My great-niece was born on September 11, 2000. The next year, her first birthday, her mom was arranging a party for her with family and friends. Then the Twin towers fell and the birthday party was over. Mom was heart broken. Today her daughter is lovely and 21 and entering her life with bravado. But, she is a child who has never known a time when terrorism, security threats, and extreme caution have not been part of her life. I remember saying to someone some years later, “Well if Osama ben Laden wanted to destroy the United States, he certainly changed our lives forever.”
A New York Times columnist wrote, “Our children will never know the innocence we did before 9-11.”
Sobering thoughts. But a good indication that we change, we adapt, and in this new reality life moves on. We cannot halt or turn the clock back or fight against what has happened. As a species we approach the new danger slowly, walk all around it. Anthropologists say we have a built in “fight or flight” mechanism when change confronts us.
I have wondered if the world is suffering from a form of PTSD after 9-11-2001. If many of the agonies we have experienced is because we were not able to make that leap from what was to what is. There are still too many trying to force us back. Sometimes it takes a huge shock to change society. I have read about places hard hit by hurricanes or earthquakes who when they rebuild try to build in a design that can hold up to the forces of nature. Perhaps we are still in the throes of a post-9/11 society and we haven’t yet got our feet on solid ground. As a result of that event we have witnessed 20 years of war in the Middle East. Men, women and children who wanted nothing more than to have a life are dead due to bombings, raids, drone strikes. The continuing results of those actions — the very necessities of life — food, shelter, education, medical care, economic stability have been denied them because they chanced to be born in the wrong time and place.
Politically the growing refugee displacement issues tied in to war; the wanton exploitation of our land and resources by the fossil fuel industry; the disruption of basic human rights by governments which are too powerful and greedy can all perhaps be traced back to the fateful September day. Somewhere along the way humanity became too fearful, too greedy, unkind, stripping society of the normalcy of our innocence. We have become more like animals in the jungle, protecting our turf, rather than people of compassion.
The hardest part of history is having to live in that transitional period before we once again find our footing. I look forward to a day when people matter — not politics, not money, not power. In Isaiah God gives us a picture of that time of peace when the lion lies down with the lamb. When swords and shields are broken into plowshares and pruning hooks and nation shall not lift up sword against nation and people of anger and disorder can find peace. When the next twenty years have passed where will be?
Rudyard Kipling, 19th century British author, wrote the book “Kim”. In the story he coined the term “The Great Game”. The point of the story was the involvement of a young boy helping British espionage against the Russians in India about 1840. “The Great Game” became a metaphor for the centuries old use of the Khyber Pass located in the range of mountains known as the “Hindu Kush”. The pass connected Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. India was “the jewel in the crown”. It was first conquered by Moghul raiders out of Central Asia and then much later became a prize for the British East India Company.
“The Great Game” was the back and forth of diplomatic strategies including war to protect India by gaining control of the Khyber Pass. Britain fought three wars known as the Anglo-Afghan Wars in 1839-1842, 1878-80 and 1919 all ending in defeat. The first Anglo Afghan War resulted in the massacre of some 4500 troops as they fled Kabul. The general in charge died in prison in Afghanistan. His body was returned to India and he was buried in an unmarked grave.
A second player in the “Great Game” is Russia. The expansion of Russian influence into Central Asia and the need to protect its borders made the British nervous for India. The bottom line of the Anglo-Afghan Wars was keeping an eye on Russian activities. Russia played a part in the “Great Game” with a nine year occupation and continual battle with Afghans, finally leaving in 1989 after being defeated by the mujahideen. A communist government in Afghanistan held control for three years before being driven out. Russian casualties were 15,000 soldiers and two million Afghans. Russia has never left “the game” as we see today.
The third player in the “Great Game” has been the United States. NATO forces also fought in Afghanistan all with the aim of ending the use of Afghanistan as a center for terrorist groups after the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. After twenty years of fighting we see that occupation coming to an end. U.S. casualties were 2,448.
Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, constituting around 48% of the country's total population. They have been the dominant linguistic group in Afghanistan since the nation's founding. Pathans are Muslims and speak Pashto (or Pushtu). Historically, Pathans have been noted as fierce fighters, and throughout history they have offered strong resistance to invaders. They are an Iranian ethnic group native to Central and South Asia.
Three super powers have stepped into “the Great Game” in Afghanistan and each one has left without accomplishing the ends they saw as necessary. My father, a history teacher, began every school year with this quotation: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” May I add, over and over and over again.
The West has never taken the time to study Asian history — whether Southeast Asia, China, or Central Asia and Africa with its long history of tribalism and colonialism is another blank spot in our understanding. To brush off other cultures as unimportant to our understanding of the world in which we live is deeply near-sighted, but unfortunately our preference for isolation, racism and xenophobia (fear of people from other countries) have left us vulnerable. Diplomacy is a dicey game and many men and women have called themselves winners to their loss. There are always bigger stakes than just “losing face”. The threat of terrorism is a real one, but the game board of history is littered with those who never learned the rules.
