Richard Cohen Still Wants Revenge For 9/11
NEAL CONAN, host:
Tomorrow, we mark eight years since al-Qaida hijackers killed almost 3,000 people in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
When we think about 9/11, many of us are still moved to anger or fear. Some say they've been able to get past it. This week, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen remembered rushing to lower Manhattan on that sunny morning and wrote that he feels today what he felt then: a desire for revenge.
On this anniversary, when you think about September the 11th, what stays with you? What won't let you go? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Richard Cohen joins us now from his office in New York City. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. RICHARD COHEN (Columnist, The Washington Post): Hi, Neal. Good to be with you.
CONAN: And you also describe yourself as being surprised that morning eight years ago and still today that you're thinking about revenge.
Mr. COHEN: I was. It was the first thought that, you know, the minute I heard - I heard the World Trade Center collapse, because I was too close to it to see it; the buildings blocked it. There must - first thing that popped into my mind was that, you know, we'll get you and - because I knew instantly what had happened, and I was surprised by my own reaction.
CONAN: And that it's lingered all this time?
Mr. COHEN: Well, it - you know, it's not an abiding thing. I don't wake up every day with it, you know, but I do feel it. Yeah. I mean, I'm not sure if I was the president of the United States or advising him that would motivate my decisions on Afghanistan or what to do. It's just that this is a human - if I have it, it must be a human emotion.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COHEN: I give myself the benefit of the doubt there. It's just something that's, yeah, I feel it. And, you know, I think just to deny this is nonsensical. You don't have to act on it, but it's there. It's real.
CONAN: You also question, as I think many would, saying, you know, revenge can be an unworthy emotion.
Mr. COHEN: It is, you know? I mean, you don't want to get - I mean, we all have examples in history of feuds that go on and on and on and nobody can remember what started them. You have examples - many examples in history of revenge being the motivator for a war. The defeated party in one war tries to even the score the next time around. You know, and there's this old cliche, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth - pretty soon, everybody's blind and toothless.
But it seems kind of basic that you want to even the score, that you want to -you want justice for an outrage, and I think it has to be acknowledged. As I said earlier, it doesn't - you don't necessarily have to act on it. Look, I oppose the death penalty and I fully understand that there are people who want to see certain executions because they want revenge. I respect that. I don't have to agree with it, but I know it's there.
CONAN: And I know you've - the way you write, it's obvious you're galled by the fact that Osama bin Laden is still at large.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. I mean, I am galled by it. I mean, I would really like to grab him by the throat and tear out his Adam's apple, and that's my foreign policy right there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
But I, you know - and it just - yes, it infuriates me. The guy's a killer, and I remember very well that tape that got smuggled out, where he made a big joke of it.
For those of us who were down there that day in the World Trade Center, and you didn't have to be there to understand what was going on but, you know, the horror of it, the pain of it, the numbers of people who were killed and the consequences to families and loved ones, et cetera, and the guy's chuckling, you know, it just - it doesn't sit nicely with me.
CONAN: Yet some would also say that that understandable emotion has allowed us to be manipulated.
Mr. COHEN: It can. You know, I mean, yeah, we could be the bull and he could be the cape. I understand that. But I - once again, I said, I'm not sure that I would let this emotion govern my foreign policy, but I would certainly understand that you have to acknowledge it, you have to recognize it.
I think - I don't think I'm all that different from a whole lot of other Americans who would like to see - get some satisfaction from all the blood that was shed at, you know, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania, and in Afghanistan the last eight years.
You know, I think when you deny that kind of emotion or insist that it, you know, that shouldn't exist, it's dangerous because it's real and there will be consequences. You have to acknowledge it somehow - that's the shrink in me talking.
CONAN: There's the shrink in you talking. The shrink's name is Richard Cohen. He's also doubles as a columnist for the Washington Post. His latest column, "Eight Years Later and Still No Revenge," appeared on Tuesday. Of course, tomorrow marks eight years since 9/11. 800-989-8255; email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. What emotion won't let you go?
We got this email from Elaine in Buffalo. I still cry when I see the footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. And I think a lot of people will empathize with that.
Let's go to Ryan. Ryan calling us from Baltimore.
BRYAN(ph) (Caller): It's Bryan. Yeah. I think the emotions that linger with me - I went through the whole range of emotions, but the ones that linger with me were the first one, which was just shock, just - that I still have that feeling of shock.
