A Few Thoughts on September 11

The day assholes brought the towers down I was driving into work for teaching. I disremember the details. But I do remember switching from NPR (a small plane had hit the towers) to Howard Stern, whose show was one of those “we’re staring out the windows and watching what’s happening” affair. All “showmanship” was dropped and Stern did some serious reportage and I’m glad for that. At work I watched the smoking first building, then the second hit. I don’t remember the first image I had of the buildings collapsing. In class we stumbled through the material like people who had other things on our minds and I think students were monitoring things on the tech we had at the time. But I’m not sure.

Back at home Susan and I marveled in thankfulness that more people hadn’t perished. The next few weeks saw an outpouring of grief, compassion, humanitarianism, wonderful stories of people doing their best, wonderful stories of global solidarity. The towers’ fall was just too big, and we had many conversations about the power of the images: game-like, movie-like, unbelievable. Conferences were moved as flights were not going to happen. We put candles in our yard. We waited. My son was just two months old at the time and we wondered: what is this new world?

I had my own urges for revenge, a sort of righteous pragmatism, and secretly found satisfaction in the brute force brought against Afghanistan. Coincidentally, I had been following the wreckage to culture the Taliban had brought there, complicated by other interferences. The images of falling skyscrapers blended with the images of hangings in soccer fields and the words of the men and women seemingly tossed back into a history people wanted to leave behind. Women treated like animals, the learning of a great country demolished by dolts.

When stories started up about the invasion of Iraq, I waved them aside thinking that this was just rumor, mere saber rattling, being fairly knowledgable about the region. I told myself and others: there’s no way this will happen, even if the excuse is plain. And when it finally happened, reading news infected by the inevitability of invasion, news colored by outright falsehoods, a building tone of cynicism, a media now bent on representing “sides” as if they were equally credible (an infection I quickly left behind on this weblog), I watched, talked, and taught, and wrote in a sort of stunned disbelief. The fall of the Towers was horrible enough but to watch our incredible resources move in this direction given what we’d just survived was purely bizarre and unjust.

After the attacks of 9-11, I often used Osama Bin Laden as a metaphor for Grendel in the great story of Beowulf. Bin Laden broke through the space of power we nurtured; he broke through the metaphors of safety, he invaded with the assistance of the duped our space, destroying not just symbols of American urbanity and modernism and capital exchange, but the things we’d built physically, like Heorot, shattering the intimate. The only difference was the absence of the hero and an arm. But this is also true of Oklahoma or any other kind of home invasion. al Qaeda’s war was stated as perpetual, to lure the United States into perpetual fighting until the economy collapsed, like the buildings. I see the debt ceiling debate and the unscrupulousness of the housing bubble as part of that story. Even after we leave Afghanistan or Iraq, all it will take is one person with a bomb to send the alarms back into high pitch.

Withal, thousands of Americans lost, thousands more Iragis, Afghanis, and so many others gone because of a few assholes with box cutters, and then a PATRIOT act and several years of time for the vestiges of the Cold War to work their mad magic still. Walking through the lines to grab at your stuff, shoes off. And still the schools and bridges are crumbling, and somehow it’s the teachers and other public servants who are at fault. Even now my muslim friends are watched for any shady business. Even now we don’t know who’s reading the email. We’d have done better to build on the first stories, to take advantage of what in 2001 everyone shared, naive or no. Instead, we moved into a period where, like the buildings falling, we kept exploding things and making them fall, like good will, which, in my mind, is more powerful than a tank. We have to remember: you can spend billions on security. Even so, it just takes only one asshole to sound the alarms again.

I have to admit now that I still suffer from anger. Anger at the attacks, mingled surely with the initial pride I felt for the Shanksville and Pentagon heroes, the efforts and losses of the first responders in Manahattan, and all those who made efforts to help, to comfort, to rebuild, and those who fought and still fight in the services, intermixed still more for the police who assisted us years later when our own home was invaded and for those professionals who helped us through sicknesses with no hint of complaint or hard word, but still there’s anger, anger at how we chose to respond, that the madmen were in charge, and how we, in my view, could have been building and making things instead of tearing things down, leavening the bread, solidifying and chasing the commonly held values. When people say: we can’t leave this public debt for our children in the future, I say: Really? Are you fucking serious? What the fuck have you been doing for the last nine years?

That’s what I am: angry. I’ve just recently learned this. It won’t go away.

My son’s ten years old now now and when I look at him I see everything that’s good. I try hard not to show him the anger I hold close and must live with–as a peaceful person.