Kemmeter Column: 9/11 united, then divided US
By GENE KEMMETER
In the aftermath of the tragedies at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington and a farm field in Pennsylvania, Portage County residents and the rest of the nation were stunned. They couldn’t put the events out of their minds as they tried to go about their normal business.
The Portage County Red Cross fielded more than 200 phone calls with offers to donate blood or help in other ways. The city of Stevens Point and Portage County put in place emergency operations, ready to implement their procedures to deal with an emergency, as they were kept informed about the situation by state and federal officials.
The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point continued classes as scheduled after Chancellor Thomas George said the classes presented an opportunity for students to discuss the tragedy and its consequences. UWSP held group discussions at its Counseling Center and residence halls, and several area churches held memorial services. George also assured foreign students of their safety.
Tragedies also breed panic, and Portage County wasn’t immune from that. Rumors spread about gasoline prices increasing to $5 per gallon, leading many residents to refuel their cars and gasoline cans. Lines at the pumps stretched several blocks into the street at several gas stations in the Stevens Point area.
President George W. Bush went on to declare a war on terror, and the United States invaded Afghanistan where the ruling Taliban had harbored the bombing mastermind, Osama bin Laden, and his al-Qaeda fighters in the country. That war was later expanded to Iraq, based on unproven reports about weapons of mass destruction being developed there.
It was in Iraq that the tragedy of war struck Portage County in a personal way. Sgt. Eugene A. Uhl III, 21, an Amherst native, died Nov. 15, 2003, when two Army helicopters carrying 17 soldiers collided over West Mosul in northern Iraq.
For 20 years, the war dragged on as the U.S. crushed al Qaeda and then killed bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011. But the U.S. war effort had also taken on a role of nation building, and the U.S. spent trillions of dollars in an attempt to establish more democratic governments in Arab nations that had been governed by strong-man rulers for centuries.
The war effort continued as President Barack Obama spent years trying to bring the anti-terror campaign into compliance with international law and morality. But his use of drone strikes against terror targets were condemned by human rights advocates because of civilian casualties as he tried to bridge the divide with Arab countries.
Donald Trump ran for President as a classic strongman, claiming he was smarter than all the generals in the war effort, promising to keep America “first” and supporting a racial divide by vowing to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and demonizing Mexican immigration. He blamed political, military, economic and media establishments for ignoring millions of U.S. citizens.
In the war on terror, Trump’s administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban in February, 2020, without participation from the American-supported Afghan government, basically turning the country over to those who ran it before the American invasion.
When Joe Biden took over as president Jan. 20, the Afghan withdrawal deal was in place, with 5,000 Taliban prisoners already released from Afghan prisons, and he delayed the troop pullout from May 1 until Aug. 31. Several other challenges facing the nation had also risen to critical importance by then.
The coronavirus pandemic split the nation in a political divide inspired by Trump who largely ignored its importance while the economy declined as businesses closed and workers were laid off. The coronavirus has claimed more American lives than any war in U.S. history, killing more than 650,000 million residents at the rate of more people every two days than died on 9/11.
And that split has created a cult opposed to receiving a coronavirus vaccine, even though non-vaccinated people face an 11-times-greater chance of dying from the disease than vaccinated people.
Climate change and the rise of China are also considered greater dangers, with threats from terrorists considered more serious from inside the United States rather than outside. The biggest terror event in the United States since 9/11 was a mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, 2021, after a Trump rally where he voiced his rhetoric of lies about fraud in the 2020 election.
The 9/11 events inspired Americans to help and care for one another. Twenty years later, a pandemic has split the nation into those who care about others and those who only care about themselves as thousands die.