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Saturday, September 11

Quo Vadis?

Where are you going?

That's the question that I find myself asking as various people and groups recall the events of Black Tuesday, nine years ago today.

Where are you going, America?

It is a truth that past is prologue, so let's take a quick look back in order to see where we might be going. My own judgment of the future is spotty, but I ask you to bear with me and I'll do my best.

The nine years after the attacks have resulted in two wars, neither of which are over. We have been actively engaged in military actions longer than we were involved in World War Two, in which we destroyed three highly industrialized empires with odious ideologies and armies totaling millions. At the present resting point in our military actions in Southwest and South Asia, we have mortgaged our economy and killed thousands of our fighting men and women, in an effort to defeat a ragged mass of unwashed troublemakers who never numbered more than ten thousand.

Militarily, we have lost Iraq as a geopolitical counterweight. When the Baghdad Government finally sorts itself out, you will likely find that it is more closely bound to Tehran than to Washington. The Sunni Gulf States have already started concerted action in an attempt to make up for the loss of Iraq's military strength. Whether it will be enough is anyone's guess.

In Afghanistan, we may have already lost. We can take the country, at tremendous cost in lives and treasure, but the experience of centuries tells us that we cannot hold it. We will have to leave eventually, and our habit of leaving forward bases behind will not be tolerated. Our allies will likely back out before we withdraw.

Economically, we are mortgaged, bound hand and foot. Much of this can be laid at the feet of the previous Administration, which financed its wars with borrowed money in order to slash taxes for the upper one percent of the population and deregulate things to the point that we're in far greater danger of dying from salmonella poisoning than from terrorist acts. Pulling ourselves out of this hole and eventually reducing the deficit will be a long and very painful process. The Obama Administration, in its hell-bent desire for an illusory consensus, has done only half-measures and essentially squandered its legislative advantage.

Ideologically, the repeated failures of the Bush Administration led to a stunning repudiation of Republican and conservative policies. This discredited the Party establishment, giving an entree to the extreme right wing to take over the reins. On a historical note, we saw this in the Democratic Party after the 1972 debacle - the Party Right purged the liberal and radical elements that McGovern tried to install. The difference here is that the GOP has no liberal wing and a very vestigial moderate faction. The only alternatives it has are Right, Very Right and Far Right.

This has led to the phenomenon known as The Tea Party, which isn't anything really new. It's partly tax revolt enthusiasts and people who think that government should be abolished. Of course, such a knee-jerk reaction to their Party's defeats is to be expected, and the Establishment is fighting a rear-guard action. Some are even embracing Tea Party ideals in an effort to remain in power. What is unfortunate is that the knee-jerk reaction of the Tea Partiers gives no space for sober reflection (as evidenced by the continued vocal support for tax breaks for the rich, when most of these people are lower or middle class).

In terms of our national psyche (if I may use such a sweeping generalization), the Black Tuesday attacks were the equivalent of a man getting mugged in a meadow. Once and for all our mythic aura of invulnerability was dispelled, and that scares and bewilders us. Fear now rules, and that fear causes us to lash out without thinking - witness George W Bush's knee-jerk assumption that Iraq was involved, when Bush was already determined to do something militarily about Saddam Hussein as far back as 1999.

Fear causes us to go to extremes in search of a sense of security, no matter how much of an illusion it may be. Church attendance went up in the wake of the attacks, as people tried to make sense of the incident and find some support (my theory on that is that we - even as adults - are children deep in our brains, and hunger for our parents' protection when things get bad). Right now, we have hogtied, limited, or outright abandoned many of our cherished liberties and given the police and government sweeping powers in the hopes that we can be made safe. It's another illusion, of course. The Underpants Bomber proved that, even after Black Tuesday, a lone actor can get past security.

Fear also causes us to find a target, a scapegoat. For many centuries, it was Jews; now it's Muslims, or anyone of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. Some conspiracy theorists also blame the Freemasons, or the government itself (recalling, no doubt, government attempts to subvert Martin Luther King and the Vietnam-era antiwar movement).

Fear is what is leading us into religious extremism, as Christianity is subverted, perverted, mutated in defense of what appears to be a militant Islam that takes the place of monolithic Communism in many minds. Islam is a noble faith, and the nations that adhere to it are, interestingly enough, nations that were occupied or held as colonies by the Christian West. Coincidence? You be the judge of that.

Book burnings, like the threatened burnings of Korans, are not usual in the United States. We are usually content to ban books that we don't like; burning books smacks too much of certain events in Germany in the Thirties. But this is not usual. This is extremism, motivated by fear.

Fear leads to anger.

Anger leads to hate.

Hate leads to suffering.

It's a movie cliche, but it's absolutely true, gentle readers. Absolutely true, as true as the planet rotates.

It is a great effort to rise above fear, to avoid an impulsive reaction, to sit back and recall the words of Franklin Roosevelt: " ... let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear... is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

As the sun set on Black Tuesday nine years ago I recited the Mass for the Dead, then called to mind a line from Aeschylus:

"Cry sorrow, sorrow - yet let good prevail!"

Good, so far, has not prevailed.

So where are you going, America?

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