The Human Condition:

Where Were You When …? – September 11, 2011

What is it about an event that makes us fix the place, the time, the things we thought, even the images of whatever we happened to be looking at—everything about a moment—so firmly in the mind that we remember it a lifetime later? Is it simply strong emotion, the reaction to triumph or tragedy? Or the numbness of shock? Or the flash of intuition that our world has changed?

In October 1957, I was at recess in grade school when someone—it must have been one of the children outside with me—said the Russians had launched a satellite. I remember looking through the windows into my classroom, then being inside looking out at the grass when the teacher confirmed the story. That night my brother and I listened to the radio in our bedroom after lights out. Usually he tuned in X Minus One, the science fiction radio plays, but now we were listening to a rebroadcast of Sputnik 1’s tiny, cold voice: “Beep … beep … beep …” as it went around our world.

In May 1961, I was sitting in English class when the school office put on the public address system the nationwide broadcast of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 launch and down-range flight. I knew by then that the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had already orbited the Earth, but I don’t remember how or when I learned about that. It was Shepard’s 15-minute suborbital flight that stuck in my mind. I remember looking at the clock in the room as they counted off the last seconds before liftoff.

In November 1963, I was sitting in study hall in a different high school, doing my homework, when the PA system came on to announce that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. That was all they knew at the time: shot but condition not announced, although of course he was killed instantly. I still remember the pattern of black-and-white ceramic tiles in the floor of that room.

In March 1989, I was getting ready for bed, and we had the television on for the ten o’clock news. The lead story showed what looked like a steel bar in a beaker of boiling water, and the announcers were talking excitedly about cold fusion. A nuclear reaction was happening right there in the beaker, with people standing around and the video camera recording it all, amid the neutron flux. I remember being struck by the wonder of the thing: a complete reversal of my current understanding of nuclear physics. At the time I was working at a public utility with a major investment in a nuclear power plant, and I remember thinking, “This changes everything about the energy business.” But, of course, not all world-shaking events are real.

In September 2001, I was climbing into the vanpool that would take me to work at the biotech firm when the driver told me, “They just flew an airplane into the World Trade Center.” At first I thought it was a terrible accident, like the airplane that crashed into the Empire State Building in the fog in 1945. Then, as we listened to the van’s radio, it became apparent that this was a planned attack using our own jetliners loaded with passengers. I remember thinking, “This is an act of war. Now we are at war.”

I’ll carry these memories, like shiny new dimes among the dull gray metal of my usual pocket change, for the rest of my life.

Ten years after that morning in 2001, I still don’t know if my initial reaction—“Now we are at war”—was prophetic or just a fatuous overstatement, like my “This changes everything” response to cold fusion.

Certainly, in the time since then, we’ve declared two wars on Islamic states, Afghanistan and Iraq, for varying reasons. We won both of those wars easily, in terms of routing their armies and toppling the sitting governments. But in neither case has the follow-through—the cleanup, the peacekeeping, the bringing-about-something-better—been completed successfully.1 And now the Afghan war seems to be spilling over into Pakistan in a reverse-domino effect.

It has taken us ten years of dogged intelligence work to penetrate and eviscerate the clique of rich, sophisticated, disgruntled terrorists who planned and pulled off the September 11 attacks. It took ten years to track down and kill the mastermind behind it—a man whose virtual absence from the world stage, despite his many opportunities for international bragging and nose-thumbing, had by then firmly convinced me that he was already dead.

We still have unfinished business with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Our enmity began with the embassy hostage-taking following the revolution in 1979. The struggle continues as the Iranians support terrorism in the Middle East and prepare to acquire for themselves a nuclear weapon. We can only hope that possessing such a weapon leads to a moment of clarity that will keep them from ever using it. For every bomb they make, the Western world still has a thousand. That kind of imbalance just has to sit uneasily in even the most fevered mind.

From one point of view, these are the further steps in a world war that’s been going on, with varying degrees of intensity, since 732 AD. In that year the Franks beat back an adventurous, expanding Moslem army at Tours. Islam’s invasion of Europe was followed by Europe’s invasion of the Holy Land during the Crusades, and it’s been forward and back ever since. In the latest move, Islamic immigrants are flooding into and starting to change the culture of Europe, while oil-rich sheikhs and the Saudi Royal Family promote schools of fundamentalist religion and activist cliques like al Qaeda.

From one point of view, a resurgent and revitalized Islam is making its final grasp for world domination, the universal caliphate, and the West is too trapped in its own colonial guilt and multicultural distractions to notice. But from another point of view, a weak and fractured Middle East—riven by violence between Sunni and Shia, mortified by the rise of a Jewish state in their midst, impoverished by generations of corruption and neglect amid all that oil wealth—struggles for identity while the aggregators of that wealth play the Israeli card, the Great Satan card, the Caliphate card. The powerful few who have risen to the top dream of glory while supporting futile attempts to break the West’s true strength. They may hope that a return to medieval religious purity will win the world, but the West has already shown that liberal measures of education, personal and creative freedom, scientific inquiry, and open exchange of ideas as well as goods and services have unleashed such a power that it can never be extinguished.

If we are at war, then it’s a ding-dong battle2 between old men in dark robes quoting scripture and young men and women in white lab coats unlocking the secrets of the universe. If we’re at war, it’s an unequal contest between professional soldiers armed with the most advanced technology and children soaked in dreams of paradise. If we’re at war … then the nicest, kindest, most charitable thing we in the West can do is try not to hurt them too badly as they lurch furiously after their fantasies.

Islam is not the problem. Belief systems may provide a pretext for violence but they are seldom the root cause.3 The real problem in the Middle East is public anger and frustration at being left behind by a larger world the people no longer understand. And now small groups of potential tyrants are using that anger to engineer a shortcut to power through chaos. But eventually wiser heads will prevail and begin to figure out a workable path to the future. And then we in the West must be gracious in offering them a helping hand in developing modern, enlightened states that provide real fulfillment and opportunity for their citizens.

1. See When a War Is Not a War from April 10, 2011.

2. To steal a phrase from Frank Herbert’s Dune.

3. Consider that every successful religion is a means of processing a wide range of human experiences. Religion must offer its adherents a method for achieving salvation amid the difficulties of existence, a route to peace and stability. War against unbelievers—which has been a facet of almost every religion (except Buddhism) at some stage in its development—is always a short-term measure among young, expanding belief systems. But what happens after you destroy or convert your neighbors? In the larger world, every mature religion eventually reaches a point of stability with competing and incontrovertible belief systems.