I was working that day and overlooking the Pentagon and saw the explosion at the Pentagon. And it didn't seem real to me at the time. Then, almost immediately after that, when we sort of fled the building and I went over the Mall toward the train station, and it just - it began a conversation with a woman who had just arrived from the Midwest for a conference and a couple from England who suddenly discovered instead of getting on a plane in a few hours and flying home, they were stranded in Washington with no luggage and no hotel.
Immediately, people started to connect, to comfort each other, to help each other. And this - and then, you know, even in my own home as I came home and sat in front of the television and just cried. And my six-year-old son came in and turned off the TV. You know, these kinds of human compassion, the feeling, which I imagine must be on some level like what the Brits went through during and after the Blitz. I mean, that's what's lasted for me.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Richard, I know you experienced that in New York as well.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. You know, I cried so often in the weeks following 9/11. I just - I mean, I just - you know, everywhere you turned, there were memorials and there were flowers stacked up at some firehouse. And whenever a fire engine went by, people would stop and applaud. I mean, it was a very emotional - it still is. I mean, I'm choking up as we talk.
So it was a wrenching period. It was tough. But we were not the victims. I mean, there were real victims. And so, yeah. I mean, all of that came into play, and plus, as I said before, the desire to, you know, somehow get even in some way.
BRYAN: ...share one quick anecdote with you. It was probably a couple of weeks later, I happened to have worked a little late and it was down in the L'Enfant Plaza area, which is, you know, it's kind of a canyon of buildings. And there were dozens of people still on the street. And a truck backfired, which, you know, never happens, but was it - it was a loud noise. Women screamed. Everyone ducked. I fell to the ground. You know, we - it was a very raw time, but then we all kind of looked at each other and laughed.
CONAN: Ryan - Bryan - excuse me - thanks very much for the call.
BRYAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Richard, you mentioned that there were victims that day and revenge, you wrote, reminds us or gives us a real - connects us with our real concern for them.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah, I think so. You know, I think there were people whose lives were snuffed out. And we - you know, I don't know how to say this without - I don't want to be callous or make other people seem callous. But we forget them fairly quickly unless they are related to us or our loved ones or something, and they're just simply gone. But in some sense, they're not gone. I mean, they are the victims who don't get to go to memorials and snip ribbons and do all the kinds of things that we do after some sort of tragedy. And so, we move on from them. But I think that we should remember them and remember their lives and remember what happened to them in the moments before they died, which in many cases were just horrible.
So, I try to keep them in mind. I try to keep them in mind, and I felt the same way as I wrote in a column about the Lockerbie victims, the people who were blown out of the sky on that Pan Am 103. And then the alleged - no, he's not the alleged. I mean, he was the convicted terrorist, as you know, leapt free and goes back to Libya. You have these kinds of things coming up all the time. And I don't think it's primitive of us to bear in mind that there were real victims and they really suffered and that we should remember them and honor them.
CONAN: And those of us who are in New York or in the metropolitan area, these days tend to get more exposure than others to the ongoing difficulties faced by the first responders, the men and women who worked in that pit in the World Trade Center for days and weeks and months afterwards. Now, many of them suffering from problems as a direct result.
Mr. COHEN: Well, look what happened when they did that overflight with Air Force One just to take some pictures and the panic that ensued just 'cause a jet plane slowly, you know, over Manhattan. And that was just, what? Several months ago. So, this is not a trauma that is going to disappear. You know, not in our lifetime, I don't think.
CONAN: We're talking with Richard Cohen of the Washington Post.
Here's an email from Adam in Norfolk, Virginia. September 11 always fills me with guilt. As I watched the towers fall, I felt like I wanted to go fight against the people who were responsible. Unfortunately, I let my feelings of anger and revenge apply broadly to all people that fit the description of those who hijacked the fights - flights.
For years, racism and rage were a part of my life. It has only been since I have let go of those feelings that I have been able to mourn for those we lost on 9/11 appropriately. And - well, yeah, he's certainly not the only one who got carried away.
NORMAN (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join our conversation. The email address is email@example.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Norman. Norman with us from Cleveland.
NORMAN (Caller): Hi. Two things. The lights that were shining up from Ground Zero in the paper looked very stark. In the - in reality, there were these two beautiful soft blue lights going up. I saw it the last weekend that I - that they were on. My mother, a blessed memory, and I, were peace marchers. And building that building, there was a peace march through the Financial District, and my mother was hit by rivets that were being thrown by the people who were working on building that building.
