Ten Years After

I want to share something I wrote less than six weeks after 9/11/2001, as a way to sort of remember what happened, and also who I was – and who we all were – both before and shortly after that day. It requires a bit of personal set-up, though (at least, I imagine it does)…

I can scarcely believe it’s been ten years since that horrible morning. I still can’t imagine what it must have been like for the people of New York city on September 11, 2001. But for everyone not either on one of those planes or in one of the target zones, I think it may have been even worse for us on the west coast. If you lived on the east coast on that day, you at least had probably been awake for an hour or two, had your coffee and breakfast, gotten your day started.

I lived in Oakland, California on September 11, 2001, and for us, it was literally an alarm clock. Oh, I don’t mean we regularly woke up to the television or anything like that. We woke up to an alarm clock, like most people do. But my wife got downstairs first, and the phone rang while I was still asleep. I was vaguely aware both that she had gotten out of bed (and that I should probably do the same soon), and that the telephone had rung. It was her mother, in Georgia. “Turn on the TV,” was all she said. So my wife did, and within a minute was rushing upstairs to tell me to hurry downstairs. We didn’t see the live video of the second plane crashing into the second tower, but we did see the towers collapse, live. A horrible, mind-rending sight, something that can neither be un-seen, nor forgotten.

By September 2001, I had already begun spending time in the then-nascent blogosphere. I was already increasingly sick about the illegitimate but still young Presidency of this grating, dry-drunk man-child, this legacy-President from Texas, George W. Bush. I’d already found Josh Marshall’s site at TPM, and I can’t even remember what all else. Atrios and even Daily Kos didn’t exist yet at that time (though they were not far from birth). Frankly, in those dark days, the blogosphere (such as it was) was the domain of what were at that time referred to as the “warbloggers” – sort of an early version of Pamela Geller at Atlas Shrugged. As soon as the towers came down, it seemed as if all you could find was the hastily-constructed websites of right-wing squawkers like Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds, Den Beste, and others. The liberal/progressive community (at least online) was still licking its wounds from Bush v. Gore and the Brooks Brothers riot, and writing books like Mark Crispin Miller’s excellent (but fairly non-crucial) The Bush Dyslexicon. In short, there wasn’t much place (at least of which I was aware) for a liberal to go online, in the immediate wake of 9/11.

As it happened, in February of that same year, my wife gave birth to our first child. She had a fairly generous maternity leave policy, and was able to take a few months off after February. But by the end of May, it was time for her to go back to work, and we had made the decision previously that although our salaries at the time were comparable, she had by far the greater “career path,” working as she did in insurance (at the time, I had left a job designing and installing custom media rooms – basically high-end audio/video for rich people. It was a decent living, but there’s really no room for “advancement”: you make what you make). So it was that in early June, 2001, I became the primary caregiver and stay-at-home parent for our children. It’s pretty active work, looking after a couple of needy infants/toddlers, but it’s also true that you often have time to yourself during the kids naps, etc.

When I started looking after our kids (first our daughter, then, 22 months later, our son), my wife was worried that I would feel isolated, and she suggested I try to find some community online that I could belong to. Knowing very little about where such communities might even be at that point, I took her recommendation to check out iVillage (yes, the “women’s network” – get your snickering over with now. Heh.). She’d been a member while she was on maternity leave, frequenting a message board that had to do with pregnancy issues. But, she told me, they have message boards about darn near everything, not just “mommy issues” — and some of them are actually debate boards, where you get to square off against people who think differently than you do

Well, that was the hook for me. I was supremely uninterested in anything having to do with a bunch of people virtually sitting around, jawboning about the best way to change diapers or the like, but the idea of a debate board? Especially when I found several that were directly related to current events and politics? Oh, my, yes. :o)

Anyway, I think I became a member of iVillage shortly after 9/11, and within days was ensconced in some of the wild, emotional debates that were happening everywhere at the time. The only difference for me was: mine were happening online, not with family member or friends or in the workplace. And, in those early days when everyone was so hurt and so frightened and no one knew what might be next, a lot of those debates got pretty heated indeed. So, on this, the ten-year anniversary of one of the worst days of anyone’s life who was old enough to know what was happening at the time, I thought I’d excerpt in full a post I wrote in October of 2001.

It was written as a response to a woman on the board who was sharp, but probably fairly conservative (though not in the awful, knee-jerk, cartoonish tea-party way of today). Often, the posts from right-wingers who just wanted to go kick some butt in the MENA region were annoying or simply amusing, but this one was not. It was heartbreaking, because she spoke of driving along in the fall air with the windows rolled down listening to a favorite CD on the car stereo, with her daughter in the car seat behind her, enjoying the warmth of the late-afternoon sun and singing along, when all of a sudden, she said, “the fucking plane hits the fucking building again” (in her mind). She spoke of the terrorists of 9/11 “attacking cotton fields and sunsets and Jimmy Buffet” (not just a pair of buildings in New York), and she spoke of not being able to get those images out of her head, and not knowing what to do with all the anger and fear and outrage. She also spoke of the progressives who were already at that time reminding us that what many of these people had always hated was the heavy American hand that supported dictatorial regimes in the MENA region; she called them the “blame America first crowd.”

