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My initial reaction on September 11, 2001: US Exceptionalism and the Legacy of the War on Terror – Part I

September 9, 2021

It was early in the morning, and I was already at work on September 11, 2001. At the time I worked at the Community Media Center (CMC) on Bridge Street in Grand Rapids. I was the Director of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) and my office was located in the basement of the rectory of St. James Catholic Church, just west of the CMC.

I was coming from my office to the main office of the CMC, which had a TV mounted above the doorway in the lobby area. Several people had already been in the lobby and were looking up at the TV when I walked in. What we were all looking at was the damage to one of the Twin Towers in New York City. People were mostly silent, but at one point someone said, “what would cause people to do something so awful?”

At that time, I had already spent years doing human rights and accompaniment work in Guatemala, El Salvador and Chiapas, Mexico. I was well aware of the history of US Imperialism, and had seen first hand what US militarism was doing to people in Central America and Mexico. I also had been living in a community house called Koinonia, which was a Sanctuary for Central American political refugees in the 1980s. We chose ti become part of the Sanctuary Movement as a direct result of the brutal US-backed wars in that region, which caused thousands of people to flee US sponsored terrorism.

When someone had said, “what would cause people to do something so awful,” all I could think about what Malcolm X had said in 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, that this was “chickens coming home to roost.” My understanding of what Malcolm X was saying and my own read of US foreign policy was, you can’t keep bombing other countries, occupying other countries, supporting dictators in other countries, training mercenaries in other countries, and NOT expect that some people will push back.

Native American scholar, Ward Churchill, wrote an essay at the time called, Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, which called out the long standing consequences of US Imperialism. Churchill later wrote a book entitled, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of US Imperial Arrogance and Criminality, which included the essay cited above. The rest of the book consists of two parts. The first part of the rest of the book provides a chronological look at US Militarism at home and abroad from 1776 – 2003. The last part of the book, which is the longest, is entitled, A Government of Laws? This chapter is a methodical and chronological account of US Obstructions, Subversions, Violations and Refusals of International Legality since World War II. Essentially, the final section of the book documents how many times the US violated international law.

For me, when I watched the planes crash into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, then heard comments like, why do they hate us, I was witnessing American Exceptionalism. 

Now the days that followed September 11, 2001, we saw the US government and the US media practicing US Exceptionalism, without questioning or investigating the motives of those who flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. All we were hearing was, “They Hate America and what it stands for.”

Within days, there were already memorials being planned for the 3,000 people killed in the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. I kept looking for something that would go beyond candlelight vigils and begin to ask serious questions about US militarism abroad. Hell, even the organization in town that had a been questioning US foreign policy for more than 20 years at that time, the Institute for Global Education (IGE), was encouraging its members to go to the candlelight vigil, without organizing any sort of event or crafting a statement in response.

Thankfully, some people who were involved in the anti-Globalization Movement in Grand Rapids, were also wanting to do something that wasn’t just endless chanting of USA, USA. A group of us met and decided we would organize a teach-in, especially since the Bush Administration had already given the government of Afghanistan a deadline to turn over Osama Bin Laden or suffer the wrath of the US military. 

The Grand Rapids People’s History Project has written about that Teach-In and all of the other anti-war activities that the group, People’s Alliance for Justice & Change, was engaged in to oppose the US bombing and occupation of Afghanistan. There were 150 people who showed up for the all-day Teach-In at Aquinas College in early October of 2001.

According to the National Priorities Project, the US has spent $21 Trillion on the War on Terror over the past 20 years. The National Priorities Project also has counters, which show the sobering reality of how much money the US is spending every second to fund the madness of the US War on Terror.

It is critically important that we not only question American Exceptionalism, but that we resist it, since the so-called US War on Terror has killed millions of people over the past 20 years. In Part II of US Exceptionalism and the Legacy of the War on Terror, we will look at the consequences of the US War on Terror here at home, especially with the USA Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

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