Monday, September 11, 2006

Infamy for the 21st century.

Well, I suppose a word or two about the fifth aniversary of the September 11th attacks is appropriate.

I'm not one for gushing patriotic jingoisn and you'll never hear me babling on about heroism and valor - although there was certainly plenty of that to be noted. There are people who are better at that stuff than I am. To me, 9/11 isn't about that. Its more personal and it isn't something I'd wear on my sleeve.

Aside from the personal loss for the dead and their survivors, the great tragedy of the event was its pointlessness. It wasn't an invasion to conquer Manhatten. Nobody was trying to gain anything economically from it. No one was trying to protect national interests - the usual reasons people go to war. No, this was an attack simply to provoke more fighting, to goad the United States into going on the offensive; an act of war solely to cause a war, with no goals other than death and destruction - the whole thing over some vague notion of 'sticking it to the infidel'.

It was traumatic. I don't know why, but I was trying to be blasé about it in my best New York fashion. That didn't work though. I started not being able to sleep and that went into months. Being sort of dense, it took me a while longer to figure out why I couldn't sleep. It took a full year before I felt normal again. I'm not sure why I was trying to play it down in my own mind. I guess I didn't want to think about it, but I couldn't help it. Who knows?

The first thing I honestly laughed at - I mean really howled my ass off at after the attack? South Park, when Cartman plays Bugs Bunny to Osama's Elmer Fudd. "Pretty small ain't it?" The irony of course, is that I only happened to see it on TV because I couldn't sleep. It doesn't seem as funny today, but at the time it was great.

My first reaction was not especially progressive. I felt this urge for punitive retaliation. Kill a few hundred thousand people indiscriminately to just to make a point that we could do it. That feeling lasted about a week, then I got over it, and then I wasn't sure what to think. Afghanistan seemed like a good place to put some effort. Getting the people who committed this crime and stringing them up seemed like it was too kind. This too passed and I tried to be mindful that access to a jury trial is one of the things that makes us better than these terrorists, even though it is too good for them. Intellectually I still tell this to myself, but emotionally I don't always believe it.

This was an ugly thought. About two weeks after the attack I was in a parking lot walking back to my car. Coming up the aisle towards me was a young Muslim man. He was a small fellow. He had a beard, although he was barely old enough to be able to grow it. It was the kind of beard that the jihadis wear; untrimmed, un-groomed, just sticking out at all angles. Then there was his wife; fully covered from head to toe, walking six steps behind him like a shadow. He didn't interact with her. She just followed him. In that moment this fellow represented to me the very thing we were being attacked by; the enemy of any sort of enlightenment, an adherant of medivilism. Without asking I assumed that he was a religious fanatic whose wife was little more than chattel. I felt like access to our open world was being abused by the presence of a man who treated his wife as a third class object. I got angry. I wanted to beat him with my fists right there on the asphalt. I looked him in the eye and he saw me. He had sort of a crazed expression, although I suppose in retrospect that might very well have been fear. I'll bet he got a lot of dangerous looking stares in those days. I walked past him and kept going to my car. I'm embarrassed that I ever felt that much hatred towards someone I didn't even know. *

I was never crazy about the idea of using 9/11 as a pretext for other adventures, either foreign or domestic. Enough ink has been spilled on bitching about Iraq (although I confess that initially I was not inexorably opposed to it) and the erosion of civil liberties, but in general, we didn't do well here.

I don't think we've done an especially good job honoring the victims. To my mind, the best way to pay homage to the dead was to uphold the core values of the country. Instead we got a lot of militaristic "with us or against us" dogma, boot-in-your-ass country songs, melodramatic flag-waving tributes and small minded public officials using the tragedy to advance some pretty nefarious agendas. In the aftermath we espoused freedom, but we didn't honor it by preserving it. I know I've said this before, but our leaders took a situation that could have been used to reaffirm all the ideals this country is supposed to be about and they squandered it. Oh, they talked about those ideals, but their actions - the invasions, the prisons and the tourture (!), all of that said something otherwise entirely. We pissed away what should have been the defining American moment of the 21st century. Then again, maybe we did define it, just not the way I think we should have.


A nod to the people who were personally touched by 9/11. In all of the aftermath and uproar and politics and misuse of your tragedy I think most Americans hold a special place for you. I know I was personally affected by it and I suspect a lot of other people were too in ways that they'll never tell.


(*I wrestled with whether or not to include this paragraph. It's not something I'm proud of. In the end though I decided to include it because a) it really is one of my most vivid memories about the aftermath of 9/11, particularly because it is so out of character for me to think that way, and b) I don't think anything is served by trying to cover up the kind of conflicting and often angry feelings that the whole thing created. If I'm going to talk about it I might as well talk about all of it. I know I wasn't the only one.)


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