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NOTIONS: Five years after 9/11, will we let freedom ring?

September 11, 2006

On the first anniversary of 9/11, I knew just how Americans should mark the occasion.

"Hang ten. Hang it up. Hang out. Paint a portrait. Paint the town. Watch your weight. Let it be. Say hey. Strike back. Roll a strike. Spare a dime. Rock the boat. Do time. Take a shot. Do your best. Give back. Give a damn. Turn a cheek. Heal the sick. Feed the poor. Hold hands. Make love. Love life. Hug kids. Wave flags. Play taps. Pledge allegiance. Light a candle. Never forget," I said.

"And through these ordinary acts of American life, show the bastards they failed."

Now, it's the fifth anniversary of 9/11. And in the sense that most of us still go about such ordinary acts of American life, I suppose the bastards did fail.

But in a larger sense, they have divided us against one another, driven us deeper into national debt, shifted our funding from other priorities, lured us into the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, distracted us from potentially greater threats in Iran and North Korea and, worst of all, led our government to limit our freedoms in the name of protecting them.

In the sense that we've allowed ourselves to respond in these ways, with the net result that we feel less free and less safe today than we did five years ago, then maybe the bastards succeeded after all.

Here's my concern on 9/11/06.

On Sept. 2, al-Qaeda's deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared in a 41-minute video that also featured a man identified as Adam Yehiye Gadahn, an alleged American member of al-Qaeda. Both invited Americans and the West to convert to Islam.

"To the American people and the people of the West in general ... God sent his Prophet Muhammad with guidance and the religion of truth ... and sent him as a herald," al-Zawahiri said.

Gadahn, a 28-year-old California native who's wanted by the FBI, said he hoped to correct the incorrect image Americans have of Islam.

Gadahn described the West as "the civilization which enslaved Africa, slaughtered native Americans, fired bombs at ... Tokyo and Fallujah, and nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Gadahn also said no Muslim should "shed tears" for Westerners killed by al-Qaeda attacks.

In other words, the al-Qaeda spokesmen said their way is the right way and the moral way and any world citizen would be wrong and unfaithful to question that approach.

Two days earlier, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had made a speech to the American Legion at its national convention in Salt Lake City.

He compared critics of the Bush administration's war on terror to Nazi "appeasers" of 1939.

He accused them of spreading "distortions and myths."

He asked "Can we really afford to return to the destructive view that America, not the enemy, but America, is the source of the world's troubles?"

And he said that those Americans showing any "moral or intellectual confusion about who or what is right or wrong weaken the ability of free societies to persevere."

In other words, Rumsfeld said, the administration's way is the right way and the intelligent way and any American citizen would be stupid, immoral and unpatriotic to question that approach.

But aren't such arrogant absolutes the very basis of our qualm about al-Qaeda, the Taliban and all the other radical regimes?

And aren't our arrogant absolutes the very basis of their qualm about us?

And if both sides are still pounding their chests and saying, "We're willing to die and kill to impose our way on your way" have we really gotten anywhere at all? And can we?

Of gravest concern, though, is not what we say or do to the enemy, or what the enemy says or does to us, but what we as Americans have let happen to ourselves.

On 9/11/01, we stood united as a people. Our leaders spoke respectfully of us and for us. And much of the world stood with us in empathy.

But that solidarity was squandered. And our leaders, foremost Mr. Rumsfeld, have spoken ill of us and for us. And much of the world has lost respect.

Had we lost money after 9/11-to rebuild lives and economies, to reinforce our defenses, to seek out the perpetrators and bring them to justice-I would have been happy to invest.

Had we lost faith after 9/11 (What kind and benevolent God would send innocents to their deaths in such raging infernos, after all?), I would have been quick to understand.

But because we've lost, instead, our values, via pols who chastise our intellect and mock our morality for even daring to question their omniscience, I find myself five years after 9/11 mightily discontented with those who lead us and wondering aloud whether we'll ever again let freedom ring.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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