Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Thoughts on a Tragedy

On the anniversary, I feel like writing something about 9/11. This will have nothing to do with surgery, or medicine. If political rants on a medical blog annoy you, please click away now.

My brother was living in NYC at the time, and had colleagues in the World Trade Center. He went to some funerals, after. At first I watched the images and wondered if he was OK, unable to get through. Like virtually every American, I was dumbstruck and horrified. And I wondered about people who hate that much, who have a sort of faith that allows such a thing as mass murder by way of suicide. I felt the world change, and indeed it did.

I had no reservations whatever about the correctness of going into Afghanistan. Aware of the Russians' failure there, and having a sense that it had at least some role in the later collapse of the Soviet Union (I'm no Russian scholar, but having studied the language for many years and traveled there in the apex of the Cold War, I have an interest), I wondered how we'd do better; but figured it needed to happen, and that war had changed in twenty years. The relative ease with which the Taliban were routed was impressive to me and to the rest of the world; and it was a humiliation to those who saw Osama bin Laden as some sort of god-like hero. Would that we had consolidated the victory and seized the opportunity to discredit their philosophy by showing how much better we are. Instead, we turned to the most disastrous foreign-policy mistake any president has ever made.

When our president made it clear he was going to invade Iraq no matter what, I thought of the words I'd heard many years earlier, from a Yugoslavian med student with whom I worked on a research project in Yugoslavia when I was in medical school. (Hey, this does have to to with medicine!) Like Iraq, that country was an ethnic mish-mash. When Tito (the autocratic leader) dies, my fellow researcher told me, this country will come apart. Hatred will bubble up and people will kill each other. He was, of course, exactly right. Even not knowing a hell of a lot, I felt sure Iraq would follow suit when Saddam went down. (Hell, even Dick Cheney said exactly that, at the end of the first Gulf War, explaining why he and George the First hadn't gone to Baghdad.)

I don't think I know -- and I'm not optimistic that history will tell us -- what the fundamental reasons were for invading Iraq. (It's amazing how little one hears about the UN inspectors that were there before we invaded. They were given, we recall, free rein. They were finding nothing. "Everyone believed there were WMDs," we keep hearing nowadays. Right. Before the inspections. But the inspectors were there.) It seems pretty clear that spreading democracy, in some messianic vision of our superior ideas, was at the center of that disastrous decision. Along with a catastrophic and inexcusable misunderstanding of what Iraq society was really about. "9/11 changed everything," we are told ad nauseum. OK, it did. But it didn't change what Dick Cheney understood back there: that invading Iraq would open a Pandora's Box. So if it was right (it was wrong, but if it was right) pre-emptively to invade another country, it's incomprehensible that our leaders didn't plan for the worst case scenario and send in more than enough troops; that they assumed after Saddam was toppled there'd be no need for security and control. If I can get sued for the death of one patient when I did everything right, how can our leaders remain in office when they did everything wrong?

I get that some think the invasion was a great idea. I can't fathom how a single person can support our leaders for how they've bungled it. And I can't see how anyone can disagree that the invasion, as it now stands, has made us less safe; in fact, that it's exactly what bin Laden would have wanted. Did you hear General Petraeus respond to a question that he couldn't say that the war has made us safer?

Think about it: you hate America, you want to inflict as much damage as is possible with the limited resources you have. You don't have an army, you need to depend on fanatics willing to blow themselves up to do what damage you can manage. Wouldn't this be perfect: get the US to invade a Muslim country that had nothing to do with 9/11, tie up hundreds of thousands of your enemy's troops, get them to spend a trillion dollars, exhaust the military; taunt them in such a way that they feel they can't leave without "losing face;" keep shooting their troops as if in a barrel; produce hatred for the US around the world, creating an endless stream of fanatics anxious to kill and be killed in the name of harming Americans. It's perfect. And there's no end in sight. Those Pakistani caves must echo with the slap of high fives.

I know that there are Islamic radicals out there who want to do us grievous harm. I couldn't agree more that it's a terribly serious problem to which we must respond in the most effective ways possible. And I haven't the slightest doubt that invading Iraq was the worst possible way to do it.

