I write this after years of contemplation and resistance. 10 years, actually. The idea of commemorating the events of that particular day is anathema and I have resisted ever putting thoughts to paper about what I was doing and how I felt, as if writing about it might add even a little credence or comfort to what I believe has been a chest-thumping jingoistic travesty — a willful, immoral obfuscation that became an excuse to perpetrate terrible injustices on constellations of innocents at home and abroad.
But as the tenth anniversary of the fatal day approaches it seems as if some word is due, some thoughts should be archived. If only to put a lid on the thing once and for all. As I say later in this essay, we need to move on. The perpetual backward look, the never-ending eulogy, the twisting of history, the usury on our credulity — it has debilitated us as a society. It has tested our morality and, in the years since, we have failed that test more often than not. Our place as citizens on planet earth, among its civilizations and all the natural wonder it has to offer, is tenuous. The wholesale change I have seen of our turning inward, living in fear, willing to do terrible things because of a faulty, often intentionally misleading analysis that has as its gist some cockamamie chest-puffed call to defend the nation — it may have been an inexorable shift over the past 30 or 40 years, but since September 11, 2001, it has engulfed us like a flame born of an evil accelerant, an endlessly burgeoning nihilism that couches itself in a great lie that we are somehow better than everyone else because we suffered more than anyone else. I don’t buy it. Not on the evidence.
Terrible things happened that day; terrible things are happening right now. It’s time to open our eyes, hearts and minds and move forward.
* * *
Where was I on the morning of September 11, 2001?
I was buying new soccer boots at the old Academy on the access road of I-35 around 40th Street. I got there early in the morning and there was practically no one in the store. I found a pair of boots I wanted and sought a clerk to help me find the right size because, in those days, there was a storage area “backstage,” where boxes of athletic shoes of all sorts were kept.
After what seemed an unreasonably long wait, a large black woman finally emerged from the curtained doorway. “A plane crashed into one of the twin towers and it’s fallen down,” she told me as she collected my display boot’s information and ambled back into the depths of the shoe closet to find my size. I was confused. How could a plane knock down a skyscraper? I had images of the Empire State Building when it was hit by a B-25 during World War II. It burned but it still stood — today, looking up, you wouldn’t know it had ever been hit if you didn’t know the history. Or maybe what she meant was that a plane had clipped that huge TV antenna atop one of the World Trade Center buildings and that was the “tower” that had fallen to earth. I imagined what a scene that would have caused. But my meager self-explanation was nothing like the devastation I was to learn about shortly.
“Do you want to come back and see?” She apparently had a TV in the storeroom and was glued to the unfolding events, begrudgingly emerging every so often to see if a customer might be out there needing her assistance. “No, thank you,” I said. Maybe I felt stupid for not comprehending why this mattered to her when clearly there had to be some explanation, and if she’d stop for a moment and not be so outrageous with her description she’d see that things weren’t so bad. Or maybe I didn’t want to learn about whatever it was that had happened via the medium of a TV in the back room of a sports store if indeed things were that bad.
I bought my boots and set off for the car. I turned on KUT and discovered NPR’s morning news team was broadcasting instead of John Aielli, the denizen of the local morning airwaves. Something had happened.
I drove back to the other side of the highway and parked across the street from The Austin Chronicle offices, where I was a stringer for the Arts section. I sat in my car and listened to the radio. The destruction. The carnage. The questions. The concerns. The awe. The knowledge and the lack of it. At a thousand-mile remove, I understood the enormity of what had occurred even as I knew that there was nothing I could do. I just listened.
When I got to my office job downtown, the mood was a mix of gravity and disbelief, with that adrenalin-induced bravado that some show in a crisis, where they feel the need to take control even of the least little situation. There were groups of people huddled around monitors watching CNN’s coverage. I didn’t want to look. I knew enough from what I had heard to know we were going to go hunt down whoever did this and kill them.
The agency muckety-mucks announced that anyone who wanted to leave early could. I’m always a straggler in that sort of situation: not so overwhelmed that I need to flee, nor so disinterested that I can get to work. I’d leave soon. First I sat down at my desk and pulled out the spiral notebook in my bag. I use these notebooks to craft songs and assorted other bits of prose and poetry; some of them I return to on rare occasion when I want to see what I was musing on at the time. I keep all those old spirals. But I’m damned if I can find this particular one.
I remember I wrote two sentences. Just two. But they encapsulated the entirety of my feelings.
