelled) that, as I reread it, seems almost like a premonition of the crisis. Here’s an excerpt:

What makes the Bush Reich such a national outrage is the very thing that will ultimately bring it crashing down: It’s stuck in a time warp. While the rest of the world moves forward toward the future, Bush and company are trying to relive the Cold War era Bush is using a 1950s approach to everything he does - applying 1950 solutions to 21st century problems. He has no concept of the present, and it is in the present that the battle for America is being waged. What empowers us progressives is knowing and accepting that Earth is now faced by problems and conditions that are completely unique in its history. The Cold War people would like to think global warming is just a natural trend brought on by the sun. But never in Earth’s history has the atmosphere carried such a load of chemicals, nor has deforestation been so systematic across the face of the planet. The Cold War people want to believe that by banning a few books, jailing a few journalists and disseminating propaganda they can control what we all think. But never in Earth’s history has their been so much free information available to so many, because there has never before been an Internet. The Cold War people think that they can continue to pollute, pocket profits and worry about the consequences later. But most people now realize that Earth has been pushed too far - never in her history has she had to confront so many different environmental assaults on so many different fronts all at once. The Cold War people believe that the poor and hungry are just a cost of doing business and can be ignored or, worse, used. But never in Earth’s history until now has there been the means to feed the entire world, as there is now, if only the priorities of politicians could be changed.

To this I will now add: The Cold War people think that the answer to terrorism is to perpetrate more terrorism, even though this solution has proven repeatedly to increase, not decrease, terrorism.In the wake of the disaster, Bush has one of the rarest opportunities in history. He has, by circumstance, been thrust onto the crossroads of civilization. There, he can chose to reach into the past for his solutions or he can see the Sept. 11 disaster as a chance for a new beginning for civilization, a call to find new, creative solutions drawing on all that is good about our progress over the past century. I believe that to truly honor those who died on Sept. 11, we must make sure that they did not die in vain. From the ashes of the World Trade Center and Pentagon, a renewed commitment to world peace – a real peace – can, and MUST, arise.