One Hour to a Better America

As people spent the weekend trying to memorialize the 9/11 terrorist attack's 10th anniversary, I was reminded not of 9/11/2001, but of 9/11/2002.

For the first anniversary, a friend of mine asked me to write something for a memorial web site he was putting together. I do not know if that site still exists, so I have replicated it here in its entirety:

Recently, I received a chain e-mail encouraging me to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks by taking a moment to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and saying a silent prayer. Why, I wondered, did this person wish me to proclaim victory for terror by reciting a religious oath and then doing nothing to truly help my fellow Americans?

What was it, truly, that was attacked on that perfect morning a year ago? Was it an office building? No. Was it a financial center? No. Was it a nation? No. The target was a symbol, a symbol of that which is most repugnant to a religious fundamentalist; success without obeisance to God. America is living, breathing proof that a non-denominational, non-fundamentalist society can survive and thrive, proof that a heterogeneous society that accepts all faiths and beliefs is in fact better than forced faith. It is the ultimate refutation of the fundamentalist's claim that only a fundamentalist society can succeed, that only The Faithful can build a thriving society. That was the target of the attack, proof that the fundamentalist is wrong.

So how do we commemorate the anniversary of such an act? By uniting our nation to a God in the hopes that "our God is better than their God"? No. The United States is not "one nation, under God". It is one nation "of the people, by the people, for the people." Is America a flag, a tri-colored battle symbol for soldiers to rally around during war? No. America is a quest, a great experiment in democracy, in the goodness of mankind.

What did 300 firefighter die for in downtown New York? For God? No. They died doing their job; risking their lives to save their fellow human beings. What did the passengers of the flight over Pennsylvania die for? For God? No. They gave their lives, consciously, willingly, deliberately, so that others on the ground might live. They died for their fellow man. How can we best commemorate their sacrifice, their true sacrifice?

By honoring the principles for which they gave their lives. By honoring the true foundation of America. If you want something to recite, try the following:

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

What patriotic act can one do in their memory? Pick an issue, any issue that you find important, and spend one hour reading and learning about it. Then write a one-page letter to you senators and congressman about it. Mail it to their regional office, not their Washington office. Be one of We the People.

This is an election year. Pick a candidate, any candidate whose ideas and beliefs agree with yours on that issue you read about a moment ago. Spend one hour volunteering on their campaign. On November 5th, make absolutely certain that you take the time to go vote. Be one of We the People.

Firemen and police risk their lives to help their fellow human beings, but helping need not be life threatening. Pick a volunteer cause or organization, any cause you believe in. Volunteer one hour this month to that cause. As you do so, pause a moment to remember those people, on September 11th and every day, who give their lives to help others. Be one of We the People.

Speak up. Speak out. America was founded with the words "I disagree". It is always a good time to question the government. That is what it means to be a citizen.

Can you spare three hours this month? I am certain you can. Can you next month? The month after? Every month, can you spare but three hours to be We the People?

Building a better America, one defiant in the face of terrorism, one that brings together all We the People, one that is truly Patriotic, begins one hour at a time. It is not a matter of pledging allegiance to a battle symbol. It is not a matter of God. It is a matter of We the People being We the People, one hour at a time, so that terrorist or no terrorist this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Did we rise to the challenge? Did we build a better America, one hour at a time? No. What have we done?

  • We invaded a country that supported terrorism, and then botched the occupation so badly that we're still there a decade later, making it the longest US military engagement ever.
  • We invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 on a series of ever-changing lies, plunging it into a long civil war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. More Americans have died in Iraq than died in the Twin Towers.
  • We violated our own highest laws to spy on our own people, not in a way that fights terrorism but simply so that we could.
  • We have violated our own laws and international law, kidnapping and torturing suspects without evidence.
  • We have violated our own laws and international law, classifying civilians as "enemy combatants" and holding them without trial for a decade.
  • We now routinely irradiate our own citizens at airports, causing an increase in cancer to our own security personnel in the process. The TSA has found that the machines are dangerous, but withheld that evidence. And when someone refuses, the alternative is to "voluntarily" submit to excessive "search and seizure"
  • In the face of religious extremism from abroad, we have responded by bolstering our own religious fundamentalists at home. Today, one of the strongest political factions is the radical religious Right, who despite being a minority of the country have cowed the rest of us into fear. One entire political party has been corrupted by them, and they hold the country hostage.
  • And we bankrupted our country in the process of doing all of the above.

That is what we have done, America. That is how we have responded.

Some have argued (in particular a Wall St. Journal editorial) that while some of that may be excessive it's nothing compared to the Red Scare, or the Japanese detention centers from World War II. That may well be true; but since when does "it could be worse" excuse violating our own laws and principles? If anything, it further condemns it; we should have learned our lesson by now.

This is not a statement about one political party's evils; both have been complicit in the violations above. This is not a rant against "the evil government". We're a democracy. The government is us. We are responsible for its actions. If we abdicate that responsibility, we are still guilty of that abdication.

This is not a condemnation of religion, or any particular religion. It is a condemnation of fundamentalism, of any form or creed.

When I think back to 9/11, I can only think of this tweet:

When I think back to 9/11, I do not cry for 3000 lives lost. I cry for 300 million that have lost their way.

But let us not wallow in grief. Let us not wallow in self-pity. Let us not wallow in sadness. Let us take our country back.

Nine years ago, I laid out a challenge to my fellow Americans to make this country better. I know not how many took me up on it, but I now lay it out again.

Make this a better country. A country based on strength, tolerance, cooperation, and citizenship, not one based on fear, religious fundamentalism, and a violation of civil liberties. It is our country, and our responsibility. It takes only a few hours from each of us.

The enemy is not Republicans or Democrats. The enemy is fundamentalism and fear. And it must be fought, with words, with actions, and with dollars.

I have started by donating $200 tonight to the American Civil Liberties Union (of which I am a regular member already), to help turn back the self-inflicted wounds we have caused. I ask you to do the same, and then join me in dedicating time to retake our country.

Comments

Kudos

Came across this post while checking out your site and just wanted to say props for a great post, both in 2002 and this year. I agree wholeheartedly and practice/preach the same approach.