Seven Years On

[Ed. note: As you may have surmised from the title, I actually wrote this entry a year ago, but I chickened out of publishing it at that time. I know my views on this subject are, shall we say, unorthodox, and given how charged the political air was last year because of the upcoming election, I just didn’t want to risk picking a fight. Nor did I want to callously offend or hurt the feelings of anyone whose emotions about the tragedy were still raw. I was thinking in particular of Brian Greenberg, a Loyal Reader I’ve never met in the flesh but who, thanks to the magic of the Intertubes, I’ve come to consider a friend. I know Brian feels the wounds of 9/11 far more keenly than I ever could, because he’s physically close to the place where it happened. He sees the altered New York skyline every day, whereas I have the luxury and comfort of distance.

But even he notes in his thoughts today that the country is finally moving on. And that, as much as anything, is what prompted me to dust off this old ramble and open it up to public view now. Because it no longer feels as inflammatory as it used to. Maybe that’s because we have a new president and a different subject now dominates the public discourse; maybe it’s simply one more year of hindsight. Or perhaps I’m misjudging the situation and I’m about to set off a rhetorical bomb. I hope not…]

I wasn’t planning to write anything about the anniversary of 9/11 because — frankly, and at great risk of sounding like a heartless bastard — it’s not something I think about much anymore. Seriously, I drove past a grassy field filled with American flags this morning on my way to the train station and I actually had a moment where I thought to myself, “now what the hell is that all about?” I had utterly forgotten what today was. I guess that means I’ve moved on, eh?

The truth is, though, I never felt that connected to it to begin with. That’s not to say I felt nothing on that horrible day now seven years gone. I was shocked and horrified and scared, the same as everybody else. I live right below the approach lanes for Salt Lake International Airport — there are usually five planes stacked up in the distance to the south of my house, waiting to come in — and I remember how deeply unsettling the quiet was, how empty the sky was, during those first few days when there was no air travel. But where so many of my fellow Americans seemed to almost immediately transmute whatever they were feeling into belligerence — an unquenchable anger and the need to hit someone back hard — I felt only sorrow. For the dead, for our lost landmarks, and for the changes I knew would be coming. I’ve spent the last seven years feeling like a stranger in my own country, like something was wrong with me, because I just didn’t seem to be experiencing the same emotions, or at least the same intensity of emotions, as everybody around me.

Before I go any farther, let me state for the record that I mean no disrespect to anyone or their feelings or their losses. I don’t mean to diminish what anyone else felt or continues to feel as a result of 9/11. And I sure as hell don’t want to offend anyone. I’m just talking about my feelings, with the full knowledge that I am in an apparent minority on these matters.

Now here’s where I piss off a whole bunch of my readers anyway, by admitting that I am deeply uncomfortable with the way our country handles this anniversary.

I think that seven years ago we all collectively went, to borrow one of my mother’s more colorful expressions, out of our rabbit-assed minds. We Americans had been so complacent, wrapped in our plush little cocoons of materialism and entertainment media, that we never imagined that something like that could happen to us. We weren’t arrogant so much as oblivious. Sure, terrorism had afflicted just about every other nation on the planet, but not us. Because we’re so far away from all that nonsense, and because we’re so exceptional, you see. Except we’re not, obviously. It was only a matter of time before we, too, joined the club of the terrorized. No, scratch that, because we already had joined the club, well before 2001. We just hadn’t been thinking of those earlier hits in those terms because they weren’t that spectacular. The worst terrorist act on American soil prior to 9/11 — the Oklahoma City bombing — was perpetrated by one of our own, and it and the earlier al Qaeda stuff — the first attack on the World Trade Center, or the bombing of the USS Cole — was easily dismissed by most people as isolated acts by the occasional looney-toon. And then came the attack on the Twin Towers, so damn big and scary that we had no choice to pay attention.

And we reacted in typical 21st Century American fashion, by completely overreacting, in about a million different ways big and small. (I won’t go into all of our nation’s post-9/11 actions that I think were completely wrong; what’s done is done, and anyway if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you ought to have a pretty good idea of my politics.) In my opinion, we’re still overreacting, every time the calendar page turns again to September. All those flags in the field this morning didn’t fill me with pride or remind me of the innocent dead. Instead, they struck me as uncomfortably distasteful and even a bit embarrassing, like that one great-aunt who breaks down in loud, theatrical sobbing at the funeral of someone she hasn’t seen in years. It’s all too much, you see, these over-the-top displays of patriotism and mourning, just another example of our society’s urge to do everything to excess, like the ridiculously overblown size of our McMansions and our Hummers and our waistlines. Like the way we all want to go on Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil and publicly confess our sins in the most histrionic way possible.

