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I first wrote about 9/11 and the lessons we were learning right after the World Trade Center fell. At the time, I found myself worrying that in our fear, our grief, and our rage we Americans would do what no external force could ever have done: we would destroy ourselves from within.

Nearly two decades have passed since that terrible day, and I’ve seen that post proven true over and over again. On a national scale I’ve seen the the divisions in our society grow wider and wider as everyone struggles to get his or her “fair share”–something that always seems to involve seizing the right to physical, moral, or financial superiority over someone else. Conservative fundamentalists assert their religious superiority, while their men assert their right to total control over our reproductive rights as a species.

Light-skinned people assert their rights over darker-skinned people. English-speakers assert their rights over non-English-speakers. The educated assert their rights over the uneducated–and the uneducated assert their moral superiority over the education. And the list goes on and on. We have become like too many rats in too small a cage, tearing each other apart in what we have come to believe in a fight for survival.

Even at a time when we are assured that the U.S. economy is doing very, very well, millions of us experience daily need, and millions more of us experience daily want. Somewhere, a giant drain has opened in our financial system, siphoning off the prosperity for far too few, and the expense of far too many. We are not a nation of lazy, greedy sluggards–we have been robbed. And we know who has done it–a quick look at income shares since 1980 shows us exactly where all that money has gone. While the percentage of American children living in poverty fell to record lows in the last year of the Obama administration, experts warn that Trump policies threaten to reverse that trend. And this in a time when the U.S. ranked near the top of the list of OECD countries in 2015

And now we have the racism and xenophobia being publicly enacted against babies, children, and families seeking asylum and jobs in our name. Meanwhile, crops are rotting in the fields, while the people who have harvested them for generations sit in improvised jails.

Yesterday a newsman spoke of the children in the camps creating art, presumably as an example of how the children are being given a creative outlet, and therefore being treated well. I found myself thinking of  the art created by children in Theresienstadt. Just because children are drawing doesn’t mean that they aren’t being treated monstrously.

When I first wrote the post below about 9/11 I wrote and posted it because I was seeing a nation that, in its efforts to restore a fantastical version of America, where everyone was white and Protestant and living in neat little houses with white picket fences had managed instead to create a monstrous system that was becoming increasingly dangerous not just to itself, but to the world.

That’s us on a national scale. We have become what we have always claimed to abhor.

On a personal level, though, I find reason for hope. As a college instructor I meet a lot of students, many of them from conservative Christian homes. And I find them overwhelmingly thoughtful, considerate, and far less quick to condemn. I live in a small town in a “flyover” part of a largely rural state, and while my fellow townsfolk and I tend to vote very differently, we manage to treat each other reasonably well. Yes, we have divisions among us, and they trouble me, but while don’t all agree, to manage to resolve our differences short of bloodletting most of the time.

I have to believe that while we, in our microcosm, contribute to that terrible overall picture of the U.S. as a nation, it has not yet become an accurate picture of many of us as individuals.

So the question is, how can those of us who are increasingly finding what our government is doing in Washington D.C. and often in our State Houses appalling find a lever to move us as a nation? How can we end the increasingly regressive and abusive practices that we, as a collective, are committing?

Opinions on this vary, but here are mine:

  1. Reform our voting system. Ensure that voting places are equally accessible to all, and that all campaigns receive a part of a single fund. Disallow disproportionate donations from individuals, and disallow corporate donations altogether.
  2. Enact stricter banking regulations that protect our national economy and smaller-income entities.
  3. Enact a single-payer healthcare system. Healthcare should not be a profit center; it should be a right.
  4. Prioritize the future. Enact laws that foster child health and early childhood education, college education, move us away from fossil fuels, and restore and preserve the environment.
  5. Reform the tax code and minimum wage scale to ensure that the poorest can be assured of a basic income, and that the richest no longer receive a disproportionate level of tax returns.
  6. Foster cultural diversity. We learn from each other. The more diverse we are, the more we learn. Rather than enacting “one-language” rules, why not promote multi-lingualism? Back in the day of William the Bastard, England found itself in a similar situation–a new, small ruling minority, who spoke Norman French, found itself being unable to speak to the vast majority of the people who they were relying upon for financial support, who spoke Old English. What happened?The Anglo-Saxon mothers immediately began encouraging their children to learn to speak Norman French. And the noblemen, who in many cases had been married to Anglo-Saxon heiresses as a way of promoting peace, first relied on their wives to translate–and then learned Old English. That’s not quite right, because what really happened was that the two populations, who both understood that safety and success lay in understanding each other, ended up creating a new language: Middle English, which became the English we speak today. By the time English again became to lingua franca in England it had added many thousands of Norman French words. It has continued that tradition ever since, and that’s why English is such a rich, complex, amazing language. As we accepted immigrants, we added the pieces of their languages, and in so doing, we added pieces of their culture. We are not a nation with a monolithic history.Instead declaring that everyone who comes to America must accept all aspects of our culture, including our language, why not continue what has made us so very successful in the past–adopting cultural and linguistic elements that we find useful?

