Ace is so right, about the unity we Americans felt during that time being a fleeting thing, soon sundered by political animosity. A lot of Americans were like me, formerly-liberal in worldview, shocked into a new reality. Some famous names off the top of my head: Dennis Miller, James Lileks, Bill Whittle(not really famous, but should be), James Woods, Larry Miller and the host of Little Green Footballs, Charles Johnson.
I don't mind there being a party and constituency in America that abhors war, and seeks to end or prevent wars from being fought. I think that's a healthy thing, in the final analysis. I do think that most of the pacifists in America today are living in a fantasy world, but I don't want to see another 9-11 kind of attack on our soil, to convert more of them to Harsh Reality. I still think that it's inevitable, that this war against global Islamofascism will continue to be fought for a long, long time.
Reposted. Written last 9/11/2007. I pushed this ahead until around noon, so fresh posts are below.
NOTE: This is a politicized remembrance of 9/11, so you may wish to skip it. I didn't set out to write it this way, but this is how it turned out; I couldn't just mouth the cliches about us all being united on 9/11 without noting how illusory and false that feeling turned out to be, like a love gone bad.
I apologize for that direction, but I can't see how to avoid the obvious. We've been mythologizing 9/11 bringing us closer than ever before; maybe we can interrupt this myth-making from time to time to note it actually divided us more than ever in our history. It was actually my intent to write the same old cute story of that feeling of being united; when I got there, however, it was a bitter cliche and a lie I choked on.
I woke up on 9/11, late as usual. I was between jobs.
My alarm had been set accidentally to the radio wake-up. I had probably been listening to Rush last time I listened, because it was on WABC in NY (talk radio).
"We are under attack," Cutis Sliwa said. "We are at war. The Twin Towers and the Pentagon have been destroyed."
Far-left co-host Ron Kuby didn't disagree. "America is under attack," he said.
These were the first words I heard upon waking. Or was I awake? I wasn't sure at first; perhaps I was dreaming. I listened some more, but they were throwing out incoherent (to me) reports about various happenings I knew nothing of.
I put on the TV and saw the Twin Towers burning.
It's a cliched thing to say but it's exactly what I thought. "This isn't real." I thought it was a movie. I thought it was some kind of War of the Worlds stunt, some documentary-style fiction. Why it was running in the morning, and why Curtis Sliwa would also be taking part in it, I didn't know.
I changed channels. They were showing the same movie. On every channel.
I sat down mouth drooped low and stupid. This couldn't be real.
The footage began rolling in. Planes smashing into the Towers. Little gray blurs of human stick-figures falling from high gray windows through thick gray smoke.
There have only been two moments in my life where I literally doubted my senses and thought I might be hallucinating and maybe insane. The first was a much cuter story. I had been home from college. Up late, as usual. Haunting the kitchen like a ghost with a burning drive for vengeance against sandwich meats.
I heard voices. Small voices, coming from a cupboard.
I froze, listened. Was I imagining them? No, they seemed real. There was one voice-- I couldn't make out the words, but it was definitely a human voice in the cadence of speech, and there was also another voice responding to it. It had struck, I thought: I was schizophrenic, had gotten it at about the right age for it. Either that or there were in fact small tiny people whispering conspiracies in my cupboards.
I slowly, anxiously opened the cupboard. No pygmy conspirators ran for cover. I looked past the bag of Domino sugar and the battery-powered storm radio for the creatures, but the cupboard seemed still.
And there it was, though it took me a longer time than one would think necessary to grasp it: the stupid radio. Someone had accidentally turned it on, and there were now voices chattering in the cupboard about school closings or inflation or local politics or whatever they were talking about.
I was relieved. I was not insane, and more reassuringly, the world was not unlike what I thought it was.
I had the same thought of that as I watched the pictures from NY and the reports from DC. I do not think I am making this up; I think this is a legitimate memory, though memories lie to. But I remember thinking about that cupboard, thinking about hearing what I knew to be impossible and yet seemed real, and reassured myself that this, too, would all go away, as easily as opening the cupboard door. Something would happen, I would wake up, or a crawl across the bottom the television would finally say This is a staged disaster to test American first-responders, and everything would be as it should be: the Towers would stop burning, America would not be under attack by an unknown foreign power, and those little gray blobs tumbling long gray walls would be revealed for the special effects they were.
Long minutes passed and still this was all real. Still I could not really grasp it. This was the absurd plot of a James Bond movie. There were no Evil Masterminds just sitting around plotting to destroy the Twin Towers for only reasons of raw carnage and spectacular visuals. There could be no good outcome for those who did this: This was evil for evil's sake alone, and the evil would be revisited upon them. What could they possibly hope to achieve from this? What military or political value was there in any of those little gray people tumbling from the buildings?