You know, thinking about all this reminds me of a story. It also involves New York City, curiously enough… I visited my friend Robert there back in ’96, when he was a student at NYU. I spent a week or 10 days there, and for the first few days, I had a wonderful time. I never once worried or felt like a tiny little country mouse in the big city. Then one night, Robert and I were walking along, lost in conversation the same as always, when he suddenly grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me across the street — in the middle of the block, mind you, and in front of traffic, too; I had my first Ratso Rizzo “I’m walkin’ heah!” moment just then — while loudly proclaiming, “we forgot that one thing, we’d better go back and get it.” Upon reaching the other side of the street, we started walking back the other direction.

After a block or two, I finally got him to tell me what the hell was going on: he said he’d noticed some dude had been following us for a long while, walking just abaft our peripheral vision, and he — Robert — had decided it might be a good idea to evade the guy, because you never could tell.

Well, that was pretty much the end of my good time in New York. I was utterly and completely paranoid from that point forward, and, me being me, I managed to turn that fear into a healthy dose of self-loathing.

A couple days later, we were on the subway and Robert made a crack about “pussy tourists.” I’m told I’ve got a very expressive face and I must’ve looked hurt or something, because he immediately asked what was wrong. I told him I didn’t appreciate the remark because I was a pussy tourist. He was shocked and asked me why I felt that way, because he certainly didn’t think of me that way. So I told him how scared I’d been feeling since the near-mugging. I admitted I felt like a damn fool for not detecting any hint of trouble and that if the guy had jumped us, I was certain I’d’ve simply wet myself. I’d been dwelling on what I would’ve done, could’ve done, should’ve done differently. As we talked, I gradually realized that what had been really bothering me about the whole incident wasn’t the possibility that we’d been in real danger, but the way I’d reacted to that possibility. I was hating myself for being so damn scared. As Robert memorably put it, I wished I’d “been a little more cool about it.”

Well, I guess that’s how I feel about 9/11. I wish my country had been more cool about what happened, and not given into fear and hysterics. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have fought back, or that we shouldn’t acknowledge the anniversary of the attacks. But I wish we’d been then — and could be now — a little more rational, and a little more tastefully subtle, in how we choose to acknowledge it.


3 comments on “Seven Years On

  1. Amber

    Amen, and thank you.

  2. jason

    Thank you, Amber. It’s good to have some support for what feels like a heretical attitude.

  3. Brian Greenberg

    Jason – first, I’m glad you posted it. If 9/11 has taught me anything, it’s that we’re all entitled to our feelings about it, and we shoudln’t feel the need to comply or compete with anyone else’s feelings. Your feelings are your own and neither I, nor anyone else, has the right to tell you they are inappropriate or insensitive.
    To that end, I’m glad it doesn’t bother you each year. While it is likely something that will be with me for the rest of my life (albeit in a constantly shrinking capacity, God willing…), I’d be a horrible person if I wished that all 300 million of us would suffer each year just because misery loves company. Good on ya’ for being able to ignore it. That’s not the same as disrespecting those who died…
    Now, as for the concept of overreacting. Here’s the best analogy I can offer you: you know how it bothers you every time a Salt Lake City landmark is torn down to build a new shopping mall or whatever? Imagine, if you can, someone tearing down a significant part of the city (I have no context to provide the appropriate landmark – the Olympic Stadium perhaps? A large LDS temple?) for no reason whatsoever. Not to put up a new building or advance some other “progress” – but just to create a big hole in the ground. Now, on top of that, imagine they tore it down while thousands of people were still inside it. A few of your friends or colleagues were killed, and almost everyone you know knows at least one person who was killed as well.
    I don’t want to speak for anyone but myself (see above), but I’d venture to say that here in New York, it’s not so much about terrorism or politics or revenge. It’s about loss. The World Trade Center was an icon on the skyline, to be sure, but it was also a daily part of my life. It was my train station, my shopping mall, my summer concert venue, my after-work drinks place, my office and the office of many of my friends and colleagues. They tore it down with a bunch of people I knew inside of it, and for no good reason whatsoever. It would bother me just as much if it was Timothy McVeigh who did it, rather than Al Qaeda. The response and all of the associated political discussion is a reality, of course, but that’s not the source of the pain. It’s the missing people and the missing place.
    I hope that makes sense. I’m not trying to convince you of anything, per se, only to point out that sometimes, the woman sobbing at the funeral was actually closer to the deceased than anyone knew.
    One last thing: don’t feel bad about a potential mugging catching you off guard. I’ve lived in and around New York for most of my life, and it would catch me off guard as well. The only difference between your reaction and Robert’s is familiarity with his surroundings. Believe me – if I ever came face to face with a sick horse, or a barnyard cat, or any of a few stories you’ve told over the years, I’d probably wet my pants as well.
    I hope you one day decide to venture back out East. I’d be happy to act as tour guide, and I’m guessing you’ll feel much more comfortable in the city now than you did then…