Remember the People

By Jim Cullen, editorial, Progressive Populist, 15 November 2001

We visited New York City a couple weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. The trip had been planned and booked before the disaster, but my wife and I decided to go on, reassured after Mayor Giuliani appealed for tourists to come and spend money. So we risked the Continental flight to LaGuardia Airport in Queens.

Neither I nor Becky were big fans of New York City. There are two types of Midwesterners: those who always wanted to move to The City and the great majority who never wanted to have much to do with it; I fell squarely in the latter group. My bias had been reinforced on a previous trip years ago when some kid tried to steal my luggage at the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan. (A cop stopped the punk, who apparently found the suitcase heavier than he anticipated, and I got it back.) Becky, a Texan, had a similar disposition after a couple bad experiences on her own trips to New York. But the Big Apple has great things to see and do and we planned to see and do them. Then the twin towers were brought down. But we went anyway.

We stayed with a friend in Inwood, a little-known neighborhood tucked away at the northern tip of Manhattan. It's at the last stop on the “A” train, historically an Irish enclave that lately has seen an influx of Dominicans. It's a safe neighborhood if for no other reason than a lot of cops, active and retired, live there. My friend hires a cleaning lady, the mother of a police officer. She said 24 people in the neighborhood died in the Trade Center collapse. It seemed everyone in town knew victims.

We had a great time in New York. We got half-price tickets to two Broadway shows (but no hope of getting into The Producers, the only show I really wanted to see). Friends gave us tickets to a Metropolitan Opera matinee. We had great meals in exotic cuisines as well as a hearty Italian meatball sandwich from a pizzeria. And folks on the street were helpful, even solicitous if we looked lost, which of course we frequently were.

Then we went to Lower Manhattan that Saturday night to pay our respects at “The Pile.” The closest we could get was two blocks away from the ruins, near City Hall, as police and National Guardsmen guarded the approaches to the ruins. The New Yorker in our group couldn't get over the fact that the towers weren't there any more. Smoke still hung in the air. All we could see was the burned-out base of the Trade Center in the distance; some cars on side streets were covered in ash; we wondered if they had been abandoned by victims in the towers. Entryways of a nearby fire station were flanked by flowers and notes of sympathy and appreciation. Poignant fliers seeking information on missing persons were posted everywhere.

The 5,000 people who were lost on Sept. 11 did not die in vain. Their sacrifices brought a great city, a nation and the civilized world together.

We were all together all too briefly. Then the opportunists struck. Attorney General John Ashcroft asked for new prosecutorial power to go after suspected terrorists. US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said “fast track” trade promotion authority was needed to fight terrorism with “free trade”. President George W. Bush said we need more tax breaks for the wealthy, and in the meantime the rest of us should stretch our credit limits to keep the economy moving. Then diplomacy gave way to bombs falling on Afghanistan.

We were only aiming at bin Laden and his Taliban protectors, Bush assured the world. But when you bomb from 30,000 feet, as we learned in Serbia a couple years back, “collateral damage” is inevitable, even when you’re using “smart” bombs. In the Afghan campaign, we already have destroyed a Red Cross warehouse whose roof reportedly was clearly marked. We also destroyed a United Nations office, killing four. The Taliban say we bombed a military hospital, killing more than 100 doctors, nurses and patients; the Defense Department says they didn’t know (this from a group that claims to target with meticulous care). Now they say they might have inadvertently hit an Afghani nursing home. At least there are few embassies in Kabul, so we likely won’t repeat the destruction of the Chinese embassy in the bombing of Belgrade.

The military campaign may still be popular and even justifiable to put an end to bin Laden's crimes, but as we’ve said before, every errant bomb will create more frustrated Afghanis and allies in other Islamic nations who will pray for the day when they can exact revenge against America.

By the way, those who are responsible for sending anthrax-dosed mail are the worst sort of cowards. They have shown that they can spread panic and infect mail carriers and interns who open the mail. They aren’t likely to intimidate their intended victims, but they will cause reaction. Whether they are connected with bin Laden or home-grown groups, such as anti-abortion extremists, these terrorists should be found and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. However, let's not bomb New Jersey.

Meanwhile, who pays for the war on terrorism? Working people get blown up in the World Trade Center. Working people get blown up in retaliatory air strikes on Afghanistan. Working people catch anthrax by carrying the mail and opening it. Working people are sent to Afghanistan as soldiers to clear out Osama bin Laden's terror network. Working people are laid off by airlines, hotels, restaurants, retailers and other businesses that are hit by the economic decline.

So what class do George W. Bush and Congress want to help? First they earmarked $15 billion to help the airline stockholders, without setting aside anything for the thousands of airline workers who will be laid off despite the aid. Then Republicans in charge of the House Ways and Means Committee voted a $212 billion tax cut that will be weighted heavily toward the higher income levels that already are in line for budget-busting tax breaks. This at the same time Congress is authorizing war bonds to put the government deeper into debt to finance an open-ended war on terrorism.

Robert Reich notes that 80% of Americans now pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes, but Republicans in Congress propose to do nothing for them. If anything, we can count on an increase payroll taxes to pay for Social Security and Medicare, and/or more increases in the retirement age to limit those of us who live long enough to take advantage of those retirement programs.

One of the great dangers of reactionary responses to the terror attacks is that our demand for security will overcome our love for liberty. More than 700 Arabs were swept up in the dragnet for possible terrorists and many were held for days or weeks without being able to contact their families or lawyers. The Honolulu Advertiser reported Oct. 22 that military police detained two Canadian tourists on Oct. 9 for snapping pictures and strolling with other tourists near Waikiki beach. The Canadians were surrounded by military police, searched, detained in separate rooms at a military recreation center for hours, and questioned by military investigators and the FBI. David Tavares, 31, told the Advertiser the only explanation the men received was that they “looked suspicious.” Tavares said he and his friend were never thanked for their cooperation after they were cleared of suspicion, and received no apology for their hours of detention. “The exact words of the FBI were, ‘I’m finished with you now. The military will decide what to do with you.’” Tavares said. “At that point my heart dropped. I didn’t know what would happen next.”

It is possible [quite likely] that I am out of step with the mainstream of Americans, but I simply do not believe that upwards of 90% of the people think George W. Bush is doing a bang-up job as president. Perhaps that many of us might be pleasantly surprised that he is not as big a moron as they feared, or we are relieved that he can follow instructions from his handlers. It is well past time for Democrats in Congress and other progressives to puncture that inflated mandate and reject the opportunistic Republican agenda.