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Paper Tiger

When Morning Edition on my car radio crackled with static and went out on my way to work, I just changed the station from WNYC to WHYY. I had just crossed the invisible boundary at Princeton that separates the New York news market from the Philadelphia market. Princeton has dead spots for radio and cell service. What I didn’t know or any NPR station for the next 5-10 minutes was that the broadcast antenna on top of the WTC north tower had been cut off.

When I got into the lab and fired up my workstation, I usually checked the news in my browser before I settled in for a morning of creating pretty protein pictures. But my browser was slow. Like impossibly slow. Almost like the whole world had logged in at once.

When my supervisor A. rushed in to my office to tell me that a plane had accidentally hit the north tower, I remembered that time about 7 years previously when some terrorists had planted a bomb in the garage of one of the towers. Then I remembered the day I took the elevator to the top of the WTC tower and thought there was no fucking way it was an accident. So that’s what I told A., except I left off the expletive because it was a work environment and it was still early in the morning. Well that explained the slow internet.

When the second plane hit a few minutes later, I *almost* expected it. It just seemed like the kind of thing a terrorist would do. You can’t just leave one smoking tower on the skyline. Symmetry demands two. It sends a clearer message. But we assumed the loss of life would be contained to the floors affected and that everyone else would be able to evacuate the floors like they did the last time.

When the plane hit the pentagon, I jumped out of my seat and ran out to the parking lot to my car to turn on WHYY. I remember saying to no one in particular, “we’re under attack” and I started to consider all the other targets because there were definitely going to be more. Then I recalled how my dad, the nuclear reactor maintenance specialist, took me on a tour of Three Mile Island and told me that the reactor building was reinforced to withstand the impact of a plane crashing into it. I was hoping the structural engineers had gotten that right and then wondered how they knew this day might come.

When the managers realized that no one was going to get any work done, they opened the auditorium and projected the network feed on a large screen. We watched in horror as the first tower fell. The room gasped and then cries erupted and fear was all around because some of those people had relatives working at the WTC and the their cell phones were busy. Our colleagues at the New York labs stood on the roofs of the buildings and watched the smoking towers in the distance.

When I heard about United 93 crashing somewhere between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, I wondered again what the target might be.

When the school called and told me to pick up Brook from her first week at Kindergarten because after school was canceled, the lab had already told us we could go home. By then, the computational chemists I worked with were sitting around talking about what was happening. My Chinese colleague K. turned to me with a smirk and said, “That is not surprising. The country that did this thinks America is what we say in Chinese, a Paper Tiger. You know what that is?”, she smirked again.

Then I turned on her and looked her dead in the eye. You never say that to someone who was born here, grew up here, shouted “this is a free country, I can say whatever I want” on the playground. We didn’t have military parades. We had sonic booms from jets that went faster than the speed of sound. We saved Europe- twice. We dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I said, “We beat our chests and roar and then we eat you alive. Whoever did this has no idea what they have unleashed on the world. You think Americans are soft? You have no idea what you are talking about. Watch us.”

I picked up my bag and left her a bit stunned. But not nearly as stunned as what she would see in the next few weeks.

We took it seriously. We sought vengeance. We delivered retribution and punishment and justice for the lives they took. We were also remarkably restrained. It would have been no trouble at all to reduce Afghanistan to a glass parking lot. I’m probably not the only one who wanted to do it. But our cooler heads prevailed. The pastor of the Princeton Presbyterian held an impromptu lunch service, and read the psalm about the waters of Babylon where the Israelites sat down and wept for Zion and then vowed to dash the heads of their enemies’ little ones against the rocks. Do we really want to do that?, he asked. Aren’t Christians all about peace? Which religion would have the moral high ground?

When the dust settled but the chaos remained, a new set of bad guys stepped in to take advantage of all that rage.

The rest of it we did to ourselves.

17 Responses

  1. Very powerfully and eloquently expressed, RD. The enemies were not so easy to identify and punish, except for the very obvious ones. So we went all around the world trying to get them, or anybody we didn’t like, and it cannot be decisively done. And then the usual power people here, can never help but think of the potential profits and control of resources involved, so anything bad that happens, which galvanizes the citizens, gives them the opportunity to steal more of them.

    We had a year or so when it seemed as if everyone came together, but it dissipated, because the power people didn’t want to stop, and wanted this to be the chance for them to gain permanent control of our country. And if any of the Democratic presidents of recent times had been in command when that happened,,there would have been no coming together like there was then. It is worthwhile to look back and feel good about how Americans reacted then, but it was only because the people in the party not in power then, wanted to support and help, while the other party never does, when they don’t hold the power to capitalize on it. Actual political leaders of the other party demanded two weeks ago that the president be impeached, because we lost 13 brave soldiers in a terrorist attack. We were there back then, thought we didn’t know it. We are there now.

    • Well, it absolutely could have been “decisively done” but we would have had to be complete monsters to do so. As RD points out we certainly could have turned Afghanistan into a glass parking lot.

      I remember an email group conversation shortly after 9/11 where one of the Canadian members said that he expected the US to “turn its full military might” against the Taliban.

      I replied that I didn’t think there was the slightest chance we’d use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan.

      He replied that he certainly didn’t mean *that* and I pointed out to him that when you’re talking about a nuclear superpower that’s exactly what “full military might” means.