September Eleven was a horrible day for the US and for the world. It demonstrated the worst of which humans -- motivated by fanatical religious certainty -- are capable. It was a turning point. A slap in the face to every thoughtful person on the planet, it could have mobilized the world. For a while, it did. And George Bush turned it into unmitigated disaster. He multiplied the victory for al Queda beyond their wildest dreams: by invading Iraq, and with all that has evolved from it, he turned a situation that hurt us deeply but had no potential for bringing us down, into a debacle which could well spell the end of our democracy. No terrorists could destroy our country, no matter what they attack. Bush's response has the potential to accomplish what they couldn't, ever. I really believe that. The ramifications are as yet barely felt; and they are enormous.

Other than that, I think everything's hunky dory. And now you know: I'm a liberal. (Funny, isn't it? It's conservatives who ought to be the most outraged! I do believe in balanced budgets; I'm proud to have served in Vietnam; I think the US has led the world in many extremely important ways. Unlike our president, I think our Constitution is a document of surpassing brilliance, and ought to be followed; that a free and aggressive press and a balance of power are what keeps us safe from idiocracy, autocracy, and theocracy; and that they are failing us miserably of late. There are idiots to go around on both sides of the aisle in D.C.) And now that there's been a definitive study of liberal vs conservative brains, I'm happy to let the cat out of the bag.


Unknown said...

I think you've said it all, and very eloquently too. Also wanted to say how much I've enjoyed reading your blog since I came across it a couple of months ago. You have really opened up a window onto a profession that can often seem to be a "conspiracy against the layman".

Anonymous said...

What Anne said.

Greg P said...

We live in a time of so much fear-mongering. This is what terrorism is all about, creating fear.
In the "end" we have to believe it will somehow dissipate much as the like-minded underground movements of the 1960s, which also had the notion of creating enough chaos that America would erupt in confusion and some despot could take over. Now it's Islam that will take over. But I don't think that either the 60s anarchists or the terrorists of today have any understanding of the magnitude of the task -- they fool themselves into thinking their power is greater than it is.
What kind of society can a group coming to power with terrorism create? How do they at some point "switch off" the suicide bomber mentality? Iraq is a prime example of suicide bombing for the sake of suicide bombing.
Somehow we must come to terms with this. We seem to need to understand that conventional military approaches to this are if nothing else prohibitively expensive. It's reminiscent of looking back at what the British faced in our Revolutionary War as we adopted a whole new tactic of warfare.
The other fearmongering is closer to home, as politicians use fear to attack opponents and argue for more money for the military, while increasing numbers go without health insurance. While the news media turn fearmongering into advertising dollars and higher Nielsen ratings.

rlbates said...

Dr Sid, I find it hard to call myself a liberal or a conservative. Can find enough about both that I seem to fit--so maybe an independent. Oh well, I enjoyed your post.

So you speak Russian?

Sid Schwab said...

Я небольшого русского говорю.

(Actually, that's not how I'd have said it, but I don't know how to get Cyrillic on my computer, so I stole a phrase from online.)

mark's tails said...

Well Done Dr. Schwab.

Justine Johnston Hemmestad said...

Dr. Schwab,
The time in which we live leaves a usually conservative(sorry for dissenting) patriot very unsure of their own beliefs (in regard to the leader of our country). I saw both Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. in person and took away very positive feelings about them, and I truly expected the same from Bush Jr., but that's not what's happened. I had a strong gut feeling at the time we invaded Iraq that the reason Pres Bush Jr. gave was a cover for the actual truth of why we were invading - to protect human rights. I'm not sure it was ever about WMDs, and I think he should have been up-front with his own country from the beginning. But my point is that its a difficult thing for the solidification of one's own beliefs to have lost all trust in the President.

Anonymous said...

