Acts of Cognition

conservatism, Iraq War

Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham writes in today’s Washington Post, “In my view, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were an act of war, not a mere crime.”

Senator Graham goes on to make a nice argument for why we shouldn’t torture detained terrorist suspects. I want to comment only on that first sentence, however.

I remember September 13, 2001, wandering about Manhattan. I walked from Grand Central to Times Square, then took the Seventh Avenue local train to 14th Street, then walked over to Union Square. The pain in the city was palpable. Pictures of the dead — we weren’t yet acknowledging they were dead, but we knew — were stapled or taped on every available surface.

I remember feeling a kind of numb emptiness, and not just from sorrow. I remembered thinking that it would have been easier to process what I felt if the perpetrators had been more well-defined, something solid that we could circle on a map and label “enemy,” instead of wraiths from a shadow world I barely knew. If we had been attacked by another country, we could redirect our pain into simple purpose –going to war, defeating an enemy. But on September 13 it was as if we’d been attacked by mist. What would we do? The lack of a clear, well-defined path of action made the present seem so much harder to bear.

Over the next several days we learned more, of course. We learned about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and we learned that much of that organization was being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan. That was something tangible, with geographic boundaries. Yet we were not going to war with Afghanistan, but with something that could cross national boundaries as easily as smoke.

However, things are what they are. We have a lazy tendency to “understand” phenomena by sorting it into a pre-arranged file structure in our heads. But putting a label on something, or assigning a place for it in an ideological taxonomy, is not the same thing as knowing it as-it-is.

This is one part of my Zen studies that seems to have stuck. Words are not reality. Concepts are not reality. Zennies go way beyond thinking outside the box. Zennies are all about destroying the box altogether and evaporating all reference points in order to realize enlightenment. I can’t say I quite got to that point. But I still try to appreciate things as-they-are instead of by some system of classification.

It seems meaningless to me to classify the 9/11 attacks as either a war or a crime. They were what they were. Both, and neither.

You might have heard the old Hindu story about the blind men and the elephant; the men, feeling different parts of the elephant, got into an argument about whether the elephant was like a tree trunk, a snake, a fan, a wall, a spear, or a rope. Seems to me that arguing about whether 9/11 was an act or war or a crime is just about as blind. To understand it, you need to wipe former points of reference out of your head and take it in as-it-is. And you need to take it all in, not just whatever part seems most graspable.

Most of the chest-thumping bravado one finds on the Right makes me realize the chest-thumpers are looking at Islamic terrorism and seeing something entirely different from what I see. They’re seeing something like a conventional war; I do not. So many citizens (erroneously) embraced the invasion of Iraq out of emotional need to find a solid, tangible enemy to fight in a glorious little war. As I said, it makes processing the pain of 9/11 so much easier. But that’s an emotional crutch, not reality. And, as I argued this morning, all our thrashing around in Iraq is leaving us weaker and more vulnerable to real threats.

Real leaders would have helped us face reality while we processed our pain. Real leaders would have helped us understand the complex nature of what we faced while finding rational and effective ways to deal with it. Instead, we had Bush and Cheney. Not so much Dumb and Dumber as Dumb and Bleeping Delusional. Too bad for us.

Think of the Iraq War as the Mother of All Security Blankets. It’s what the Right clings to because they lack the fortitude (or brainpower) to face reality. And that’s why no amount of reasoning will persuade them to let go of it.

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  1. Bonnie  •  Dec 6, 2005 @8:05 pm

    This was so well written and thoughtful. Thank you, Maha.

  2. erinyes  •  Dec 6, 2005 @9:04 pm

    Very good, Maha.
    Years ago, i lived in Wilmington, Ca. It is a harbor town, and was at that time infested with gangs.I got to know a bit about gangs and gang warfare. Not having the inside “scoop”, I can only guess that the “war on terrorism” is either gang warfare, or something far more sinister. The far more sinister thing IS NOT the “Islamofascism” meme floated by Frank Gaffney and Donald Rumsfeld.
    I believe time will tell that the events of 9/11 were a crime, not an act of war, and just who the criminals are may be a real surprise.
    The attack on Iraq was also a crime, the biggest mob hit in history, the greatest blunder since the Bay of Pigs.

  3. emel  •  Dec 6, 2005 @9:16 pm

    9/11 changed nothing, nothing at all. Until we come to grips with that we will be stuck in the old boxes.

  4. justme  •  Dec 6, 2005 @9:24 pm

    very very well said Maha.!

  5. Swami  •  Dec 6, 2005 @9:45 pm

    Real leaders would have helped us understand the complex nature of what we faced while finding rational and effective ways to deal with it.

    But 911 was tailor made for their weakness.

    Nice post, Maha..I liked how you conveyed the feeling in Manhattan after the tragedy. Vulnerability looking for guidance?

  6. Swami  •  Dec 6, 2005 @10:08 pm

    “Some have suggested by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein we simply stirred up a hornet’s nest. They overlook a fundamental fact: We were not in Iraq in September 2001 and the terrorists hit us anyway.” Dick Cheney – 12/6/05


  7. alyosha  •  Dec 7, 2005 @1:48 am

    Great rumination, maha. When I hear some politician say 9/11 was an act of war, I just want to roll my eyes. This is the best we can do for leaders? Even me, a virtual nobody, knows better.

    The other point is that righties need enemies. The entire world is threatening to them. If you’re not with me, you’re against me. And these intellectual giants generalize everything in their myopic fear: all of Islam is the enemy.

  8. The Big Picture  •  Dec 7, 2005 @12:22 pm

    Beautifully stated, Maha. However, I believe the bigger picture is that Bushco wanted ANY excuse to invade Iraq and 9/11 was the perfect entrance. As I recall reading, the thought by Bushco was “why have the greatest military and not utilize it?” and “Saddam is going down” well before 9/11. Meanwhile their friends are getting rich with the war and we now have 14 PERMANENT military bases in Iraq. It’s all about oil; it always has been. The Islamofascism is but a side issue.

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