NEW YORK — The anniversary, again, is upon us — this time supercharged by the dispute over a planned Islamic cultural center a few blocks from Ground Zero.
Each year since 2001, I’ve made a pilgrimage to the site, in part to pay tribute to people I know who died there, in part to gauge how raw the wounds opened that day remain — both personally and nationally.
One of the remarkable constants through the years has been the self-awareness of those taking part in these commemorations. Aside from the nuts who, practicing the free speech I believe in, hold signs blaming the Mossad or the CIA or Martians for the attack, there is surprisingly little “hatred” on display.
No one burned an Arab in effigy, to my knowledge. No one beat up a Pakistani grocer or an Afghan cab driver. Anger, an emotion more suited for directing at individuals rather than entire ethnic or religious groups, is present in abundance, as it should be. I’m still angry. But the anger always seemed in past years channeled toward coping, with life going on in spite of it all.
How ironic, then, that the memory of a hateful atrocity perpetrated by fanatical religious hijackers will itself be hijacked this year by purveyors of half-truths and ignorance.
Whatever true commemoration of those who died that takes place today will struggle to break through the noise generated by a trumped-up debate over a plan to establish a Muslim center in the general vicinity of the old World Trade Center site.
In the interest of cutting through the fog, here are 10 facts about Sept. 11 from my perspective, each of which warrants more attention than the phony politicized war over Cordoba House:
1. WAR WITHOUT END: The U.S. reaction to Sept. 11 has damaged U.S. long-term interests and its reputation beyond the wildest dreams of the terrorists who conceived the attack. The attacks were preventable and telegraphed (as I warned in 1999). Discuss — seriously.
2. ‘THAT’S NOT REALLY AMERICA': New York City’s brief re-admittance into the union by other Americans, who generally regard it as the equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah, begins each year on Sept. 10 and ends on Sept. 12. This year will be no different. On any other day, a good number of Americans would be happy to see the whole city tumble into the sea — as long it looked like the act of a Christian God rather than a Muslim terrorist.
3. AIR HEADS: No one, to this day, has explained how — following the attacks on the two largest buildings in New York City by terrorists — a third airliner could hit the Pentagon, of all places, some 34 minutes later. The U.S. Air Force has never owned up to this failure, or explained why it couldn’t happen again if airport security were breached.
4. SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY: Muslim-Americans have every reason to worry for their security and safety in the climate that prevails right now in the United States — and for the future their children may have in the United States. Just when it seemed that our actions abroad could not possibly maximize Al Qaeda’s satisfaction over the events of the past nine years, we begin to target loyal Muslim Americans and, in effect, fertilize the soil for future Al Qaeda recruitment here. Brilliant!
5. THE LION OF PANJSHIR: With American forces still struggling to hold Afghanistan together, the Al Qaeda murder three days before the Sept. 11 attacks of the Afghan mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Masood — the hero of the anti-Soviet resistance and a moderate voice in his fragile country — looms as a tragedy not only for Afghanistan but also the United States.
6. THEY MUST BE GIANTS? Bullshit. Al Qaeda’s abilities and reach have been vastly overstated by a mortified national security establishment whose own lack of imagination and wasteful allocation of resources was never on such stark display as on Sept. 11, 2001. The result: a huge expansion of the U.S. national security apparatus beyond any reasonable proportion. Al Qaeda is more like the loosely affiliated anarchist movement of the late 19th century than the Soviet Union. Yet our defense and national security response has resembled that of the early Cold War.
7. OH YEAH, AND THEM, TOO: While the “death tolls” in the wars of Sept. 11 are generally given as 4,287 (Iraq) and (1,146) Afghanistan, that simply lists U.S. casualties. The true totals include another 318 “allied” troops in Iraq and 793 such troops in Afghanistan, and at least 97,000 Iraqis killed — mostly civilians — and at least 14,000 Afghan civilians killed. The United States has steadily refused to keep such “body counts." As Rumsfeld said in 2005, “death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.” Indeed.
8. POISONOUS SNAKES: The Arizona Diamondback’s succession of miserable seasons is divine retribution for their unjust victory over the Yankees in the 2001 World Series. See, life (and humor) did go on.
9. BLACK IRISH: Rescue Me, on the FX channel, is the most underappreciated program on television, and the fact that Dennis Leary’s character offends some people merely proves they haven’t spent much time with Irish firefighters in New York City. Its opening tune, Bruce Springsteen’s “My Own Worst Enemy,” should be the theme song of America since the attacks. We are, definitely, our own worst enemy.
10. IN MEMORIAM: A lot of us New York Irish had connections to this tragedy. The five people closest to me who died that day were Graham Berkeley, 37, a passenger on United Flight 175, Arlene Babikitis, 47, who worked for the Port Authority on the 64th floor of the North tower, Lt. Tom O’Hagan, a firefighter and my Aunt Nancy’s brother, and the brothers Joe and John Vigiano, 34 and 36, NYPD and FDNY respectively, who were groomsmen in my cousin’s wedding and all ran headlong up those stairs to rescue people — regardless of race, gender or creed.
Whatever any of these innocent people might have thought about the wisdom of allowing an Islamic cultural center to locate in lower Manhattan — and I’ll agree that, politically, at least, it is provocative — they all would be disgusted by the way it has diverted attention from the larger issues at hand.