Cal C. says.....
I have never posted anything on a blog before but I am doing so after reading "Thoughts on a Tragedy". I have known Dr. Sid and his wife for many years. Even though we went to competing colleges and different medical schools we ended up in the same town and became very good friends. He moved away and I stayed put, as we each developed almost identical ideologies as time passed. He expresses my thoughts better than I can. This item on 9/11 is exactly how I feel and I hope for two things, one, that Sid never stops writing and that two, that Barack Obama can be elected to reunite this country. I think he can live up to the ideals he seems to possess. It is time to choose a leader who has the qualities that are missing in the present regime. Sorry to digress-I would like everyone to know that Dr. Sid is one of the finest surgeons and one of the most intelligent, honest, and empathetic peole I have ever known. He doesn't know everything, though (like that I have written this!!!)

Klari said...

maybe you were looking for "Я говорю немножко по-русски" or something?
Anyway, you wrote a beautiful post, to which I couldn't agree more.

Sid Schwab said...

Klari: tochno. Originally, I wrote "nyemnoshko," but decided to try to find some Cyrillic online.

Sue said...

Thank you! Thank you for putting my exact confused feelings into words so eloquently. Sue

Anonymous said...

We disagree, regarding the appropriateness of action. I see a need to drain the swamp from which the attackers came. One does not prove the superiority of one's philosophy by accepting violence. Violence must be fought from whence it sprung, and if nothing else, this moves the fight to where those that hate us must now face us in person. Note that in moving the theater to the Middle East, the population there has seen, with horror, the whirlwind it has unleashed, and is recoiling from it. To give Iraqis a peaceful, democratic government is a worthy goal, and, I think, one worth fighting for, and yes, dying for.
That being said, I do have the greatest respect for your service, your career, your intellect, your abilities, and your opinions.
De Opresso Liber

mscriver said...

What you have said well seems to me to be self-evident but worthy of recapitulation.

I've wondered about Cheney. Some of his strange attitudes remind me of the personality changes in my ex-husband after he had a heart attack: rigidity, suspiciousness, insistence on facts that weren't factual.

George is a different problem.

Prairie Mary

Keagirl said...

Just like Dec 7 for the generation before, Sept 11 will forever be etched into the consciousness of this nation.

I don't think anyone will ever forget what they were doing on the exact moment of the attack, and the subsequent horror and shock we all felt.

To date, I always feel a little strange writing this date on a prescription or progress note. I've noticed that someone at work will inevitably bring up something about that day. It is almost as though we have a compulsory need to talk about the tragedy.

However, nothing excuses the subsequent actions of this administration, as detailed eloquently by Dr.Schwab. Even if you are a hard core republican, you can't tell me that you actually like and approve of GWB, who has made an utter mockery of the Constitution and true American ideals.

Yup, I'm also proud to be a life long liberal!

Anonymous said...

Middle Eastern here! Just wanted to say you can say the whole thing again. The most spot-on part was: It was EXACTLY was AQ wanted.


I just wish Bush hadn't used Democracy as the flag. He gave the stupid fanatics a way to say the word and make it sound like a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. I couldn't agree with you more. And you're a liberal? Damn, maybe that means I'm one too. I thought I was a conservative...

Sadly now the genie is out of the bottle and nothing on earth can put it back. Mistakes were made. So now what is the right thing to do? Do we pull out asap? Or should we "own what we broke" ?

Sid Schwab said...

mw fp: that's the trillion dollar question, all right. At the very least I'd like to see a national recognition of what a mistake it was (nb: fh's comment above) and a sense that those running for president on a policy of more of the same would be roundly defeated. I'm not optimistic. "Liberal" as I may be, I have mixed feelings about pulling out, worrying that the disaster unleashed by our leaders will get even worse. Which leaves us in something for which the word "quagmire" seems all too mild. It seems to me the only hope is to obtain some sort of committment from the neigboring parties to join the effort to avoid conflagration. This evidently insoluable dilemma is but one of the reasons I said Bush's response has sewn the seeds of our demise.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. I'm a liberal living in Dallas, Texas, a huge portion of which is populated with people who are as dogmatic about militarism and GW as they are about their christian faith.

I read a number of medical blogs daily and often the drs are staunch conservatives, as evidenced by their non-medical posts. Hurray for this one!