I am having a difficult time wrapping my head around all the state legislatures restricting our blood soaked liberty to vote. I don’t care your color, creed, gender or country of origin voting has always been one of the freedoms we cherish and brag about to the rest of the world. Having lived my years I can remember when we shook our heads about unfair elections in other countries — people being denied the right to choose their leader in a fair election. The United Nations would send soldiers to protect the people, men and women who risked their lives to come to the polls and vote. I used to thank God we had free, fair and open elections when I watched what other people in other countries went through to vote.
Now I am beginning to wonder about the element in this country who is attempting to gerrymander districts and limit access to voting rights just because they control state legislatures and they have the power. You can’t hand out water to people who are standing in line in the heat for six hours because they treasure their right to vote?
It used to be we shuddered at the restrictions on literacy and poll tax forced on Black American voters in the South. Now wherever governors and legislators have the power, many of our freedoms are being whittled away from us.
Of course we get weary of the news that blasts us every day of corruption and political battles. It is so bad you wish some days to crawl in a hole and pull it in after you, but as true citizens of a still free and democratic republic we cannot do that. We must face our legislators and hold them to account for what they are doing in limiting our rights to elect the candidates we choose.
In Russia, Putin allows some names to appear on the ballot other than his, but elections are a joke. The people in many of the Balkan countries are limited in fair elections. Latin America is facing dictators, fascism, organized crime and corrupt officials. The same is true in various countries in Africa. The recent January 6th attack on the nation’s capitol was attempting to interrupt a two hundred year old process of electing a leader for this nation. The people’s choice was clear. Even the military was fearing a coup and there was talk of brown-shirts in the streets. Historians say we came very close to losing our democracy that day.
I used to believe that fair elections in this country were a given. Not any more. Thomas Jefferson said that the tree of liberty must occasionally be watered by the blood of martyrs. Willing to die for free elections where everyone can vote? May it never come to that in this country.
July the fourth, 2021. It has been 245 years since the Declaration of Independence which separated us from England and King George III. As Benjamin Franklin was coming out of the Constitutional Convention some years later, a woman asked him, “Mr Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?” “A Republic, madam,” he answered. “If you can keep it.” And since those days we have been involved in a struggle to live up to the words, a more perfect union, establish justice, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity. The United States was born under a dream of a better life for everyone. But over the years we have had to redefine “everyone”?? And what liberty, i.e. freedom, means, and taking care of ALL the people, and ensuring a JUST society. And the whole world has watched us down through ages and copied us and come here to make their home. Because this was America and this was better. There are multitudes of stories of what these people found when they arrived — the struggles, the prejudice, the poverty. It seems before they could really call this home, everybody had to shed a little of their blood in some form to make this dream a reality.
I have been reading the wartime sermons of Peter Marshall, the pastor of Riverside Presbyterian church in New York City and also chaplain of the US Senate during World War II. His sermons were legendary as he called to the American people that the country was struggling. The war was a last resort for the hopes and dreams of humanity everywhere. We said we were fighting for liberty, but Dr. Marshall noted in our own country people of color and indigenous people were not free to vote or experience economic opportunity. Dr. Marshall said that God was calling his people to accept the gospel message of loving God and loving your neighbor to create a world where everyone could live without fear. His sermons from those pivotal years in our history ring out loudly today. “Our Government is in danger of control by corrupt party machines — cynical, ruthless, self-seeking, lovers of power and authority, which should challenge every true patriot.” We are fighting the same battles today as political parties lash out at each other in a stream of hate-filled words trying to undo any good the other party has done. Humanity cannot advance when this is the path that is taken. This is not what the founding fathers and mothers intended.
It is worth thinking about on this July 4th and asking the question, “Will we turn from our rebellious and stubborn ways?” Could there be a rededication to the ideals that the original signers imagined when they put their names to the Declaration of Independence? They pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to get the dream moving toward reality. We are not there yet, but there is a spirit in the American dream which holds to the promises of “liberty and justice for all.” May it happen soon.
My cousin sent me an op-ed from her local newspaper. The author was writing about racism, how it is practiced all around us and has been since the founding of the country. But the turn of the editorial is that we are finally recognizing it and starting to push for the changes necessary to right these wrongs. My sense is the whole world is watching how we deal with what our history was and how we move forward in making our country and world a better place.
As a student of history, I don’t want to dwell on the past — I want to understand it and then apply what we have learned to improve. I have always known George Washington was a slave owner and that was not a good thing, but he was raised in an era when it was accepted. He was the first president of the United States. He turned down the offer to become king. One source tells us: “Despite having been an active slave holder for 56 years, George Washington struggled with the institution of slavery and spoke frequently of his desire to end the practice. At the end of his life, Washington made the decision to free all his slaves in his 1799 will - the only slave-holding Founding Father to do so.” Through our history we struggle with the balance of good and evil. The importance of recognizing slavery was wrong had to come first. The ensuing struggle to continue that move forward was nasty throughout the Jim Crow years following the Civil War. It still isn’t what it should be and some people are still trying to keep people of color from voting and pursuing economic equality. It is a slow process, but I hope with the addition of the words “systemic racism” into our vocabulary we are learning to examine ourselves, our own prejudices and right some wrongs a little faster.
