Sunday, September 11, 2011
In this season of 9/11 remembrance
In this season of 9/11 remembrance, I’ve been reluctant to get into it, because I’ve always felt the national response was somewhat off. Out of respect – who wants to hear that? – I thought I’d steer clear. But this morning I was able to feel for myself that the emotions that conflagration provoked and continues to evoke are an epic force not to be lightly passed by.
I’ve skipped the media coverage, only because my standard for worthwhile news is that I ought to learn something I didn’t already know, and I have high confidence I’d learn nothing new from all this. But I happened to begin the day with Weekend Edition on the radio, and they began by playing ten-year-old street-level audio of the impact and horrified witness reaction as the second tower was hit. I quickly changed the station, not wanting to immerse my 15-month old daughter in that soundscape. We arrived at WFUV, a New York music station that spent the morning playing music about or evocative of 9/11. Here, from a bastion of generally folkie/leftie vibes, I heard a lot of good music that New Yorkers wanted to hear, generally holding to the themes of strange loss, heroism, a need for shared experience, often connecting to the day in a subtle way very personal to the songwriters. Nothing bombastic, nor political or critical. I felt the shared emotion and the need for individuals to mark their immersion in the events of that day.
So who am I to step on that? I would not wish to. But in just as personal a vein, I could tell you about a different response, my own, which is marked by distance. Physically, I was living in California on 9/11, and I was woken that morning by a call from my mother in Connecticut to tell me what was going on, around the time the second tower fell. I had no TV; I spent the whole day at home, listening to the radio. Oddly, I wasn’t around TVs at all during that time. For many months afterward, I never once saw a video clip of the planes crashing or the buildings falling. I remember the first time I did, in a bar perhaps six months later. Before that, I had only seen still photos. This exclusion was more by happenstance than intention, though I believe I felt happier going without.
It was obvious from the first that this was a national trauma of the order of the Kennedy assassination. It’s not that I didn’t want to participate in all of that, and of course I did take part – we all did. But I also felt that the hundredsfold repetition of the traumatic videos was a kind of strange baptism in terror, an immersion in fear, even if largely unintentionally so on the parts of both broadcasters and viewers, that would forever color the character of Americans, and would help to change our destiny. That is the power of the moving images. When I did first watch a plane ram into a tower, that night in a bar so much later, I too was very powerfully and immediately shaken by what I was seeing. This is the power of media – to take and own your mindspace. I felt better off with some distance.
I guess that gap put me in mind to go my own way. From the early hours, it was obvious to me that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al – already figures of great suspicion in my eyes – would take license to undertake what would in short order become the genuine replacement for the Cold War, a new organizing force for another couple generations of military procurement, war powers, and patriotic citizen-control. I locked into that vision of the consequences at the outset and have never doubted it since. On September 12, 2001, I wrote:
Discussing security strategy, tactics and response misses the main point that yesterday showed: ultimately, there is no way of keeping an event such as this from happening except by making the people of the world love us more. I know it sounds absurd. But in the end, there is no other prevention…. We are unable to understand the deeper motivations of the perpetrators… What comes foremost to my mind is that we need to be sweet and highly generous – to a fault. Not to these perpetrators, obviously, but generally to the world at large…. Prior to this event, I've joked that if you take a poverty-wracked enemy of the United States like, say North Korea or Cuba (now add Afghanistan), we'd be better off strategically and financially if we paid every citizen there a personal check for $5,000 from the US taxpayers, rather than spending our money on the perpetual war machine. We'd save so much effort, stress and cash if we just bought the friendship of the populace! Obviously, I was being facetious. But ask yourself – what did we spend yesterday? What will it cost us to remain so long aloof and oblivious to the wretched of the world outside? Trillions?
At the time I wrote that, I consciously chose “trillions” to illustrate the unimaginable scale of what I was anticipating. It was then an exceedingly outrageous number to put forward. Remember, a year later Bush’s team was telling America that the Iraq War would cost just a few tens of billions. But I thought right away, what did the Cold War cost us? Bush is going to take us there. Today we can see I was right: by Joseph Steiglitz’s estimation, the war in Iraq (unjustified, unnecessary, unhelpful) has cost us $4.4 trillion. And look at us now, credit downgraded. Unbelievable decade, huh?
As I write, with my turn to these matters of consequence, I hear my own voice growing cynical, dark, basically unpleasant to hear – and that’s without trying on any conspiracy theories! I have always kept up with the left-wing critique, another news junkie seeking endless confirmation of what I already believe, and in retrospect I guess just a quarter-dose of it would have done me more good. Of course I would tune out any rah-rah patriotic 9/11 music, but I heard in today’s songs on the airwaves of New York, from some of my kind of people, a reaching for solace and shared experience. The people who were there that day want to share their sympathy and affirm our togetherness, and maybe also a little bit to display their scars. Where I tend to go artlessly in my thoughts and writings, the songwriters, audience and deejays, they’re not going there. I’ve tended to turn to the political story and the story of our national interest. I don’t have much personal connection to the day –I know somebody who lost a spouse in it, I took a look at Ground Zero that December, a friend tells the story of walking back to Brooklyn on foot… but these are things that came to me much later. I have not ever had much desire to hear the personal stories as reported in the media. The local heroism, the firefighters, the rescue and cleanup workers, the stories of loss, as true as they all are, and as deserving of memorialization, they also – and even to say this is to play a role some may find either uncaring or unpatriotic – when played through a media filter, work to reinforce the patriotic narrative that keeps us distanced and baffled from the world outside, and actually unable to come to grips with it. Just to fight and hold ourselves apart. How can I shut up when I believe that we are, in so doing, only repeating our mistakes? That it keeps us pouring out our national treasure into war debt, fruitlessly?
I remember the night the Iraq War was set to start. Bush would unleash the bombs within hours. My brother and I looked out over the San Francisco Bay as the gloaming set in, and I had a feeling of immense impending loss – a sickness for the country I so deeply love. [When I speak about Iraq in this essay and elsewhere, it is always as an accordion that opens up into so much more. The Iraq War is something akin to what the partition of Berlin and the Korean War were to the Cold War – a concrete fact on the ground that made a generations-long conflict emerge as something real. The Iraq War is different because it was unjustifiable and built on lies, and it ushered in, more than 9/11 and the subsequent Afghanistan intervention did (assuming that Afghanistan could have gone better if not for Iraq), a Cold War equivalent that really did not have to be what it is, and which, unlike the Cold War, is tangibly wrecking American power.]
How much these ten years of stories have changed us Americans, ever reinforcing the Great Conflation, that those who criticize our warlike ways do not support our troops and are deficient in their love of our country. In my hometown paper this week, a writer tells our wayward mayor, “Our military fights for that blanket of security that you have the right to enjoy and that allows you to go out and protest against them. I prefer you to just thank them for what rights and freedoms you have.” Can those who hold this view ever understand how a person like me can cherish the military service of my father and other forebears, can love the Iraq War veteran, can love our country so deeply, and at the same time believe our sacrifice in Iraq, and our entire War on Terror construction, has mostly served to hurt us in ways immeasurable? Ten years into the 9/11 era, the answer seems to be: as little as ever.