      But yeah, the entire War on Terror became a giant cash cow for various corrupt organizations, from Halliburton to Blackwater.

    • “…And if any of the Democratic presidents of recent times had been in command when that happened,,there would have been no coming together like there was then…”

      Quite possible, but OTOH, had Gore been President in 2001, he probably would not have blown off the warnings from our intelligence agencies and their allies, as Dubya did. Prez Clinton had reached the conclusion that terrorism, not some hostile government, had become the biggest threat to the national security of the USA. Gore probably would have continued that focus, so he probably would have taken the warnings seriously, so the attacks just might have been thwarted if Gore had become President, as he damn well should have.

      Thanks, “Justices” of the Supreme Joke.

      Thanks, Ralph.

      Thanks, Purity Ponies.

      The surface gravity of a neutron star does not suck one-octillionth as much as you lot do.

      • And do not forget the ever-present Donna Brazile, whom Gore was foolish enough to let run his campaign, and who convinced him to not let President Clinton do any campaigning for him, which probably cost him Arkansas, as well as a couple of other states. As for Gore, yes, he might well have been smart enough have followed up on the Intelligence the warnings and prevented the horrible event. If he had not been able to, the Republicans very likely would have blamed him for it.

      • Remember when Clinton was excoriated for bombing Bin Laden’s chemical plant in Sudan and his training center in Afghanistan in August, 1998? Remember the multiple attempts to capture or kill him throughout ’98 and ’99? I think if Gore had been elected, we certainly would have kept the pressure on. Even if that didn’t completely eliminate Osama as a threat, it certainly would have disrupted Al Qaeda’s communication and planning enough to disrupt the 9/11 plans.

        • Yeah, wasn’t that bombing in 1998 presented as the “Wag the Dog” situation? Another fabulous media narrative that ended up being unhelpful to our country.

          • Yeah, several “respectable news sources” did indeed accuse Clinton of launching those attacks as a distraction. What’s interesting is that a number of prominent Republicans (including those on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees) sprang to his defense. That would never happen now.

  2. Ironically enough. China was a paper tiger in 2001, before W extended most-favored-nation status to China and thereby allowing China free access to our markets. Then Bush entered two pointless wars. So Bush enabled China’s to destruction of US manufacturing while also wasting our strength in the “war on terror.”

    Now we are the paper tiger and China is on the brink of becoming the world’s dominant power. Your ex colleague was only 20 years too early. A blink of an eye for those who take the long view of history as the Chinese do.

    • Good point. People keep forgetting that China was an empire when Rome was an uninhabited swamp (and when the illiterate denizens of the British Isles were still painting themselves blue and worshipping oak trees). They’ve been playing this game a very, very long time.

    • The great majority of human beings do not like authoritarianism.

      The Chinese are human beings.

      Hence, the current regime in Chinese will eventually fall to the wrath of its own people, though maybe not in my lifetime (I have completed 58 solar orbits).

      • *sigh* …the current regime in China, etc…

        I wish TurdPress would allow me to correct my mistakes.

        I also wish it would allow me to post links on William’s threads.

      • I dunno, IBW, I think there seem to be a lot of people who are looking for Big Daddy to tell them what to do. The US is probably the most successful democracy I can think of, but nearly half of us voted for a bully-boy demagogue last time around.

        Certainly for most of human history, most people have lived under authoritarian figures: kings, emperors, pharaohs, tsars, caliphs, emirs, archons, khans, septarchs, chieftans, or whatever the local psychopath-in-chief decided to call himself. Yeah, there’s Athens and some of the other Greek city-states (Athens wasn’t the only Hellenic democracy, just the most famous one). But, Athenian democracy only lasted about 140 years and was overthrown several times in that interval. The Roman Republic lasted longer, but was also interrupted by a couple of dictatorships before finally handing over all power to Augustus and his successors.

        I think the CCP is worried about maintaining control. I think that’s the motivation for some of their recent actions both inside and outside China, but I don’t know whether they’ll be overthrown or whether they wouldn’t be replaced by someone just as bad,

        The one bright spot, I think is that even the most repressive regimes on the planet have to claim to be republics or democracies to have any claim to legitimacy.

        • Back in those days you were talking about, the vast majority of people were poorly educated, and unaware of better conditions in other countries. It’s a little harder for the local sociopaths to maintain control when their subjects know things are better elsewhere.

          • That’s an interesting argument, but I’m not sure it applies everywhere. Thanks to my former friend Michael Robinson, for example, the Chinese internet is a highly-censored walled garden. The average Chinese citizen’s view of the West is pretty heavily filtered by the CCP junta. We don’t have to look halfway around the world to see this at work, either. There’s a pretty substantial portion of the US citizenry whose view of the world is almost entirely dictated by right-wing trolls and Chinese, Russian, and Iranian bot farms. Most Americans, for example, don’t have any idea how health care works across the border in Canada. I would claim they’re every bit as ignorant as the average medieval serf.

            I hope you’re right (and in 1991-1992 I would have agreed with you enthusiastically), but events of the last couple of decades have left me rather pessimistic.

          • I guess I’m too much of a Trekker to believe that somewhere, there might be a Kobayashi Maru scenario which can’t be overcome by an improvised Corbomite Maneuver. 😉

  3. Beautifully said.

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