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How 9/11 Should Be Remembered: The Extraordinary Achievements of Ordinary People

After 9/11, saw amazing acts of courage by ordinary people, including assembled flotilla of boats evacuated 300,000 to 500,000 people from lower Manhattan.

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She relished the astonishing forum that Union Square became in those days when we had a more perfect union: "We spoke passionately of the contemporary and historical conflicts, contradictions and connections affecting our lives," she wrote me later. "We stayed for hours, through the night, and into the week riveted and expressive, in mourning and humbled, and in the ecstasy of a transformative present." Such conversations took place everywhere.

We had that more perfect union, and then we let them steal it.

Perhaps Barack Obama, the candidate who delivered that address on race, pain, and nuance entitled "A More Perfect Union" some 18 months ago, could have catalyzed us to remain open-minded in the face of horror, to rethink our foreign policy, to try to grasp the real nature of the attack by that small band which was so obviously not an act of war, and to make of it an opportunity to change, profoundly. Such a response would have had to recognize that many were killed or widowed or orphaned on that September 11th , but none were defeated. Not that day. It would have had to recognize that such events are immeasurably terrible, but neither so rare as we Americans like to imagine, nor insurmountable. (Since 9/11, far more have been killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, the 2008 Burma typhoon, and of course the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Congo, among other events. More in this country have, in fact, died of domestic violence since that day.)

Obama, the candidate, might have been capable of that; of President Obama I'm not so sure. He has, after all, expanded the war in Afghanistan that was the first monstrous outcome of that day in New York. But he's had his moments, too, and it may be that another set of disasters -- the social disasters of racism, poverty, and government failure laid bare during and after Hurricane Katrina -- helped make it possible for him to become our president.

After the 9/11 storm struck, the affected civilians in New York were seen as victims; after Katrina, those in New Orleans were portrayed as brutes. In both cities, the great majority of affected people were actually neither helpless nor savage; they were something else -- they were citizens, if by that word we mean civic engagement rather than citizenship status. In both places ordinary people were extraordinarily resourceful, generous, and kind, as were some police officers, firefighters, rescue workers, and a very few politicians. In both cases, the majority of politicians led us astray. All I would have wanted in that September moment, though, was politicians who stayed out of the way, and people who were more suspicious of the news and the newsmakers.

The media, too, stepped between us and the event, failing us with their stock of clichés about war and heroes, their ready adoption of the delusional notion of a "war on terror," their refusal to challenge the administration as it claimed that somehow the Saudi-spawned, fundamentalist al-Qaeda was linked to the secularist Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein and that we should fear mythical Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction." Rarely did they mention that we had, in fact, been bombing Iraq without interruption since 1991.

After 9/11, it could all have been different, profoundly different. And if it had, there would have been no children imprisoned without charges or release dates in our gulag in Cuba; there would have been no unmanned drones slaughtering wedding parties in the rural backlands of Afghanistan or the Iraqi desert; there would have been no soldiers returning to the U.S. with two or three limbs missing or their heads and minds grievously damaged (there were already 320,000 traumatic brain injuries to soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan by early 2008, according to the RAND Corporation); there would not have been a next round of American deaths -- 4,334 in Iraq, 786 in Afghanistan to date; there would have been no trillion dollars taken from constructive projects to fatten the corporations of war; no extreme corrosion of the Bill of Rights, no usurpation of powers by the executive branch. Perhaps.

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