When the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001, I was at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I was in my car, listening to the radio, just outside the North Gate, where a B-52 sits on static display as a symbol of American power. The first reports suggested it was an accident, but it soon became apparent it was a deliberate act. As a second and then a third plane hit the WTC and the Pentagon, I remember hearing speculation that 9/11 could have a higher death toll than the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the U.S. Civil War. It was bad enough, if not that bad.
I remember confusion and chaos in the government, and the use of the word “folks” by President George W. Bush to describe the hijackers. Very quickly, his rhetoric changed, and soon America would be launched on a global crusade against terrorists and other evildoers.
The flags came out and America came together, but that team spirit, so to speak, was quickly seized upon and exploited by Bush/Cheney to justify war anywhere and everywhere. Good will was squandered and wise counsel was rejected in a calculated plot for power-projection disguised as righteous vengeance. Sweep everything up, related and unrelated, go big: those were the sentiments of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and crew. They had failed so badly at protecting America on 9/11; they were not going to fail to use 9/11 for their own nefarious purposes.
And now, 20 years later, we’re witnessing how badly their hubris and dishonesty have damaged democracy in America, as well as damaging or destroying millions of lives around the globe.
After finishing my tour at the AF Academy in 2002, I became the Dean of Students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey. I wonder how many of “my” young troops who so proudly crossed the stage with newly acquired language skills in Pashto and Dari and Arabic never made it home from Bush and Cheney’s GWOT, their “global war on terror.”
9/11 remains a traumatic day for America. It’s a day we remember where we were and what we were doing when we first learned of this horrific attack on our country. However briefly, 9/11 brought America together, but militarism and constant warfare along with prejudice and ignorance have served only to weaken our democracy while impoverishing our country.
This madness was on my mind as I recently re-watched “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a classic Star Trek episode in which history’s changed when Dr. McCoy travels back in time to 1930s America. Here he saves the life of Edith Keeler, a social activist who, in an alternate timeline, delays U.S. entry into World War II, which allows the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb first, thereby winning the war. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock learn they must prevent McCoy from saving Keeler, which is complicated by the fact that Kirk falls hard for her. She’s a visionary who speaks of space travel and a better world. As Kirk courts her, Keeler says she dreams of a future in which all the money currently spent on war and death … and Kirk completes her thought by saying that that money will be spent instead on life. Kindred spirits they are, Kirk and Keeler, yet to restore history to its proper place, he must let her die.
Keeler’s dream of peace – of all the trillions of dollars spent on weapons and war and death being instead spent on life – is the proper one, the right one, even as it was tragically premature. For this she must die, forgotten to history, a bit player remembered only for running a small neighborhood mission for those with nowhere else to go.
I’ve always been attracted to science fiction and to plots both utopian, or at least hopeful, and dystopian. But in the dystopia in which we increasingly find ourselves today, we need hopeful visions. We need Edith Keelers. But to use Star Trek-speak again, what I see issuing from the U.S. government is far more consistent with a Klingon Empire driven by war than a peaceful and life-affirming “federation” of planets. The U.S. empire is not about to go quietly, nor will it go peacefully.
It’s time for a new course, a far less bellicose one, but a no less determined one, where Americans look within rather than without. Echoing Edith Keeler, let’s spend our money and resources on life, not death, love, not war. Let’s try that for the next 20 years. If we do, I bet we’ll be a lot better off in 2041 than we are today.