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Monday, September 10, 2012

September 11

Two pieces I want to share today, before we go back tomorrow to books and contests and kissing stuff:

This one horrifies me because maybe the attacks could have been stopped before they started, and so many lives could have been spared. Though I have never been a fan of GWB, I can honestly say that I am shocked. I am sitting here on my couch 11 years later feeling kind of mugged with the shocking details of the failure of our government to protect us. It was not just sometimes bad things happen, and not even a great leader or team can prevent all bad events. No. That is what I have believed, all this time. Say what you will about many of GWB's policies -- still, I thought, he was just a guy doing what he thought was best; a determined, focused bad guy can sometimes land a punch against anyone, even someone vigilant and wise. Blaming GBW for 9/11, I thought, was unfair and an overly partisan interpretation of events.

But in truth, it turns out, the Bush administration had been briefed extensively. There were career Intelligence officers ready to resign their jobs in protest that the neocons in the administration were stonewalling -- ignoring the facts the intelligence officers were presenting in hair-on-fire style levels of alarm. And these guys, we all know from movies, are not hair-on-fire guys. They are Houston we have a problem calm cool and collected guys, even under duress. They have short neat hair and deep quiet voices. Nothing causes them to lose their shit. When these guys jump up and down yelling YOU MUST LISTEN TO THIS IT IS AS SERIOUS A THREAT AS CAN EXIST you really do have to pay attention.

But the Bush administration did not. Why?

Because the facts those Intelligence guys were presenting clashed with the administration's preconceived narrative that the real threat was Saddam Hussein, and that therefore Osama Bin Laden was either in cahoots with Hussein or a distraction but in either case not a major threat himself/as a leader of al Qaeda.

Our leaders willfully ignored thoroughly vetted facts and warnings. It wasn't an Intelligence failure that doomed the lives of my friends and neighbors on that amazingly blue day 11 years ago. Or at least it wasn't a failure of the Intelligence Community to gather information. As scary as that possibility is -- that there may be unforeseen threats out there that even the best and most extensive Intelligence Community cannot pick up -- this is worse, and my mind reels.

The failure was a failure to accept facts and Intelligence because reality wasn't fitting neatly into a stubbornly held world view.

That's different -- and worse. It's not an Intelligence failure but a failure of intelligence.

And it was willful.

It is scary to think that people in charge would be stubborn enough to choose to ignore truth and facts in favor of belief. Understandable, maybe, but really scary. I have often thought that it's easier to change your hair color than your mind. It's a huge challenge to be able to say to yourself hmm, this new information means that the way I have been thinking about everything might be seriously off. It's really fun in a movie or book, like in Star Wars or Fight Club or The Sixth Sense or Gone Girl or Atonement, when you hit that point like 3/4 of the way in, where suddenly your mind goes wait -- what?! and you have to rethink all your assumptions. But in real life, it's not fun. It's actually about as hard as it gets. The friend you insisted was really on your side, or the relationship you knew would work even though people you love seem so weirdly freaked out by it... and then the moment comes that you think, uh-oh. Maybe I missed some now obvious hints. Maybe I have to change course.

It take massive moral and psychological courage to change your mind, or your mind-set, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. Most of us fail at that test many times. But that moral courage is exactly what we require -- what we should and must require -- of our leaders.

Our leaders failed us.

The results of that failure are still playing out, still devastating us. Big stakes, the biggest there are. Which is why science, the scientific method, facts, reality -- must form the basis of our political discussions and compromises. Not just what I believe vs. what you believe -- but what IS, what is demonstrably so, what works and what doesn't -- what is actually going on, not just what we wish or believe or what I think God may have told us vs. what you think God said. There's no place for that in discussions of governance because there is no way to test or prove it. Religion and belief and stubborn adherence to a prefab set of ideals may have their place, maybe a very important place. That place just isn't in a laboratory and it isn't where geopolitical decisions are made.

And if our understanding of something changes -- whether it's about Bin Laden Determined to Strike Within USA or about quarks or epigenetics or the value of early childhood education or the role of fiscal policy in a recession -- we ought to have the courage to change what we do about it.

My husband is a doctor and two of the most important lessons he learned in Med School he has shared with me and our kids and I share with you here:

1. If things don't make sense, if something about a patient's labs or exam or story doesn't fit with other facts you are seeing -- stop. You are missing something. Keep looking at all the available information, keep searching for answers and insights, until you understand what is going on. Don't try to make the lab results fit your preconceived diagnosis. Stay open to the possibilities that every bit of new information adds to your understanding.


2. Don't just do something; stand there. In other words -- don't rush to act; first think about what is going on, what needs to be done, and what the possible ramifications of that action will be. Aim before you shoot -- and make sure you are shooting at the right target.

When our government chooses to ignore what is going on because it doesn't fit their world view, it endangers us. It fails us. They failed us. I am heartsick about it. Whenever I think of what happened on September 11, 2001, I always think about the phenomenal courage and community so many heroes showed. They deserved to have that courage matched by those we trusted to lead us.

The second piece I want to share with you is about that day, about courage and resilience and community. It's from my wise and hilarious and always awesome friend Meg Cabot. Here it is.
You should make time today if you can to watch the video she embedded. It's powerful and beautiful. It recalls so vividly communion we all felt that day when the terror was colossal -- but way overmatched by the goodness, the all-in-it-togetherness, and the courage. 

I was already crying but when the boat captain said, "everybody helped everybody," I started full-out weeping. The way I explained what was going on that week to my then-six-year-old was that there were some bad guys who attacked us, but that there are so many more good guys than bad guys in the world, and that the good guys will work together to catch the bad guys and more generally to keep us safe. I was telling him the truth. People like these boat captains and others Meg discussed in her piece and thousands of New Yorkers and people across the country and across the world who opened up their hearts and arms and wallets in the weeks that followed -- first responders who rushed into burning buildings and military people who rushed to serve and teachers who protected their students that day and beyond, and doctors and nurses and just strangers on the street -- so many, so many brave and generous people. So many more good guys than bad guys.



Looking out my window tonight, I saw the two columns of light shining up into the clear night sky. I love New York so much, especially September in New York, especially days like today when the air is perfect, the sky is blue, my kids are psyched, and their notebooks are full of clean white paper and everything is possible. 2001 seems simultaneously minutes and lifetimes ago.

Sending love and wishing comfort tonight for all who mourn, and all who need it.

Hoping for courage and resilience, for all of us.

Much love,
Rachel Vail

1 comment:

  1. Well said Rachel, particularly now, as talking heads insist that George Bush "kept us safe."

    Except for that one time ...

    Certain events must never be forgotten. I cried when I saw the Arizona, at Pearl Harbor, even though I wasn't even born when it was hit. I bawled at the Holocaust Museum. I cried when I read both pieces you mentioned. There are lots of bad guys in the world. Let's hope the good guys win, as they used to all the time in the movies.