We learned lessons from 9/11, but the years are increasingly proving that we learned the wrong lessons, and we have forgotten the single most important lesson history has taught us: Our safety and success lie not in dividing ourselves into ever-increasing splinter groups, but in opening our minds and hearts to each other, and seeing our diversity as an opportunity learn new skills, languages, and customs. It’s time to set those lessons we learned in fear and anger aside, and learn some new ones–or relearn the old ones, the ones that made us great. The world is a dangerous place, but we do not make it less dangerous by locking ourselves away and destroying ourselves from within. Paradoxically, I believe our best chance for a future lies not in closing ourselves off from the world, but in opening our minds and our hearts to each other.

Old post: September 11, 2001

The television footage says it all—and nothing. Over and over, I see the World Trade Center in New York, the top of the foreground tower swathed in pillows of dark gray smoke. And then another jet shoots behind it, and a fireball erupts from the background tower’s heart. The scene switches; soot and ash blanket the street, the blasted cars, the twisted girders, the piles of rubble. That’s all that’s left—rubble—of what used to be one of the tallest buildings in the world.

I am amazed at how bloodless the scene is. There are no bodies. From time to time EMS crews push a gurney to an ambulance. On the gurney are sealed bags. Is this all?  Just bits and pieces?  Perhaps. There are few people even visibly wounded. Perhaps that is most horrifying of all. The mayor of New York, the news commentators, keep talking about the thousands slain, the horrific loss, the body parts in the streets, emergency vehicles driving over bodies because they are buried in the ash and soot.

There is the crash in Pennsylvania—the news crews say that there’s nothing left bigger than a telephone book. When there is a crash, one expects there to be wreckage. And yet, there is nothing to look at, to say, “This is the cost, this is horror, these are the dead.” There is simply nothing.

There are stories of people jumping from the towers, rushing to meet their deaths, rather than waiting to be devoured by flames, or crushed in the collapse of steel, of concrete, of glass. This morning, there is a single shot of a man lying on the wind, his business suit correct, his tie whipping upward. As I watch him fall, he is already dead.

I feel nothing. Where is the pain, the grief, the anger, the anguish? I called my son’s grandmother and aunts in New York. They are working far away in Queens, near the airport, at the other end of Manhattan. A few streets can be a world. They are fine.

I feel nothing, but I am exhausted. I hold my son, and sleep. Then I wake, and try to work. I cannot concentrate. There is a pall over the day, a cloud of soot and ashes. Everything is gray, dim. I call my mother. She believes this is the beginning of Apocalypse, the birth of Armageddon. I hang up, wondering if she’s right.

Voices speak of thousands dead, but there are no visible bodies. They speak of terrorists, but there is no visible enemy. How can I comprehend a disaster so overwhelming that there is simply nothing left?

Normally news helicopters would circle the scenes like vultures, shooting endless vistas of disaster. I could see them, and understand. But the air is off limits. Ground crews shoot footage. It is bleak, gray, dead. This morning, I hear the roar of a jet. It fills the air, rumbling the house. I am across the country, in Oregon, and I know that, apart from our harbor, there is very little reason for terrorists to find us an attractive target—we are small-time, small-town. I have always believed that very smallness protects us.

But when I hear the jet, I realize that there is no safety in anonymity. The thousands of New Yorkers, the plane passengers, the Pentagon workers, were anonymous. They were simply going about their lives. There was nothing dramatic or attack-worthy about them. I begin to shake. I want to run outside, and scan the horizon for a column of black smoke. To the east, far away, near my mother’s house, lies Ordinance, an old army base. My son and I pass it when we go to visit her. Pronghorn antelope range the fields around the bunkers.

