Saturday, September 14, 2013

9/11 Revisited

(Aftermath of destruction, New York City 2001, from

This past week saw the 12th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. I thought about the anniversary more than I usually have done, because my college's Office of Service Learning was promoting a volunteer project to commemorate it. Such a project did seem particularly appropriate, because one of my strongest memories of that awful time was the strong, mutual need to do something in response to the attacks. Of course we could never bring back those killed, but maybe we could repair the breach in humanity? People went to worship services in droves that week, and went out of their way to be nice to each other, even in traffic. Those closer to the scene could help clear it, and those closer to the levers of power could invade Afghanistan. The rest of us, for a brief time, reached out to each other in whatever ways we could. (The surge of social feeling extended to politics as well. Public approval of President George W. Bush and even the perennial punching bag that is Congress went through the roof.)

I mentioned these memories to my students this year, as I passed around the volunteer cards and we reminisced about that day. They were in early grade school--this year's first-year college students, like my son Robbie, were in 1st grade in fall 2001. It won't be long until I have students who weren't alive when it happened. It will be for them like Pearl Harbor Day for me (or even the Kennedy assassination, which occurred in my lifetime but I was too young to remember).

For nearly two hours after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I was in a blissfully ignorant world. I was in the habit, back then, of turning the NPR news off when my boys (ages 6 and 4) came down for breakfast. A year or so earlier, there had been a lurid recounting of the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, and I wasn't sure they needed to hear that. So I was out of news range for awhile. When I got to my office, I was pressed for time because I was going to observe another class at 9:30 but could get what I needed to done ahead of time if only nobody came by. While I was hoping nobody would come by, by came junior Zach Fromm--darn! "Didn't you hear what happened?" he asked. And that's how I found out. I still feel a bit guilty about all that.

That night I took the family out for ice cream. That may seem a bit weird to do when America's under attack, and truth be told it felt kind of weird at the time, but it was something we'd planned to do, and I couldn't think of a reason not to, and I like ice cream. The store was open anyway. Meanwhile, across 42nd Street, the line of cars at the gas pumps were backed up into the streets. It shows there was, besides all that need for togetherness, a lot of fear, too. I don't know what the cars' drivers thought was going to happen, but by gum they were going to have plenty of gas when it did. Meanwhile the station owners out of self-defense were hiking prices as high as--can you believe this?--over $2.50 a gallon.

A final vivid memory is of the next morning, when I was on my way up to WMT to do an interview with Tim Boyle. The weather was absolutely beautiful. I rode my bike past a soccer field where some team was having an early-morning practice. Such a homely scene on a gorgeous morning seemed so incongruous with what had happened, far across the country, the day before. I thought God might be reminding us that evil would not win, not this time either. I thought of the song "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," especially the powerful penultimate verse.

It's interesting in 2013 to revisit those 2001 feelings, because to a great degree the legacy of our national response to 2001 is ambiguous. Of the songs I associate with that event--allowing that your playlist might well differ--only "The Bravest" by Tom Paxton is reverent. Paxton writes from the view of an office worker rescued from the towers, and praises the firefighters' bravery in the face of such danger. "Now I go to funerals of men I didn't know," he sings, because so many of those who lost their lives on 9/11 were first-responders. Yet we now know that first-responders were not told of the dangers they rushed into, particularly of the imminent collapse of the building. And those who worked at Ground Zero afterwards got debilitating or fatal illnesses they didn't bargain for, either.

"Sugarcoating" by Martin Sexton isn't just about 9/11, but it begins with the attacks. Sexton's targets are the news media; saturation coverage of the events and their aftermath were frequently emotionally manipulative and sometimes irresponsible. I was quickly struck by the fact that my parents, who were rather dramatic people to say the least, reacted to the terrorist attacks with more perspective than many people. My parents hardly ever watched television, though, and that made a lot of difference in their reaction. My wife remembers telling her students to stop watching the coverage.

I had a somewhat related problem in talking about the fall's events, which as you may remember eventually included a series of anthrax attacks, with my classes. Every day would bring more and more rumors, and the rumors dominated class discussion. I read later (I think it was in the journal Religion and Education) about people using the events as a teaching moment, but I was unable to cut through the constantly shifting misinformation to talk about anything significant.

"Talkin' Al Kida Blues" by Dan Bern is a brilliant talking blues song, although it should be listened to with caution; even today Bern's double-portion of edginess can be offensive. The same might be said of Steve Earle's "John Walker's Blues," trying to get in the head of John Walker Lindh, "The American Taliban," who was present when a U.S. soldier was ambushed and killed in Afghanistan. Bern and Earle take on politicians who exploited the public's emotions for political advantage, and who quickly returned to divisive rhetoric. President Bush gave a brilliant and compassionate speech immediately after 9/11 in which he stressed we were not at war with Islam, but his administration's later push for war with Iraq ran roughshod over dissenting views and portrayed opponents as disloyal to the country.

Twelve years after 9/11, then, questions remain about how we live together in a world that contains terrorists and others who mean to do harm:

  1. How do we avoid divisions based on prejudice (political, religious, ethnic, e.g.) and driven by fear?
  2. How do we filter information? How do we deal with a news media that is often sloppy, emotional and uncritical? How do we deal with the array of information on the Internet, with its widely varying degrees of accuracy? 
  3. How do we protect fire fighters, police officers, and military personnel from unnecessary risk?
  4. What security measures allow the right balance of freedom and security? 

1 comment:

  1. 1. How do we avoid divisions based on prejudice (political, religious, ethnic, e.g.) and driven by fear?

    We don't avoid them. History teaches us to confront xenophobia with calm, rational words and behavior. (Frank Herbert told us, "Fear is the mind-killer" :-)
    People act out of fear sometimes. The medium (politics, religion, etc.) is what gives language to those fears. Leaders of the fearful do not last, but can do a lot of harm.

    2. How do we filter information?

    We live in an unprecedented age of information (as far as we know). Intelligent thought seems at a minimum, yet probably about the same as always. The argument for clear, rational thought seems greatest, but those who can, do, and those who can't, mindlessly complain.

    3. How do we protect fire fighters, police officers, and military personnel from unnecessary risk?

    For the first two, such is a domestic issue. For the police, removing as many guns as possible seems best, yet they are not in as much danger from that as the gun owners and the neighbors thereof.
    Protecting our military would take a huge shift in foreign policy.

    4. What security measures allow the right balance of freedom and security?

    Unfortunately, the policies that define such are based largely on the feelings of freedom, the feelings of security, and not on any cogent definitions of either. The term, freedom, in this country is nebulous at best. More often than not, it is a war cry for selfishness and narcissism. Freedom, in its social sense, must be paired with responsibility to have any deliberate and lasting meaning. Otherwise, it is the retort of a child who simply wants and not the understanding of an adult who has learned to behave.


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