I have been a “Trekkie” ever since I was a kid and I always appreciated the great diversity of the program from its very beginning, not only within the crew but the inclusion of people from other planets. When the Federation began to make peace overtures with the Klingons, it was a battle on both sides to get acceptance and peace. Another early episode found the crew interacting with a race at war — the color of the people was half white and half black — the struggle was over which side you were black on — the right side or the left side.
There is a saying, “The only constant in life is change.” And then we hear people say and I say it myself, “I don’t want things to change. I want them to stay just as they are.” Sorry, not going to happen. We can look back on our own lives with pride for the good things we have accomplished, but to finish the picture we also have to remember the “not-so-good” things we have done. History operates in the same way. When Galileo was attempting to convince people the earth revolved around the sun, when people believed the earth was the center of the solar system, that meant he was condemned by most of Europe including the Church which was the most powerful institution at that time. If the earth was only one planet among many, then suddenly we were not that important. We can teach about the cruelties of slavery but we can also teach about the improvements of working conditions and the ending of child labor laws. There is much we have to improve, but we also have much to be proud of.
We can move forward and we can teach history as it really was — the good and the bad. It is evident we are going to have to de-mythologize some of our history — “No, the pioneers did not open the West.” It was already populated and open and lived on by people with an important culture and history in this country. The greed of the railroads was a principal reason the buffalo were nearly exterminated to take away the food source of the Native peoples. Education for all of us is key to understanding. We may not like it, but it was the reality of that time and place. How do we now work toward changing the reality and moving forward with eyes open, with awareness to the sensibilities of all the people around us, and making a society where no one is excluded for any reason. We live with good and bad, how the balance tips is up to us.
The fact that we’ve been living in a kind of bubble the past year was apparent to me the other day. The isolation of Co-vid and a broken bone has given me the privacy that comes with being alone. Of course we need people (or as my mother used to say, “Without people, we get funny in the head”). But after a little time has gone by I find myself focusing more easily and I am able to see something “more” or “deeper” in my quiet surroundings. So there are some pluses to all that has happened.
The other day I was at the Dawson County Cemetery adding some flowers to my folks’ graves. It was a perfect Spring day — beautiful blue sky with fluffy clouds, little to no wind, and the temperature was just right. As I looked around I noticed the gravestones, many with names of people I have known; many already decorated with flowers; cars coming and going and people visiting quietly in family groups as they fixed flowers and walked around just looking at the graves. It was a small town Memorial Day weekend. And I wished everyone had this opportunity and every moment could have this kind of perfection.
The cemetery was beautiful and green. Visiting a cemetery is a quiet moment of remembrance. Death has a way of stripping back the layers we put on as the years go by. When facing the memorials to long dead family and friends there is no pretending. These days of people traveling the world, living in faraway places is the way it is. Humanity has always been on the move to “another place”. Sociologists say the migration of people today is greater than anytime in human history. That is pretty staggering — war, famine, disease, poverty — all contribute to the search for something better. Children have to try their wings and push themselves away from the “tie that binds”. And I get all that.
But on that day, there was a sense of returning to the soil from which we come; of remembering at our most basic level who we are. The funeral service reminds us “from dust you are and to dust you shall return.” And it is not a bad thought. At the end of life we all become part of the common soil of which the earth is made and we are blended with all the colors and creeds of humanity in a peaceful finality that is common to all.
Even with the activity around me the day was so quiet. It was as if we were all in suspended remembrance. I am a firm believer that everyone needs to return on occasion to where your family came from. Even with dysfunctional relationships, going home can be healing, looking at people with more honesty. People change; there is strength and courage rising from those stones with those familiar names.
Lately I have been reading a lot of history. I am overwhelmed by the bravery of the people of Britain at the time of the blitz and the people of France during occupation by the Nazis, the quiet courage today of people under great stress like Belarus. I have read about the changing mores of American society and the long road to a better understanding of how we are to live together in peace. And the courage of those who fight for democratic government today, for the right to free elections and voting. And the people who walk to the podium in the face of great personal danger and speak about the things that matter like equal justice for all and an end to violence and hatred. And the people who carved a life from a difficult land and people of color and indigenous peoples who have endured centuries of punishing treatment from people with no soul. But these people are rising and are demanding their right to equal and just treatment under the law.
Sitting in the quietness aof a cemetery all those things take on new importance. Life is very short and the purpose of our lives is to live with integrity and in peace and prepare this earth for the next generation that it may be better for them.