My relationship with 11 September is a complicated one. I can't bring any personal tragedy to bear, thankfully. In some ways, I feel that, even by trying to write about it, I am buying into something about which I am strongly ambivalent, even on a blog that no one reads. There has come to be a difference between 11 September 2001 and “September 11” or (even more so) “9/11.” To me the former is the day itself, in all its horror and wonder. The latter is what people have made out of it since then, every grim and divisive decision, the two nearly fruitless wars, the bumper stickers of hate and the flags of righteousness. Nothing new was brought into being by “9/11” and (other than the lives lost, and the symbols laid low) nothing was destroyed, but everything that was before passed through it, redefining itself in relation to the event.
I remember in those first couple of days the stunned kindnesses, the way people looked at each other with fresh eyes. I held my four month old son very tightly, watching the TV constantly hoping that somehow some revelation might come from it that would help it all make sense. I remember the first issue of the New Yorker, with Art Spiegelman (mainly famous for his harrowing depiction of the holocaust in MAUS) contributing a cover that at first seemed to simply be completely black, but which had, through some subtle change in texture, the outlines of the Towers inscribed on it. I remember the contributors: Susan Sontag, Hendrik Hertzberg, Adam Gopnik. We agreed we would keep that issue forever, but we didn’t.
While survivors emerged from ground zero, flags emerged on cars, and we were urged by our government to... go shopping. The tech bubble had been bursting anyway, and so the economy needed stimulus. The president, who had won my grudging respect on the dreadful day, quickly went back to being the jingoistic know-nothing that I found so loathsome.
It was clear to me, very early on, that the terrorists had gotten what they were after. Terrorism can be motivated by many things, but typically it seeks to provoke its victims into heavy-handed over-reactions that will then make the victim look bad, or exhaust it resources, or suffer in some other way that will lead to its own destruction. I think we were very obliging to Al-Quaeda in this respect. We took the enormous good-will of the global community in the latter half of September 2001 and spurned it like Harry Potter turning on his friends in The Order of the Pheonix. We engaged in a ham-handed (but perhaps necessary) war in Afghanistan, and a more spectacular (but completely unnecessary) war in Iraq. We turned against the dearly held values of an open society (something which our enemies found so loathsome in us), and instead condoned torture and domestic surveillance. “Patriot” was the word of the hour, and “If you are not with us, you are against us.” The Onion, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert became preferred news sources for me, because parody and satire seemed to cushion the blow of so much bad tidings, of a nation so poorly and quixotically run.
This week, The Onion ran a headline: “Nation Would Rather Think About 9/11 Than Anything From Subsequent 10 Years”. As is often the case with their best work, the ensuing article is humorous, but is also a pretty bare statement of fact about the last decade. And since so much that litany of disaster has its roots in our response to the day now known as “9/11,” I cannot help but grieve as much for how we responded, as for all the lives we lost. In our hour of darkness, we have been tried, and frankly, I think we have been found wanting.