The first was “Please let’s not go to war over this.” Though I knew that was a foolish and futile thought. The concept of taking an eye for an eye dehumanizes; mercy can be matched with ferocity that needn’t equate to retributive killing. There are other ways to resolve even existential differences. But our land is a land of vengeance and such petty considerations have no hold on our reality. I have increasingly felt this as I have grown up. So I knew we’d hunt down the perpetrators, or at least the closest we could find to them, and wipe them out with all the hardware we had at our near-limitless disposal, while displaying none of the civility or understanding of history that such an act would chisel into what’s left of our time. It saddened me to realize with such grim finality that we had so little self-control, so puffed-up a sense of our patch in the tapestry of life, so inflated an idea of the trespass that, though heinous, could hardly have exceeded so many of our own. American defiance has always seemed overwrought and inauthentic, given our capability —and willingness —to destroy all comers on a whim.
The second thing I wrote was “I am glad my grandparents aren’t around to see this.” When they were alive my mother’s parents lived in Englewood, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River via the inspiring George Washington Bridge. My family would vacation there when I was young, making an annual pilgrimage that would take in New York City’s amazing structures in their glory and grunge (this was mostly in the 1970s and ’80s, after all). My grandparents were Liberals of the old school. He was a retired salesman who’d spent a career (post-Navy) driving up and down the east coast, she taught English to immigrants until she, too, retired. I couldn’t imagine how distraught they’d be to see their city (for they were transplanted New Yorkers, moving to Englewood’s sylvan suburbs when their daughters were young) awash in death, ash and mayhem. Worse, though, I knew they would feel the same way as I did about the impending vengeance. Sparing them what was inevitably to follow was a blessing.
It wasn’t until a couple of nights later that I watched TV and saw the images that have since been replayed ad infinitum. I had been avoiding it because I knew what I would see. It smacked of voyeurism; taking in all those images was ogling other people’s grief. And it only reinforced my dread at what was to come. Repetition made marshal, a beating drum, a march to an endless, unwinnable conflict. Michelle and I picked at our dinners, and it wasn’t until the next day that I realized that as I bathed in the cathode-ray glow of all that stress and all that fear and all that hate and all that disbelief, I had been mindlessly picking at the stubble underneath my lip and had pulled out enough of my beard to render that part of my face smooth!
* * *
When I was young I remember, vaguely, the World Trade Center being built. I was impressed as a kid because it was going to be the tallest building in the world, for a while, anyway. I was a fan of Manhattan: the skyline, the myriad things to do and see. We even rode to the top of one of the towers once to check out Windows on the World. It was the most boring thing I think we ever did in all the years we visited New York. The elevator ride took forever, it was hot, the views weren’t any better than the ones we got from Rockefeller Center, our go-to skyscraper for viewing all the really cool buildings in Manhattan. I mean, come on — you could see ALL the cool buildings from Midtown. When you’re in one of them you don’t get the same sense of awe. What was awe-inspiring was standing at the base of the tower, pressing your face along one of those long vertical metal lines as you looked straight up. With clouds in the sky, the building, stretching almost beyond a child’s imagination, seemed to sway a little. Maybe in the breeze the towers did sway. But for me the World Trade Center was never as compelling as other attractions. When they dynamited the roller coaster at Palisades Amusement Park as part of a fun-killing usurpation of land that left a pair of apartment buildings in that hallowed place, now that was psychically devastating —how could they demolish the amusement park where we’d had so much fun?
* * *
It’s time to move on from “911.” It’s in the past. It limits us. It has led to needless, self-imposed restrictions on our way of life. It has warped our country and my fellow countrymen. It inures the weak-willed and fearful against any compassion for or understanding of the “other.” It offers an excuse to power to grab more power at the abrogation of the harder, dirtier tasks we must undertake to maintain America, let alone see it flourish.
Of course I am filled with sadness and sympathy for those needlessly lost souls and their survivors; I cannot imagine that horror, or rather, I can ONLY imagine it, and for that I am ruefully grateful.
People leave their homes and their loved ones every day and never return. The reasons are as varied as the stars. Not every loss heralds a cataclysmic shift in our way of life; but every loss is a cataclysmic shift in SOMEONE’S life. If there is any legacy of “911” I hope it is that one day we comprehend every life as sacred and find a way to connect with our fellow human beings with respect, love and in peace, even as we realize that, ultimately, we’re just visiting and we must try to leave things better than the way we found them. We must.