"[This book] embodies the Buddhist wisdom about change, life, and the
world more than anything written after the events of that day."
Robert Stone

September 2008 Archives

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September 15, 2008


Writing in yesterday’s New York Times, three 9/11 Commission members debunk a key component of a new book, Touching History, by Lynn Spencer. The book reportedly relates the tale of Major Billy Hutchinson, a fighter pilot operating out of Andrews Air Force Base, whose supposed heroics on 9/11 – scrambling his plane, eyeballing hijacked United Flight 93, and attempting to get a location from flight controllers in order to intercept and shoot down the aircraft himself – proved, in the end, to be utter hokum.

“As we pointed out in the 9/11 commission report,” say the Commission authors, “the radar records of the day indicate that Major Hutchinson did not take off until more than a half hour after United 93 had crashed near Shanksville, Pa…. He could not have seen United 93 on his scope, and could not have intercepted it…. It is about as close to truth as the myth of the Trojan Horse or the dime-store novels about Billy the Kid.”

The point, say the panelists in the Times column, is not that there is any virtue or venality in exaggerating stories of valor. Such tales of derring-do have always helped inspire a nation in times of conflict. Instead, they insist that there is a hidden risk in embracing false chronologies. Especially with regard to 9/11, they point out, “the public was left free to believe anything, and to doubt everything. Many still believe that a cruise missile hit the pentagon; that 9/11 was an ‘inside job’ by American and Israeli intelligence; that the military actually did shoot down United 93. Worse still, by overstating the effectiveness of national command and control by the time United 93 was heading for Washington, the government obscured the central reality of that morning: that the Washington establishment talked mainly to itself, disconnected from the reality on the ground and in the air. Because bureaucrats obscured that disconnect, they didn’t fix it, in terms of national security or any other complicated federal emergency response. Thus the whole world got to see a very similar reaction in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit.”

Thanks to an administration that manufacture facts by the yard (Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; Private Jessica Lynch was rescued in a daring raid; Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire; the Abu Ghraib atrocities were enacted by “rogue elements” and not sanctioned from above; we are actually “winning” the war in Iraq); thanks to a Republican ticket that manufactures facts by the mile (Quoth Governor Sarah Palin to U.S. troops, including her son’s unit, en route to Iraq: “You’ll be there to defend the innocent from the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the deaths of thousands of Americans”); and thanks to a system of breakneck news dissemination that often seeds the clouds above the fog of war, we have ended up lowering our overall threshold for objective truth in wartime, believing that since everything is a lie, we might as well embrace the most plausible falsehoods.

No wonder, then, that we barely flinch when we watch Tropic Thunder and find out that Nick Nolte’s Vietnam Vet character – a soldier who lost both hands in battle yet has gone on to write an epic Vietnam chronicle – actually has two working hands (he’s been covering them with prosthetic hooks) and never set hand or foot in Vietnam during the war.

I hate to say this the week after we’ve commemorated the September 11 attacks. But we’ve been overrun by the warmongers among us. Sadly, many of this country’s respected religious leaders are primed for the Apocalypse. Our kids are accustomed to the remote blood sport of video games. Audiences continue to flock to scores of nuclear-horror films that show the Earth hanging in the balance (from Hancock to Doomsday to Wall-E). And our officials, on occasion, actually set the country’s torture policies by taking their cues from the action heroes on the screen (channeling their inner Jack Bauer).

It is no wonder that we rejected our Last Presidential Action Hero, John Kerry, based on Swift-Boat myths spun by a confederacy of liars. And it is no wonder that in this election we may very well embrace yet another decorated vet, despite the fact he seems even more prone to saber-rattling than the current commander in chief.

Proudly, sometimes bitterly (to quote the Other Candidate), we cling to our guns and sabers and the men and women who would wield them.

September 10, 2008


“One image can lie better than a thousand words.”

--Photographer Micha Bar-Am,
Memorial for photographer Cornell Capa (1918-2008)
New York Times Building, Times Center Auditorium
September 10, 2008

On the eve of the seventh anniversary of the attack of September 11, I'd like to recommend three books, all published within the last three weeks, all with an introspective yet universal quality, all of which would be aptly labeled “meditative.”


Bikeman: An Epic Poem is a moving meditation on the events and meaning of 9/11 by Tom Flynn, an award-winning producer and writer who covered the catastrophe for CBS News. Not only does he have the audacity to relate his tale as an epic poem -- but he pulls it off, winningly! (For Flynn’s first-hand account of that morning, also see pages 30-31 and 134 of Watching the World Change.)


Learning to Breath: One Woman’s Journey of Spirit and Survival is about as inspiring a book as you’re likely to read. In this riveting memoir, photographer Alison Wright describes how she used deep breathing, Buddhist meditation, and sheer transcendent pluck to avoid tumbling into death’s gaping door after a horrendous bus accident in the Himalayas.


The Thing Itself: On the Search For Authenticity is Richard Todd’s cogent, counterintuitive, and illuminating meditation on his own attempts to ferret through the falsehoods of our quotidian existence so as to arrive at a semblance of self-knowledge. It is both charming and disarming.

Tomorrow is a day for meditations of all kinds.

September 6, 2008


As we approach the seventh anniversary of the attacks of September 11, we must ask ourselves:

Which presidential candidate will keep us safe – Barack Obama or John McCain - and at what price? Which candidate is better poised to focus on al-Qaeda and to forge alliances that will strengthen America's standing abroad?

McCain’s team claims that the absence of a second major attack on our shores, since 9/11, is somehow proof that the Bush administration and the Republican party have done their job in providing for our security. Perhaps. But at what price? What else have we lost in the bargain? And does it really make sense to throw our full support (militarily, geopolitically, psychologically, and financially – to the tune of $3 trillion) to the second front, as McCain has so forcefully advocated, when for seven years we have needed to take the fight directly to al-Qaeda - in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

I agree with Barack Obama’s stance, instead, which he offered in his historic speech at the Democratic convention:

"[J]ust as we keep our promise to the next generation here at home, so must we keep America's promise abroad. If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next Commander-in-Chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have.

"For while Senator McCain was turning his sights to Iraq just days after 9/11, I stood up and opposed this war, knowing that it would distract us from the real threats we face. When John McCain said we could just ‘muddle through’ in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights. John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell - but he won't even go to the cave where he lives. 

"And today, as my call for a time frame to remove our troops from Iraq has been echoed by the Iraqi government and even the Bush Administration, even after we learned that Iraq has a $79 billion surplus while we're wallowing in deficits, John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war.

"That's not the judgment we need. That won't keep America safe. We need a President who can face the threats of the future, not keep grasping at the ideas of the past.

"You don't defeat a terrorist network that operates in eighty countries by occupying Iraq. You don't protect Israel and deter Iran just by talking tough in Washington. You can't truly stand up for Georgia when you've strained our oldest alliances. If John McCain wants to follow George Bush with more tough talk and bad strategy, that is his choice - but it is not the change we need.

"We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe."