Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How Fragile We Are

And so it goes...eleven years on. I'm going to try to keep politics out of this post, but it will be impossible. Please bear with me.
September 11 was a pivotal moment in your life. It was in mine, it was in hers and his, it was in all of ours. The trite saying, the trite excuse, is "everything changed on September 11."
But it did. Nearly everything was altered. Some things were immediately clear. Some things took a while to unfold. Some things are still unfolding. And some things will not change, but those are things that couldn't change if the world ended. Time still marches on, the sun burns, the planets turn in their orbits.
I can still hear the high whine of the engines of Flight 11 storming past my office. It sounded so foreign, so miniscule. I've had jets shoot up Fifth Avenue before on Veterans' Day and you knew it was a massive plane. When Flight 11 slipped down Manhattan island, it sounded like a small Cessna as it whined past. Even the wound to the North Tower looked insignificant, but then I was ignoring the scale of my knowledge...the floors were vast...and focusing on the data my ears had given my brain: small plane.
On September 11, we saw the entire range of humanity on display in one brief unforgettable moment. We saw the rage of a group of men so profound to exercise power over people less powerful than themselves. We saw the abject terror of first a neighborhood, then a city, then a nation, and finally, a world. We saw the courage and heroism of the first responders and the civilians who pitched in to help people get out of harm's way and to try to prevent the unpreventable.
We saw the chilling wake of the empty hospitals, emergency staff standing outside the doors during the blackest night in American history, waiting...waiting...waiting...
And no one came. No flashing lights scurrying up the block to drop off a patient in need of care, then flying back down the block, doors barely closed, to pick up another casualty. We only saw silence. We only heard blackness. We only felt the deepest sadness any of us could feel.
Mostly, we saw the confusion of a people who grasped to comprehend what had happened. We hadn't moved onto the "why" yet. We hadn't even really gotten our minds around the "how." We wanted desperately to understand.
September 11 changed you. It changed me. It changed him and her. It changed all of us.
On September 10, 2001, we all of us lived secure in the knowledge-- some would say "smugly"-- that America was nearly invincible. Sure, we'd had terror attacks on our soil before. Hell, even Wall Street was bombed at one time. But they were minor, slivers in the fingertips of the American soul.
Even the 1993 bombing barely stopped traffic for a day, despite the deaths and destruction it did cause.
We lived with the notion that an ocean protected us from the horrors of war, even if Japan had put paid to the invincibility idea. Even there, we played the "outside the 48, doesn't count" card. Besides, Hawaii wasn't even a state yet.
We lived with the notion that America was the strongest nation in the history of the world, and truth is, it was, and may still be. But our naivete is vanished.
Starting at 8:46AM on the morning of September 11, 2001, we endured what President Obama might have called a "teachable moment." Certainly it was a humbling event.
Some of us chose to take it as such, to acknowledge our lives had been changed and to move forward. To make our lives meaningful, and to realize that our petty concerns with respect to what had been important vanished in the roaring explosion of a plane crash. Sure, we still go to work or to school, and love our families (perhaps that became even more important that day), and watch the ball game on TV, but always in the backdrop are reminders of that day, tugging at our hearts and minds.
Singing "God Bless America" at the seventh inning stretch leaps to mind. Which brings me to my next comparison.
Some of us refused to take the note. Some of us clambered to get our lives back to normal, to act as if nothing had happened. Some of us wanted to ignore the amputation the nation had suffered in those four villianous acts, and to go on as if we still had four good limbs, two good eyes and ears.
And some of us even want to take the nation further back, to a time when we all rode bikes with baseball cards in the spokes to the park.
We can't go back. We can't even stand still. We have to move forward.
On September 11, we saw the best of American values on display: community, charity, compassion, the knowledge that each of us is equal to everyone else, that everyone is valuable and that no one is disposable. We could have advanced from there, grown up as a nation, and shown the world our most cherished value: resilience.
We could have straightened up, dusted off, and told the world we want this to end. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't have brought the fiends to justice, we should have, and we should have sooner. But we could have joined hands with those who reached out to comfort us in a bleak hour. We could have added our most powerful voice to the rising chorus of those for whom terror and violence is a daily occurence. We could have moved a world.
Sadly, those who were in charge saw things differently. They took their fear, and amplified it, and passed it on like crack cocaine.
I'm not just talking about the Bush administration, altho they share a large part of this responsibility. I'm talking about the loyal opposition who almost unanimously capitulated to anything the administration asked for out of fear of being deemed traitorous. I'm talking about the media who dropped in line with the administration rather than take the patriotic stance of asking "why?"
"Why?" may be the most patriotic thing any citizen can ask of its government. Information is the blood that flows through the veins of any democracy. An informed citizenry is one that can make rational decisions.