I don’t know what happened to me that day, because usually – even then – someone who referred to those who pointed out the obvious about American foreign policy in the Middle East as “the blame America first crowd” would usually have gotten either a fairly incisive rhetorical flaying from me, or they’d have gotten mostly ignored as simple idiots. But the way this woman spoke in the first person, and wasn’t afraid to show hurt and fear as well as anger, well…I guess it made me react differently than I might have ordinarily, too. Here is what I wrote as a response to her post, unedited (the original iVillage board is now long-gone, archived — I’m just glad I thought to save this to a text file a day or two after I wrote it). I’m posting it here now because, looking back, I don’t think I ever wrote anything – either at the time or since – that was any better (or any more relevant even today):

Let me start with a hug. I know it sounds corny, but you sound like you could use one. Not being able to enjoy things that you should enjoy because of this atrocity is a huge loss. So, hugs. And let me continue by saying that I am not one who would say that anger is not a valid or true emotion. I’m angry too often myself to believe that. I think anger CAN mask other feelings, but it doesn’t have to. And yes, God DAMN those bastards who did this. You can’t even wrap your mind around an abomination this size. When you think about a murder – just one life wrongly snuffed out – no more autumn drives, no more support to loved ones, no more volunteer work, no more watching the cream swirl into the coffee, then you start to see just how infinite and how finite one life is. And then, to take that three-thousandfold – well, the mind shuts down out of simple self-protection. You cannot hold all of that pain in your head and remain sane. All the kids without parents, all the husbands without wives, parents without children – it is just too much to grasp. And anger is just as valid a response as sadness, grief, shock, any of the other emotions people have been feeling. So, by all means, be angry.

There is a scene from Apocalypse Now where Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz is describing how his transformation came about by reminiscing about seeing a pile of little hacked-off children’s arms that the VC had cut off because the Americans had immunized them against polio. Brando says “I wanted to scream, I wanted to tear my teeth out, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” And that is one of my favorite lines from that movie – confronted with something that stark, the honest reaction is to not know WHAT you want to do. Anger, despair, fear, rage, so many emotions at the same time that you can’t even process them, so they just come out as soon as they well up within you. So, yeah, I think anger’s OK on that continuum.

You also touched on an old idea – that truth is diminished in the “relentless cadence” (of the “Blame America” movement, by your lights). It’s often been said that the first casualty of war is truth. But I think there’s a much less noticed and equally important casualty, and it might even die faster than the truth in the white-hot rush of absolutes in war: balance. Balance is a lot less sexy than truth, it gets less press, and almost nobody writes poems or stirring songs or political stump speeches about it. But it is the only thing that carries the day, time after time. And balance is what goes out the window when you get angry. You said yourself that “America can lay claim to some of the charges against her.” That’s all these people you call “Blame America groupies” are trying to say. They’re not trying to “stand tall and loud on podiums…waging psychological warfare against the American people.” But they, too are angry, and it makes their words explode in their mouths – or in the ears of those with different opinions.

So what are you trying to say, in the end? Do you really want to divide us up into those that hate our country and those that love it? How will you tell the difference? Because one other thing that you said stuck in my mind – that if people hear what you refer to as the “Blame America” POV enough, “even the most patriotic souls might start to believe it.” Well, I submit that some of the most patriotic of souls are the very ones spouting the stuff you don’t like. Acquaintances will usually tell you what you want to hear in the interest of keeping things light and cordial. People that truly care about you – family and close friends – will love you enough to tell you about your faults as they arise, because they know you can do better, and they want you to try. I have been ashamed of my country sometimes. But I have never hated it.

Speaking just for myself, I can say that the reason I continue to ask these questions some find objectionable is because I want America to be its best in every way – to be big enough to work with other nations as partners and to learn from our mistakes and make appropriate changes. I wish that I could rip open the top of my head (or my heart) and you could see that I don’t hate America – that I don’t blame her for everything. But (though you’d never know it to look at me today) I come from a very old punk rock school of self-reliance. Always lay blame where it is warranted, and ALWAYS take blame if you deserve it. No excuses. I just want America to own up to her share, not to everybody’s share – or to things that aren’t our responsibility.

So. Anger. Balance. Some of these people that say the things you don’t like do so in a way that makes it very hard for anyone who doesn’t already totally agree to hear the message. That’s what anger and frustration do. It makes them say things in a manner that no one wants to listen to. And their reasoning, no matter how valid, is thereby ignored and trivialized. You might not agree with the message anyway, but you sure won’t if it comes wearing the belligerent mask of anger. And people will treat your words the same if you are angry, too. That’s why balance is so desperately needed – because when all the sturm und drang of anger has passed (assuming people are still willing to listen) it’s the measured dialogue at the END of the fight where people are able to hear each other again and understand what each other means and make progress. It’s what I hope for in our dialogues here, and what I hope even more fervently for on the world stage. The real solutions are never borne from anger alone – they are borne from the long, boring, tedious, patience-trying process of widening your view up so that eventually, you hold the whole world in your gaze – the wrong that America has suffered right alongside the wrongs it has inflicted. So by all means be angry – you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. But please don’t let your anger rule you for good. We need every good mind and every ounce of honest good will we can get to address the problem that now confronts our world.

And one last thing about terrorists “attacking cotton fields and Jimmy Buffett” – they can only have as much of your mind and your soul as YOU are willing to cede to them. They can take your home, your family, your very life, but they cannot take your spirit unless you let them. Hang in there. This f***ing sucks, and it’s going to for a long time. But the trick is to KNOW in your bones that any of these horrible things could happen and STILL live fully and open-heartedly. That, my friend, is balance.

I wish you a peaceful soul for tonight, at least.

Yeah…all in all, that’s still what I wish, for all of us, when I think of 9/11: a peaceful soul and the ability to find balance. We could really use some right now. I’m a little ashamed, reading this piece today, because after ten years of name-calling and side-taking and polarizing from all quarters (yes, sometimes even mine) I’m not sure if I would be capable of writing something like this anymore. But I wrote it once, and I still think it’s true.

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