Vail Daily column: Destructive grief dictated U.S. policy after 9/11
New Yorkers grieved in healthy ways after 9/11. Residents banded together at religious sites or on Manhattan’s avenues to pray. They set up memorials at Ground Zero, where grief-stricken relatives posted pictures of loved ones killed or missing after the Twin Towers collapsed. Shops and Fifth Avenue stores unfurled Old Glory in their windows. Passersby saluted these flags, wrote notes of appreciation and didn’t push other walkers out-of-the-way. Cabbies laid off their horns. They drove on Manhattan’s busy streets as if riding on sacred ground.
The Big Apple’s visitors and residents showed their loss by renewing dignity toward others and engaging in rituals because their broken hearts ached. They grieved. It’s a powerful human emotion, which surfaces when that to which we are attached dies or is destroyed.
Grief isn’t only triggered by physical deaths. We grieve when we give away baby clothes for the final time. Packing belongings and heading to school may bring grief to a first-year collegian and his or her family. Breaking off a long relationship causes grief. We grieve at the loss of a friend or personal treasure that enriches our identity and makes us feel secure. Such feelings of loss bring on grief.
Turning-the-corner on grief is challenging. Nor is it hurried by simplistic answers, such as: “God never gives you more than you can handle” or “I know exactly how you feel because my lawn mower’s engine blew up last week.” We need time. We need others. We need to cry.
That’s why ancient people engaged in laments, heartbroken cries they shared with friends depressed by loss. “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint,” sobs a Hebrew poet. “My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth” (Psalm 22:14-15).
Because grief is an emotion that releases cleansing tears, it’s easy to drive these sighs inward, where they get trapped and fester. Then grief turns destructive. People hounded by destructive grief lash out, play the tough guy, look for easy answers and swagger through life as if they are not hurt.
Didn’t such grief prompt the tragedy of George W. Bush’s weak presidency? His submerged grief over 9/11 caused him to clutch arrogant convictions. In the Oval Office, he surrounded himself with staff from his Texas governorship who thought the same way he did. Few asked him to reconsider how to fight terrorists.
At first, President George W. Bush assured Americans that he put soldiers in harm’s way only to remove Saddam Hussein from power. When victory in Baghdad came swiftly and our soldiers’ casualties were low, Bush switched goals, without getting a go-ahead from Congress or endorsements from the American people.
On May 1, 2003, President Bush spoke from the flight deck of the American Lincoln carrier under an overly-patriotic banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” Instead of leaving Iraq after defeating Saddam Hussein, Bush’s grief over the 9/11 attacks became bold and uncontrollable. Without having key building blocks in place, he announced a goal to replace Iraq’s strongman with a democracy.
American history shows us a wiser way. Thomas Jefferson believed that, for our Republic to flourish, the U.S. must have a thriving middle class of well-educated citizens. Iraq, ruled as a feudal state, lacked both of these key ingredients. Moreover, this nation never had endorsed any notion of the separation of church — or mosque — and state. Iraqis preferred a theocracy.
Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld, usually a hawkish Bush supporter, regarded as naive this goal of turning feudal Iraq into a democracy. Bush’s freedom agenda was wishful thinking. In his memoirs, Rumsfeld admitted, “The reason so many countries supported us, and the reason two successive U.S. presidents and the Congress of the United States supported regime change in Iraq was because of the security threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Bringing democracy to Iraq had not been among the primary rationales (for the invasion)” (“Known and Unknown,” 2011).
Destructive grief muddles peoples’ thinking, doesn’t it? They want to retaliate against enemies.
Contrast such vengeance with how Abraham Lincoln wrestled against terrible grief during the Civil War. He cautioned the nation not to assume God is on a president’s side. Rather, Lincoln asked the nation, both the South and North, to humbly ask if they were on God’s side.
President George W. Bush disregarded Lincoln’s distinction. He stuck to religious certainty, assuming God’s endorsement of his freedom agenda for Iraq. “My West Texas optimism helped me project confidence (after 9/11). I also drew strength from my faith. I found solace in reading the Bible,” confessed born-again Bush.
What did this destructive grief unleash? Biographer Jean Edward Smith renders a harsh verdict on Bush II’s presidency: “(President George W.) Bush wanted to bring democracy to Iraq. That was naive given the deep sectarian, ethnic and tribal fissures that existed. What he achieved was to create the conditions for the continuing insurrection that is led today by ISIS fundamentalists. Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”
On this 15th anniversary of 9/11, we remember and admire the good grief our nation shared with its world-wide supporters. In 9/11’s aftermath, let us learn from rash decisions in dealing with Iraq, caused by destructive grief, which continue to produce havoc.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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