I try not to look at those bunkers. I know that they are used to store biological weapons. Today, when the plane roars overhead, part of me wants to look east, toward Ordinance, but I don’t. If Ordinance has been hit, it’s already too late. So I hide, and trust in the failed normalcy of the world, and in the failed smallness of my life. Probably Ordinance is fine. Probably. Later I turn on the television. The news is still all about the devastation in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. I am safe.

At least for now. I listen to the President’s remarks, and I find myself wondering how one can respond to such an attack without making it worse. To do nothing is to send a clear message to terrorists that there are no consequences for such an act. To respond militarily is to risk the world. How should such an act be answered?  I don’t know.

While no one seems to be sure exactly how this will change the world, everyone agrees that it has. Americans have traditionally been willing to risk their lives for freedom. We have been a nation of risk takers. Perhaps now we are willing to sacrifice freedom to preserve our lives. We are growing older. Perhaps we are going wiser; perhaps not. Perhaps we are only growing tired, cynical, fearful, and lazy.

I watch the news coverage, and I find myself thinking of shear bolts. My parents ran a custom harvesting service. Each summer, we faced shear bolts. Forage choppers work by pulling things into a box and chopping them up. A pair of toothed rollers spin behind a row of knives, pulling the forage into the box as it is mown. In the box is a revolving set of knives. While the system is powerful enough to kill a sheep, a deer, a man, it is also fragile. If the machine picks up a rock, or a sheep, or a person—anything over a certain size—the rollers push apart. They still spin, but if sufficient pressure is placed on them a shear bolt on the end of the roller snaps, and the rollers stop.

Fields being what they are, shear bolts snap often. As the truck driver, it was my job to replace the broken shear bolt each time it snapped. One horrible day it seemed that I was replacing them every five minutes. My head throbbed. My nose ran. My neck ached. The wind blew and it was August, and the chopped forage and dust flew everywhere. I choked, and the dust stuck to my skin, and I itched. And the damned shear bolts kept snapping. By the end of the day I was ready to rip that machine apart with my bare hands, take a hammer to the windows, and a knife to the tires.

That night I asked my father if we couldn’t just weld the parts together or something—anything to keep the chopper running. He said, “No, we can’t. The shear bolts protect the system. They’re designed to be the weak point. By snapping they stop the rollers before something can be pulled into the knives that might break them, or destroy the gears.” It was the first time I had heard of a weakness being engineered into a system for the protection of the whole.

The next morning we stopped at the Hesston dealer and got some new shear bolts—apparently the box we had hadn’t been tempered enough or something. And then we went back to work, and the bolts still snapped, but not quite as often.

We are faced with a monumental broken shear bolt. And we have to fix it. Changes are necessary. The situation must be addressed. But perhaps we should think carefully before we start welding things together. I find myself hoping that in fixing this tragedy, we don’t fix it so well we destroy ourselves completely.

I watch the news. It’s still bewildering. I still don’t understand. We have been struck a terrible blow. But the death blow is in our own hands, to strike, or to avert. We can only be destroyed from within.

I don’t have answers. I don’t even know all the questions. I haven’t even begun to comprehend what is happening. But one thing I know: there is much that is good and precious in my life, and much of that is because of our system, flawed as it is. I don’t have the answers, but I hope that we can keep from picking up hammers and knives—that we can search for the properly tempered solution, and that we can hold onto our patience and courage, and in the end, save ourselves.

Then: September 8, 2010

I wrote those words in the days following September 11, 2001. We don’t often talk politics over here, but I look around at the irrationality that has come to pervade our national discourse. I listen to hate-filled talk go unrebuked–and indeed, being treated as comments worth addressing. I hear about good Christians who publicly plan to burn copies of the Koran.

I watch as my fellow Americans busily undermine what remain of our civil liberties in the wake of the Bush era, and I am afraid, not that we will be destroyed by Muslim Americans wishing to build a youth center in downtown New York or by ravening hordes of Mexicans yearning to pick apricots, or by some evil plot hatched by the President and Democratic leadership, but by the pettiness, prejudice, racism, bigotry, and self-serving small-mindedness that have grown so prevalent our national government is literally choking on them. Our government has become an obscenity.