And I've always felt an anger towards that building and the neighborhood that it destroyed. And I feel so guilty about it that they came down that way...
(Soundbite of crying)
NORMAN: It's such a hard feeling and I'm sorry.
CONAN: Norman, thank you. I know it's hard. Obviously, this is really raw for a lot of people and still almost eight years afterwards.
Let's see if we can go next to Brian(ph). Brian in Charfca(ph), is that right, in Minnesota?
BRIAN (Caller): In Chaska.
CONAN: Go ahead.
BRIAN: Hi. Yeah, I just want to say my mother worked in building one, my aunt was in building seven. They - my aunt got out, my mother luckily had gotten transferred prior to the collapse. So I just wanted to state that before I say what I'm angry about. I guess I'm more angry towards the Bush administration's failure to thoroughly go after bin Laden in Afghanistan; instead he took us to war in Iraq, which clearly diverted our attention, our resources, and we never actually got the person responsible.
And I'm also still angry at his rhetoric that I think heightened the tension between Arabs and us. And nothing - not much has been said to that, as of lately.
CONAN: What do you think, Richard Cohen?
Mr. COHEN: Well, I agree. I thought, you know, I think, the - I mean, listen, I supported the war. So, I'm one of those who's culpable for it.
CONAN: The war in Iraq.
Mr. COHEN: With the war in Iraq. But I agree that Bush used it and there was a concerted effort to divert anger at - from where it should have been, which is Afghanistan, the Taliban or bin Laden - to Iraq. But there was absolutely no evidence that Iraq had anything to do with it. In fact, it was counterproductive -I mean, counterintuitive. It just, you know, it's not the kind of thing that Saddam Hussein would have done or would have wanted to be connected with. I supported the war for different reasons, but I'm - I sort of realized at that time that this whole thing was going to be a diversion.
And I think the caller is absolutely right. It was unconscionable of the Bush administration to do that. I also think - I know there was a good deal of lying involved. I mean, the talk about, you know, nuclear holocaust; the talk about a weapons of mass destruction; particularly the talk about Iraq's nuclear program for which there was not only no evidence, there was good evidence that it didn't exist. So I think the caller is onto something.
CONAN: All right. Brian, thanks very much.
Let's go next to, Tamar(ph). Tamar calling us from Fort Lewis in Washington.
TAMAR (Caller): Hi. Hi, Neal. It's Tamar Danes(ph). And I'm - yes, I'm a active duty Army soldier. And my main memory of September 11th, I was in San Antonio, Texas at Fort Sam, and I'm watching this. And I just felt as someone who's in the Army, who had sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution but most importantly protect the United States I felt so helpless because I'm in uniform, but I couldn't stop the attacks, you know? So...
CONAN: That this was in a way your duty and somehow you had failed?
TAMAR: I know it's foolish because I was - you know, in Texas, you know, in -you know, and it's a surprise attack, but I felt I kind of failed my duty to protect the people of the United States. And I'm also a New Yorker. I'm from Queens, New York. You know, I've been to the Twin Towers, and they were gone. It's a powerful memory, gone.
And, you know, there are thousands of Americans who were killed and I couldn't do anything to stop it. And it still kind of galls me, you know? I still feel like that sometimes.
CONAN: Well, Tamar, obviously, you've done some things between then and now.
TAMAR: Yes. I've actually already had a deployment in Iraq and I'm actually getting ready to leave soon to go back.
CONAN: Well, Tamar, we wish you the best of luck.
TAMAR: Okay. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
CONAN: And here's an email we have from Julia(ph) in Laurel, Delaware.
It is the overwhelming feeling of confusion that lingers with me still. I was sitting in the 10th grade, American History class that fateful morning when we turned on the TV. I couldn't reach my parents by phone nor could I contact friends of mine that lived in New York at the time. No one had answers. All anyone had were questions. I am still in the state of confusion over the situation, confusion at how people could commit such an atrocity, confusion at why things like that happen, confusion and heartache, that's what lingers.
And Richard Cohen, we just have a few seconds left, but are you planning to go downtown tomorrow?
Mr. COHEN: Well, you know, I wasn't planning on it. But the truth - but I might. I just might. I think I should.
CONAN: Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post, with us today from his office in New York City. Thanks very much.
Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Neal.
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