Unknown said...

female saudi surgery resident here..i have read ur last post ...9/11 is a tragedy that has affected us as much as it had your country...with echoes revebrating all around the world..& i completely agree it had served the purpose of qaeda.. america is a beacon of democracy for the world..was..maybe...how can any1 elect a man like bush..why elections are useful if some1 like him gets elected...as a middle eastrener & a person that has relations & completely open to the west ...i think its time for every american adminstation there after to look at iraq & realize that this is what happens when u involove urselves in the business of others..the middle east is a complex world that doesnt play by ur rules...i feel sorry for 18 yrs old boys coming home in coffins dying for a country that really has no right pushing them into a battle like the one in iraq..& the problem is ..after opening pandora's box..like u i have mixed feeling about pullling out ...because simply it will affect the whole region ...pull neighboring coutries into cleaning up the bush adminstration's mess...in the end..its a vicious cycle..i cant even imagine how the future will be ..i just hope the next president will realize its seems he who rules america ..rules the world..hopefully he or she will be smart enough to point out middle eastren countries on the map..i dont think bush is smart enough 4 that..even..by the way have been reading ur blog since u started ..its amazing .i wish the world can unite in politics like its united in medicine..peace to all

Anonymous said...

As physicians we often see things others do not. As an 'elite' group we often praise ourselves for "new ideas". History reveals that we defeated the USSR by causing them to outspend their capacity trying to keep up with our military industrial capacity. Perhaps this will also happen to the United States. Let there be no mistake about it...the world has changed, and the United States now stands almost alone trying to roll back time. There are those who call "liberalism a mental disorder"
History also reveals that Islamic fundamentalists had us squarely in their sights as long ago as the 1970s when they began bombing and killing embassy personell. Our action in Iraq is only a tactical move on our part.....it is only the first of the World War IV battles. Some say that the Iraqui
Bath party was an evolution of German Nazism when the GErmans invaded northern Africa and exerted
National Socialistic ideas on leaders in North Africa (Muslim) regarding secular rule. Those who see our entry into Iraq as an isolated move are very short sighted, whether you agree or not.
Our main problem as Americans and physicians is we are benevolent and basically humanitarian....
While everyone prays for peace, it is an evanescent concept to man.
Europe is on the edge of "falling" once again without a shot being fired. Parts of the United States are now heavily "occupied" by illegal immigrants. I don't know about you who read this blog, but if someone stands on my lawn, property or comes into my yard uninvited...it is a trespass. I expect our government to enforce all laws and not ignore laws that are already in place regarding immigration and punishments for breaking that law.
I am not afraid of them , I fear the enemy within...liberals who put their "high and mighty ideas ahead of country and the blood of our ancestors and others who died to maintain our freedom, and still do. Sid, I have always enjoyed your blog...but stick to surgery, thoughts like yours are very dangerous to our WAY OF LIFE.

Sid Schwab said...

angry: thanks for your comments. I completely disagree, of course. Bush's war has endangered our way of life more than any enemy. If we live long enough, I'm pretty sure you'll end up agreeing, too. I just hope it'll happen before it's too late.

The good news is I don't intend to make this a political blog, even though I think what I write about surgery is small potatoes indeed, compared to what's going on in the world.

Lioness said...


Anonymous said...

Hi, Sid:

Just wanted to let you know the link to the LA Times required a log-on. Here is the open link: http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-politics10sep10,0,5982337.story?coll=la-home-center

If the link doesn't show up correctly due to it's length - search "liberal conservative brain"

Sid Schwab said...

Thanks! I changed the link.

Anonymous said...

Why am I not at all surprised by your post Dr Schwab. Your spirit has always shined through your words.

It is sites like yours that bring me back time and time again.

Anonymous said...

I share your opinion and i'm happy that you think this way.

Greetings from Germany! :)

Anonymous said...

I don't know how any thinking person could convince themselves that we're better off now than we were before the invasion of Iraq.

One does not have to be liberal, or conservative, or libertarian in order to recognize bad strategy and even poorer planning.


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