The thing I feared even more than fiery destruction is coming to pass around me–there are those among us who have taken that dark day as an excuse to give in to their own darkest impulses, to retreat into the simple, false world of “Us” against “Them,” of “Saved” or “Lost,” of “Christian” or Muslim, Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Progressive, Good or Evil.

Rational discourse is dying. If we can’t find a way to talk to each other, work with each other, and respect each other we will, in the words of my long-ago blog post, have “fixed ourselves too well,” and brought about our own destruction.

Our true enemy is not a group radicals half a world away–or even just across our southern border–but our own bigotry, isolationism, and selfishness. We are being manipulated coldly and cynically. Our fear and anger is making us co-conspirators in our own destruction. And it’s all being done with words.

I am just one person. I live in a small town in a Red part of a Blue state. I worry about how I will buy milk a lot more than I worry about the migrant laborers who come to our town to pick the fruit. I don’t have power or influence. I don’t have the money to buy them–hell, I don’t have the money to get a physical right now.

But I have my words. And today I choose to use them not to rail against imagined outrages perpetrated in the name of making things a little better for all of us, but to protest against the criminal abuse of our wonderful, rich, nuanced language. I choose to use my words to ask–no, to demand–that we give our Mother Tongue a little respect. That we not manufacture horrors to scare the populace into a position that will benefit us, and harm them. That we learn to edit our national discourse, to remove the extraneous and distracting so that we can focus on the words that matter. And that we demand of ourselves the same integrity we demand in our national discourse.

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donaldhasnoclothessmall

“I don’t see any new clothes,” the small child said in the piercing tones only a small child who is long on sugar and short on sleep can achieve. “I see the Emperor’s butt! And his—“ the voice cut off abruptly, then finished “—really little!”

The Emperor stopped dead in the street.

Silence fell, followed by furious whispers.

“Well, I don’t!” said the child defiantly.

The Emperor drew himself up to his full height, thrust out his chin, pursed his loose, rubbery lips and narrowed his eyes to furious slits. The slits swept slowly over the crowd, all of  whom suddenly found their shoes, the contents of their bags, and imaginary lapel lint of pressing importance.

All, that is, except for a small, defiant, grubby-faced child. He stared at the Emperor for a moment, and then quavered, “You are, too, naked! I can see your pee and everything! You don’t supposed to let other people see your pee!”

The Emperor glared down. “Fake news!” he thundered. “You’re spreading fake news. My new robes are the finest in the land!”

“You’re naked,” the child insisted mulishly. “I can see your pee!”

Suddenly the crowd came to life. “You’re just too much of a loser to be able to see such fine robes,” they shouted.

“Am not,” said the child. “I can see his pee.”

The Emperor’s face deepened from bright orange to deep crimson. “You are what is wrong with the kingdom,” he blasted. “You’re a hater, and you’re lying to all these people. You are their enemy. SAD.”

I would like to tell you that the crowd saw the king bullying the child for stating no more than what they could see was the naked truth. I would like to say that they turned to each other and said, “The child is right; our Emperor is naked. Let’s get him some help, and find somebody a little more grounded in reality to control the nuclear codes.”

But that’s not what happened. The Prime Minister stepped forward and said, “I see the Emperor’s robes and they’re lovely,” even as he gazed upon the Emperor’s sagging bottom.

The Minister of War stepped forward and said, “The Emperor is the perfect person to have charge of our national security, and by the way, those robes are perfect,” even as he gazed on the Emperor’s vast white belly.

The princes stepped forward and said, “Dad’s the best—great robes, big guy,” even as they averted their eyes politely.

The Empress, who was riding behind the Emperor in a closed golden carriage, said nothing at all.

And so it was that the Emperor spent the rest of the parade—and the rest of his reign, wearing his fabulously expensive, nonexistent, robes, and while a substantial number of his subjects spent their time deriding anyone who, like the small child, pointed out the obvious as haters, losers, and FAKE NEWS, the surrounding nations looked on and wondered who was crazier—the Emperor, who had been duped into exposing himself, or his people, who could see he was naked, but refused to admit it.

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