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A Bitter Anniversary

This column originally appeared as part of the Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

There's a ceremony taking place this morning at Ground Zero: a commemoration of the fallen of September 11th. For the families of the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center, the arrival of this day will always be the cause of profound anguish. I wonder, however, if it's possible that there will come a time for the rest of us, both here in New York and across America, when this day will become less an occasion of grief and anger, and more a day of thoughtful reflection?

So long as Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants remain free, this day must remind us of our unfinished business. Treachery cannot be allowed to go unpunished. We owe it to our dead to see that justice is done. In a very real sense, by focusing United States' efforts on occupying Iraq, rather than dismantling al Qaeda, President Bush has only exacerbated the pain and suffering of New Yorkers.

Yet, at some point, once Bin Laden and his lieutenants have been captured or killed, Americans are going to have to at least consider the possibility of closure. Again, perhaps not the friends and families of those who lost loved ones that day. We cannot, and should not, expect that. But the rest of us are going to have to come to grips with an equation: at what point is enough, enough? At what point does a thirst for vengeance become, to borrow a phrase from Mohandas Gandhi, “an eye for an eye, making the whole world blind?”

The Body Count
Nearly 3,000 Americans died in the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. The revised estimate for the number of Americans who died in New Orleans last week remains much higher than 3,000. Some have suggested, and I think the evidence is compelling in support of this position, that many of these Americans died last week because resources that should have been devoted to repairing and upgrading that city's levees, and responding once the storm had hit, had been instead diverted to supporting President Bush's grandiose "war on terror".

The number of innocent civilians who have perished as a result of our military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq may surpass 30,000, or even 100,000 – depending on which source you rely on, and how you calculate the number of dead. For instance, do you count the nearly 1,000 Shiites who died in that horrible stampede last week – after the spread of a rumor that a suicide bomber was in the procession created a panic – as part of the death toll? It's a fair question. As far as I know, there were no suicide bombers in Iraq until after the UN weapons inspectors were forced to leave by President Bush.

At what point will the loss of our 3,000 no longer be sufficient to justify the collateral damage that accompanies the "war on terror"? This is a question that I believe every American has an obligation to ask. In a democracy, every invasion or police action that our government becomes involved in is ultimately done in our name. Do we really believe that American lives are exponentially more valuable than the lives of people in other nations? And if we believe such a thing, should we be at all surprised when the world begins to hate a nation that they once looked to for hope and inspiration?

Emotion, Spirituality, and Democracy
If I stumbled across Osama Bin Laden on the street today, my first instinct would be to tear him apart, limb-by-limb. That said, I find myself still conflicted about this instinct – since I know that virtually every spiritual teacher that I have read or encountered would frown on it. Jesus, for instance, commands Peter to forgive his brother “not seven times, but seventy-seven times”.

I could never forgive Bin Laden. Still, I wonder if it is possible to let go of hate, while still working tirelessly to bring dangerous individuals and groups to justice. That's certainly the approach that Krishna urges on the warrior Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita, one of the foundational scriptures of Hinduism. But this is, of course, easier said (and read about) than done.

I worry that a steady diet of dark, reactive emotion has left this country so powerfully in its thrall that we've collectively lost our sense of balance, and ability to think our way to resolution in a war of ideas. And make no mistake, that is what we will eventually have do – think our way to resolution.

In my view, a substantial segment of the people who voted for President Bush in November 2004 did so on the basis of this kind of reactive emotion – and a sense that he would be better able to keep the American people safe and secure. But this week, in the aftermath of the Second Battle of New Orleans, more and more Americans are beginning to understand just how misguided that attitude was.

A New York State of Mind
The people of the City of New York, I'm proud to say, never bought into that mindset. The city that was brutally violated on September 11th gave nearly 75% of its votes to John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential Election. Which brings me to make a make a point that I don't believe has ever been formally made.

President Bush, you do not have our permission to use the attack against the people of New York City as a justification for your elephantine "war on terror".

Let me reiterate that message: You do not have our permission to justify your war in Iraq on the basis of our suffering, and our loss.

We voted against you in 2004 in overwhelming numbers – in large part because so many of us believed that your policies were only adding gasoline to the fires of hate, and making New York City even more of a target in the years to come.

We further believed that resources which should have been devoted to safeguarding America's harbors and coastlines from a potential biological or nuclear terrorist attack were instead being squandered in an ill-conceived, premature, incompetently run military campaign that, it now appears, will bring an Iranian-influenced de facto theocracy to Southern Iraq.

Furthermore, we know that the plan to invade Iraq was hatched by the Project for the New American Century years before September 11th. We know that key members of your Administration were signatories to that groups' dubious charter.

Thanks to Paul O'Neill, we know that you were obsessed with deposing Saddam Hussein long before 9/11; and Richard Clarke has described how you were looking for a way to exploit our national trauma within days of the attack.

Your deliberate manipulation of the fears and trauma of the American people in the aftermath of September 11th, for the purpose of eliciting support for your invasion of Iraq, is behavior that more reflects lessons learned from a snake in the Garden of Eden than any religious or spiritual teacher that I've ever encountered or heard of. These are strong words, but words that I believe that history will judge as measured, reasonable, and fair. Mr. President, shame on you.

If there is a single authentically religious bone in your body, then I call on you to cease and desist in justifying your misguided ideological crusade in the name of the good people of my city. You do not act in our name; you do not represent our insights, perspectives, and values. If the 2004 Presidential Election results conclusively demonstrate anything, it is that.

In Memoriam
On this solemn occasion, the fourth anniversary of the destruction of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon, I join with Americans everywhere to mourn the dead of Alabama, the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New York. Today we are again one country, united by our grief and anger. Perhaps one day soon we will come together as Americans to demand that Congress hold this President accountable – and through doing so, again embrace the sacred challenge that our ancestors set before us so long ago, that "more perfect union".

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on September 11, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.