I'm even talking down to the level of individual citizens who questioned the loyalty and patriotism of anyone who felt any concern about perhaps, you know, savaging innocent people who did us no harm in the pursuit of...what? A terror organization? An agenda? Both?
Instead of showing our strength, we flexed our muscles, and anyone who's been in a street fight will tell you, balling up a fist is the first sign of weakness.
Consequently, the great debate this nation needed to have, what to do next, became "we're not marching to war fast enough." And each of us to some degree or other bought into that.
Personally, I remember what I felt that day and subsequently. I watched the towers burn and became angry. I was angry at Al Qaeda. I was angry at the administration, possibly because I knew in my subconscious that they somehow had to know this was being planned and did nothing.
Mostly, I was angry it came down to this: a desperate act of attention-getting by a group that rightly should have been ignored from the get-go, but for some really asinine trails of logic down through the years, starting with funding the bastards to fight the Soviets.
Anger is fear in motion. You can flee. Or you can fight. Anger is the latter. So I recognized I was afraid. I was not afraid of the attacks themselves, or even that Al Qaeda might have had a more cunning plan in store that day.
I was afraid of what came next.
My biggest fear was also my fondest wish in the immediate aftermath of the attacks: clear a thousand square miles out in the Afghani desert, drop the biggest fucking nuke in our arsenal and turn to Al Qaeda and say "Any questions?"
There's an old joke about the drunk looking for his car keys in the gutter under a streetlamp. A cop walks over and asks him, "where did you lose them?"
"Over there, across the street."
"Why are you looking here, for heaven's sake?"
"Because the light's better."
Had I known the alternative being contemplated was that we'd open a second war against a people and a tyrant who had nothing to do with the attacks on our soil and bankrupt our economy and our global credibility, all for want of "better lighting," I'm not sure my first instinct of a massive A-bomb would not be the better one.
Not the best solution, I want to be clear, but a war with Iraq was a solution in search of a problem.
Gradually, it dawned on me that not only had the macro world changed profoundly, but each of us had as well. Our cocoons had been stripped away, and damn if that isn't the scariest proposition for any human. Things you had come to rely on, to be background noise, now took front and center. Airport security, once a pass at keeping guns off planes, now searched for shampoo and sneakers. Bridges we monitored by cameras, and trucks kept on the upper levels to minimize damage in the event of. Trains became a constant scan of backpacks and jackets too bulky for the weather outside.
People stopped flying. People stopped traveling. Rather than defy the tyranny of terror, we gave into the apprehension and literally, the terrorists won, albeit a Pyrrhic victory.
But "Pyrrhic" has a cultural definition. It measures wins and losses on a different scale than a society or culture that measures in absolutes: "Did I draw blood? Then I won. It doesn't matter that I died trying. Someone else will step in."
We, the People gave Al Qaeda an even bigger victory. We gave up our liberties, the one thing that defines us as Americans. We proved that those liberties are a sham. Even today, in the wake of the Teabagger movement--ostensibly bragging that they are recapturing our liberties, only to give up many more in the bargain-- we cower and whimper behind those security measures, rather than find ways to reclaim our freedom.
Rather than stand up in the gale force winds of the terror attacks, we crouched behind a rock, even when those winds blew themselves out, and we fired spitballs and paper clips when what we could have done-- should have done-- was stand up and let them try to do their worst, then work to make our nation stronger. We could have led rather than react.
In many ways, the decade following September 11 parallel the decade following the Kennedy assassination: we had the rise of populist movements for civil rights (in the 60s, racial; in the 00s, sexual orientation) and we've seen unpopular wars fought and abandoned as "won" when in truth, nothing really was won. We're still as secure today as we were on September 12, based on just the war footing.
Even the killing of Osama bin Laden might not have made us more secure. Al Qaeda could have been exhausted on September 12 anyway.
Indeed, the rise of a Democratic administration promising an almost idyllic liberal landscape (still-born, to be fair) could have been ripped out of the pages of the RFK campaign in 1968 or the McGovern campaign of 1972. It's not a perfect parallel but the comparison is striking.
Most important, the lessons of September 11 feature as a frontispiece the simple fact of humanity: we are fragile. We are connected to this planet and this existence for only a brief time, and to try to hoard ourselves in that moment is foolish, for how fragile we are.
On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star, like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are
If I was President, I would declare September 11 a day commemorating peace. We have a few days that commemorate or memorialize war: The Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, but only one that commemorates peace and even that is in the abstract and not universally recognized: Martin Luther King's birthday. How wonderful would it be, how great a show of American values, if we decided for one day that you could not work and instead live a day in peace?