“WELCOME TO LAGUARDIA. GOD BLESS OUR TROOPS.” Such was the message flashing repeatedly on the LED ticker signs scattered throughout that otherwise dilapidated airport, greeting me and thousands of other passengers scurrying through its corridors not with the flight information we needed, but with what seemed to be an evangelical mantra, a cliché.
My first reaction was one of astonishment. Such a theistic exhortation in a secular venue designed exclusively to serve the needs of the traveling public seemed at best inappropriate, at worst tasteless and offensive. After all, as a major airport in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, LaGuardia isn’t a house of worship where people of faith gather to beseech the deity of their choice to bestow blessings on their loved ones, or arrange for other such favors on their behalf. Nor did the travelers using the facility constitute a homogeneous community of people sharing a single worldview, let alone a single theology.
Rather, the airport crowd was a multi-ethnic aggregation of human beings holding a diversity of beliefs, religious and secular alike. If among that cohort were those sympathetic to the military and supportive of war, surely there were also Quakers and other nonreligious pacifists antipathetic to both and for whom the message “God Bless the Troops” was a galling affront. And as for the religiously devout, particularly in view of the recent crash-landing in San Francisco, they probably would’ve felt a lot better had the signs instead invoked LaGuardia’s deity to bless the pilots and their aircraft, leaving the troops’ wellbeing to the Pentagon. Incidentally, as Commander-in-Chief of those troops, President Barack Obama himself continues to look skyward, as he did recently at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin when he used the knee-jerk platitude, “God bless Germany, and God bless America,” creating the impression that both countries had sneezed in unison at the very conclusion of his address.
But making my way through the airport I was more than astonished, I was also deeply disturbed because it occurred to me that the same sentiment flashing on all these signs at LaGuardia—that a supreme creator could and should single out one group of human beings over another—had not so long ago spewed forth from the lips of none other than Osama bin Laden, who to the day of his death exploited god talk to justify his every loathsome act. Lest you’re hesitant to accept my word on that, listen to those of Dr. Jerrold Post, an acknowledged specialist on terrorist psychology and author of The Mind of the Terrorist. In a presentation at the U.S. Air Force Counterproliferation Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, Post remarked that: “According to bin Laden’s fatwah, it is not bin Laden, but God, who has ordered religious Muslims to kill all the Americans, God, for whom bin Laden speaks with authority.”
Or listen to bin Laden himself: “We—with God’s help [read “blessing”]—call on every Muslim who believes in God… to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans.”
The most diabolical of bin Laden’s crimes, of course, were the 9/11 attacks, in which thousands of innocent people were annihilated. Among those who died at the World Trade Center that day was Neil Levin, then executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), the very agency that owns and operates LaGuardia Airport. I was struck by the horrific irony that as that execrable act took place, the killers were mouthing the same inane (nay, insane) war-cry as Port Authority was now propagating through its signs at LaGuardia, both parties laboring under the delusion that the angels—and the “Almighty”—were on their side.
Such a grotesque notion cried out for an explanation as to how the Port Authority distinguished its dogma from the devil’s. Sadly, PANYNJ steadfastly refused to offer any explanation at all. Despite its avowed commitment to “transparency” and “freedom of information” as stated in its charter, that public (dual-state) agency seems to honor its obligations only in the breach. After weeks of futile attempts to reach the director of its media relations department, I finally heard from an underling in that office, who in a tone both disdainful and dismissive told me in no uncertain terms that no explanation would be forthcoming. And in a subsequent email he added, “Port Authority is proud of the ‘Support (sic) our Troops’ sign at LaGuardia Airport.” That was itself a cliché, but it misrepresented the issue, suggesting that those in charge had not even found it worthwhile to familiarize themselves with the facts before responding.
A letter to PANYNJ’s current Executive Director Patrick Foye, a successor to Levin, also went unanswered. So, too, did letters to the agency’s chairman, attorney David Samson, and its vice-chairman, real estate mogul Scott Rechler. Appeals to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Christie, who ex officio hold ultimate authority over the Authority, similarly elicited no response. No answers were given to the following questions raised by the LaGuardia message: First, whose “God” is being invoked to do the blessing? Abraham’s? Torquemada’s? Mohammad’s? Bin Laden’s? (I know of some fierce ones, too, in India and Papua New Guinea, but it’s unlikely the instigators of the message had them in mind.)
Second, are all “our troops” to be equally blessed? The Apache helicopter operators made infamous by WikiLeaks’ Collateral Murder video? The thousands of enlisted men and officers who, as the recent documentary The Invisible War reveals, rape their fellow soldiers with impunity, knowing that their superiors—and the Pentagon—are largely indifferent to their crimes? Sergeant John Bales, who just pleaded guilty to slaughtering sixteen Afghan villagers, including women and children asleep in their beds? The generals who used him (and others like him) as cannon fodder, then disposed of him as just another hapless victim of PTSD?
Simple questions. So far, no answers.
David Finkelstein was a research faculty member of the Harvard Law School where he focused on criminal law in China. He later joined the Ford Foundation as its first East Asian specialist. A freelance writer since 1977, he’s written numerous feature articles about political and social developments in Asia as well as environmental and wildlife issues throughout the world. His books include Greater Nowheres—A Journey through the Australian Bush (Harper & Row, 1988) and several scholarly works on China.