what I unlearned from 9/11

On Tuesday 11 September 2001 I was still an employee of the Insurance Corporation of B.C. At that time my daily routine included a reading period before work over my morning cup of coffee in the living room. Kimmie spent that time upstairs in our ensuite bathroom making her own preparations for work, also at ICBC. That morning, unusually, she appeared at the foot of the stairs to tell me that she was hearing something strange on the radio.

“They say a plane has crashed into one of the buildings of the World Trade Center in New York.”

“Not a joke?” I said. For Kimmie at that time listened to Bro Jake, popular for his nonstop politically incorrect humor.

“No—they sound serious. It’s all they’re talking about. Something’s going on.”

I switched on the TV and sure enough, found “breaking news” coverage of the crash of a jetliner into one of the World Trade Towers. There was screaming and confusion as black smoke poured from the building. And maybe my memory is playing tricks with me, but my recollection is that I saw the second collision, live on TV at 6:03 a.m. local time. Feelings of shock, excitement, and unreality swirled through me, and like everyone else who had witnessed the event, it put to an abrupt end the question that was being urgently asked up to that moment: was this an accident, or part of some evil plan? And soon I would be watching, live on TV, the collapse of the buildings and the mayhem of Lower Manhattan becoming engulfed in a black fog of toxic dust and smoke.

I went to work as usual but everyone was somber and traumatized by the events, and continually listening to the radio or looking online for news updates. Part of the shock of that day was at the scale and boldness of the attacks. Who could be doing this and why? How could they be able to do it?

Soon the name of a Muslim fundamentalist named Osama bin Laden was mentioned, and that of his organization Al Qaida. I’d never heard of either one of them. Who were they and what did they want?

In my life I’d done a lot of reading and study of many topics, but very little to do with Islam or the politics and history of the Middle East, although I had visited Israel and Egypt in the winter of 1981–82. Now, apparently, Islam and the politics and history of the Middle East had reached out and not only touched me but grabbed me by the lapels and shaken me. I wanted to know more, but the news commentators, American and Canadian, didn’t seem to know much more than I did.

I eventually responded in my usual way: by buying and reading books. The first book on Al-Qaeda I was able to find was Al Qaeda: Brotherhood of Terror by Paul L. Williams, a short background guide to the organization and bin Laden. I also put my hands on The Crisis of Islam and What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis. And in 2006 I found a very interesting book called Understanding Terror Networks by a psychiatrist named Marc Sageman, which looked so relevant that I was willing to pay the high price for the hardback, the only existing edition.

By that time the United States had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, ostensibly in response to 9/11, and which they still occupy, with the help of Canada and others in the case of Afghanistan. The invasion of Afghanistan appeared to be inevitable when it became known that bin Laden was holed up there and the ruling Taliban refused to turn him over. The invasion of Iraq was being justified on the basis that Saddam Hussein was creating nuclear weapons that he intended either to use himself—he had already attacked at least three neighboring countries, including Israel, at which he had launched Scud missiles during the first Gulf War—or to make available to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, presumably in the manner in which the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was said to have aided terrorist groups. At the time, I was persuaded that it made sense. Saddam’s actions with regard to the UN nuclear inspection team seemed to me to be consistent with someone who was hiding something. I was also influenced by reading The Economist, of which I was then a big fan and whose editors were strongly in favor of an invasion of Iraq—an issue that I later learned was very divisive at the magazine.

Skeptics—or, as I thought of them, cynics, including most or all of my friends—felt sure that the invasion of Iraq was about oil. My thought was, “But it’s so much cheaper just to buy oil. For the money you’ll spend invading a country, you can buy a lot more oil, and without having to slaughter people.” I deplored what I regarded as knee-jerk cynicism about government and those in power. Let them do their job, I thought.

But I came around. As the increasingly halfhearted hunt for nuclear weapons—or, by that time, “weapons of mass destruction”, hoping for a consolation jackpot of chemical weapons which Iraq was known to have used—in Iraq turned up nothing, it became clear that there were no nuclear weapons there. The evidence for their existence could not have been overwhelming after all. It became increasingly obvious that what “evidence” there was had been fabricated, and that such fabrication must have happened with the knowledge and participation of the highest levels of government. I withdrew the credit I had been willing to extend to governments. I became skeptical.

So for me 9/11 was, among other things, the beginning of a process of political disillusionment. That same year, 2001, had also seen a provincial election here in B.C. called by the then-premier Ujjal Dosanjh, who had replaced the disgraced NDP premier Glen Clark. While the campaign was going on the B.C. government ordered two of its Crown corporations, ICBC and BC Hydro, to mail “rebates” to all their customers, essentially all the voters in B.C. At ICBC, where I worked, the project was undertaken as an emergency: those $100 checks had to reach the customers—a couple of million of them—before election day.

Here, as with the invasion of Iraq, I was slow to realize what was going on. But by the end of 2001 I felt there was no other way to construe the events than as a desperate and corrupt—and failed, as it turned out—effort to buy the provincial election. At ICBC the rebates were to be financed with layoffs, and it was the earnest denials of senior management that the rebate program and the ensuing “voluntary separation packages” were connected that crystallized my feelings of skepticism into disgust. I left the company in January 2002 (one of only a handful of employees who did not qualify for a buyout package, by the way).

By April 2006 I was actively seeking out dissenting literature to try to find the truth behind what we were being spoon-fed by our governments with respect to the world situation. I know this because I book I picked up at Indigo, Rogue State by William Blum, has this date inscribed in it. Since then I have accumulated and read many more books examining American “foreign policy” from points of view other than the official line. It’s not a pretty picture.

But am I a cynic now? No. Cynicism is “assuming the worst about others’ motives”, and I don’t do that. I believe that the cynic is confessing more about his own motives than saying anything about other people’s. I don’t believe other people are worse than I am. They’re in different circumstances than I am, with different knowledge and different incentives. What would I do if my hands were on the levers of power? Especially if I had spent a lifetime getting there, and sold various parts of my soul to do so? I don’t know. I do know that I’ve been tempted by things—and have given in to temptation. Jesus knew what he was doing when he composed the Lord’s Prayer.

In all, it’s hard not to agree with the words of Lord Acton in April 1887:

All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

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2 Responses to what I unlearned from 9/11

  1. Mike Harrison says:

    I’ve felt similar emotions and had similar thoughts along my way in life. Some of the issues we have in BC (and other parts of western democracy) are tied to the term lengths politicians are elected to. To save thief own skin (pay cheque, reputation, influence etc…) – a strong motivator – they need to base their decisions on factors that are best for them, not best for the project, people, town and so on. I’ve thought that there must be some sort of political system we could put together with 6 year terms (or longer) where 1/3 of the seats rotate through elections every two years. This would give longer terms, but still allow for change. I haven’t completely thought this through, but it’s crossed my mind more than once.

  2. Paul Vitols says:

    Hi Mike–many thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Yes, technical improvements would be good (the U.S. Senate rotates in that way), but I can’t help feeling that the quality of the politics depends mostly on the knowledge and participation of those governed, and the way there is…not straightforward.

    I appreciate your joining the elite few who have commented to this blog!

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