Notes on the 20th Anniversary of September 11th.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” — James Baldwin
Even if I didn’t want to, I’m thinking about the anniversary of September 11th. It’s impossible not to: every radio station is outdoing itself to play the most traumatic and pathos-y (and therefore most ad-revenue-friendly) audio clips of that morning. My Facebook feed is full of people talking about where they were and what the event means for them. I walked outside this morning and someone was playing Taps. Every digital turn I take today is full of the same images I remember from 2001 — all “One Nation” and “Never Forget” and “These Colors Don’t Run”. I’m not mad about all the remembering. But since we’re all feeling so reflective, I thought I’d add my own thoughts to the public conversation about that day.
Some context: September 11th was the news story that made it clear to my ten-year-old brain that the stuff that happens on the news happens to real people. I remember being disappointed when they sent me home from Mr. Rommel’s fifth-grade classroom: I’d already sat through the worst part of the day (math), but would have to skip the best parts (writing and reading). As a latchkey kid, I was surprised when Sister and I got home early, that Mom was already there. To her credit, she never once hid the news from us, and tried her best to explain the unexplainable. She did her best to make us feel safe. I’ve never moved through an America where 9/11 wasn’t a part of the public memory.
The thing is, I’m having trouble connecting to all these memorials and public remembrances. People often boast about the way that the country “came together” after 9/11. But really, as a kid who’s looking back now without the burden of having been a participant then, what did we really come together behind? We came together behind The War™, spurious and poorly justified, which would go on to kill or maim thousands of our own soldiers and thousands more Afghani and Iraqi civilians, who were just as horrified by the violence as we were. We rallied behind xenophobia and racism, behind the idea that to be Muslim was to be un-American. We rallied behind the scope creep of authoritarianism, and didn’t bat an eye at the Patriot Act, or the NSA, or ICE. We all got in line for the security theatre provided by the TSA. We rallied behind yellow ribbons and “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers, though we never got around to questioning what they were dying for, or to ensuring that we took care of them when they came home. We made a bunch of money for Halliburton, and Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. I guess the bumper sticker people probably made out pretty good, too.
There’s another reason that all these memorials are ringing a little hollow for me today. All these reminders that we should “come together” come at a time when we could desperately use that kind of solidarity. But in the wake of another disaster, one that’s killed hundreds of thousands of us, that solidarity is in short supply. Maybe we never had it in the first place, maybe we only thought we did. Maybe it was easier to rally all of us behind a single cause then, before twenty years of Gingriching left us too skittish and mistrustful of the other side of the aisle. Instead of “coming together” as “one nation” and “taking care of one another”, we’ve all decided that dealing with the pandemic is an exercise in political loyalty. As usual, we let the suits in power kick the can down the road, only this time instead of debating the existence of WMDs, they’re letting parents duke it out over masks at school board meetings. I can’t safely go about my life because no one’s bothered to combat the idiots taking horse dewormer and screaming about their personal freedoms, at least until they choke on their own fluid-filled lungs and take up an ICU bed that we could’ve used for a gunshot victim.
The entire thing: the memes, the memorials, all of it, do not compel me to reflect on where I was when the world stopped turning. They do, however, compel me to ask, “What the fuck are we doing here?” If I weren’t the benefactor of whiteness and wealth, I wouldn’t be so shocked. People of color have always known that “coming together as a community” doesn’t usually include everyone. This behavior probably seems unsurprising, even commonplace, for folks who aren’t white. And just as they have never experienced an America without the looming threat of white supremacy, I have never experienced one without the specter of 9/11 hovering in the background. It’s similar, I’d imagine, to the way I’ve never experienced a school without the background noise of Columbine, influencing the day-to-day operations from just out of earshot. Maybe my parents are right: maybe there was a time when we all just got along, but I don’t think so. There’s always been someone burning a book or a bra or a flag or a mask. The very nature of America is this struggle, between who we are and who we wish we were. I’ve never known her to be any other way.
So I’m not confounded by the anti-vaxxers or the white supremacists or the gun nuts: there’s always been room in our imaginary melting pot for idiocy and destruction and hatred. I’m disappointed in the rest of us, for not mounting the kind of resistance that would kick these folks back under their rocks for another generation of seething in silence. I’m disappointed that we let the folks in power get away with it — George W. Bush put out to pasture to rehab his image as a bumbling, artistic grandpa, rather than a war criminal. We’ve let these folks pull the wool over all our eyes, over and over, like a boyfriend who spends all his money on Warhammer collectibles and conveniently forgets his wallet whenever you need healthcare, or an education, or roads that don’t suck. I’m sure it won’t be long until the lobbyists and the defense contractors get thirsty again, and we’ll go picking a fight somewhere else.
In the meantime, rather than confront our own culpability for decades of carnage overseas and months of the same at home, we’ve chosen instead to spend our precious time “remembering”, covering our hearts (and our eyes and our ears) with our hands. We’ll wave our little flags around and observe a solemn moment of silence, before we get back to flinging spittle at one another while we shout about whether or not masks work. More people will die. We’ll remember the 2,996 people who died on 9/11, and conveniently forget the 2,418 who died of COVID yesterday. We’ll forget the 2,500 who will die today, and the 2,500 who will die tomorrow. It’s funny, in retrospect, what we choose to remember.