I tried to call my girlfriend. The phone made crazy spiraling noises, non-functional. She was in midtown, so she was safe; at this point I knew the extent of the attacks so far and new the damage was limited to the Pentagon and the Towers, though one plane was still missing and could possibly be part of a final attack. There was confusion, if I remember right (which I might not), about whether the last jet was actually missing at all or simply lost in all the chaos, a blip that safely landed and was no longer in the skies.
Only later would we hear of the plane being downed in a field in Pennsylvania. Only later would the Towers, incredibly, disintegrate before our eyes, one after the other, as if a sequel to Independence Day. And then further buildings would fall, undermined and weakened by the seismic events of that long horrible afternoon.
I went outside. I had seen enough. I knew what was going on, basically. There was nothing more to know. I needed something else now. I needed to a connection with another human being. I just needed to say trite things like "This is unbelievable" and "This is so horrible." And I needed to hear such obvious sentiments in return.
Outside my building, two doors down, a guy on the first floor had set his big speakers in the window and had turned them up loud. A group of about thirty people from the neighborhood -- people I had vaguely seen but rarely before acknowledged -- were standing in a half circle, some with hands over their mouths, listening. Listening to the same things they'd already heard thirty times at least, but still needing to hear again. And hear in the company of other Americans.
I shook my head in disbelief at a guy. "This is crazy," my face said. He just nodded angrily. He was further along in the process than I was, probably having watched and listened since the first strike on the Towers. He was beyond "This is crazy." He was where I would only be later that evening: "This is goddamn war, solemn as death."
As cliched as it was, there were no conservatives or liberals in that half circle, no Democrats or Republicans. No one was jockeying for political advantage; no one was particularly worried that destroying a vicious enemy might somehow benefit a Republican President politically. We only cared about how many had been killed, and how many had escaped, and how many could still be rescued from the burning buildings -- I fantasized about daring helicopter rescues, not realizing the heat on the upper floors of the Towers would be at least a thousand degrees -- and also: Who had done this, and what must be done to them. Even if it had no military value. There were little gray people falling from the skies like rain, and those people had to be avenged. They had done nothing wrong. They had simply gotten up to go to work. They had been in the middle of paperwork and checking the sports scores on the their computers when they were struck down by the cultists of a Murder God.
For a time, for a week after, we were all united. There is no tragedy that does work some small amount of good by bringing people together, if only for a time, if only because the pain of enduring is too much for any one to bear alone. It was a false unity, of course. We would later learn that we had not come together closer -- at least, not more than superficially, and not more than temporarily -- and had in fact moved further apart than ever before. The problem was, of course, that 9/11 had profound implications for Americans' divergent worldviews. For conservatives like us, it confirmed -- like nothing, nothing had done before, at least not since World War II -- that there were monstrous evils in the world for whom the only acceptable solution was purposeful and relentless violence.
For another group, the liberals, 9/11 was a blip, a short-term disruption of their worldview. For a while we believed we were united, but we were not. Liberals held that greater than any enemy was warfare itself. The necessary implications of this were that all possible courses of action were preferable to the United States engaging in acts of warfare, and further, that it must be true that the United States had within it the power to avoid all war simply by modifying its own behavior. One must believe that if one is truly pacifist: If one believes war can and must be avoided at all costs, one must by implication believe one can and must avoid war at all costs by changing the behavior of one's own country, for changing the behavior of other countries can only be accomplished via war and lesser, but still warlike, means.
For a time liberals seemed genuinely confused. Four large commercial jets had been crashed through their core psychological identity, the very heart of their self-definitions. They groped for new modifications to this self-definition, sometimes speaking like conservatives spoke, if only because it was a handy form of communication they'd heard before and were relatively familiar with. But mostly, deep down, they sought ways to heal back their old worldview, that the only reason the US gets into wars is because of dreadful US behavior, and if the US would simply change to be better world citizen, all war would blissfully vanish from the earth.
It took them a long time to recover their bearings, but ultimately they did. At first they lacked the confidence to reassert their demolished platitudes again. Later they lacked the political courage to state them as firefighters dug through twisted smoking metal in hopes of finding survivors... or body parts that could be buried. Later they lacked some sort of semi-coherent, or at least superficially so, philosophical framework by which they could reassert their old belief systems, except, to the extent absolutely necessary, to put up an asterisk as involved Afghanistan. The asterisk read: * All wars can be avoided and if they are not avoided it is due to the arrogance and belligerency of the US. However, Afghanistan is a sticky wicket politically, and if necessary, you may in good conscience claim to support this war as the exception that conclusively proves the iron-clad rule that All Wars Are Bad Wars and All Wars Are The Fault of America.
It's not that they set out from the first principle that America is detestable and to be maligned. Rather, they begin from the idea that war is the ultimate enemy -- war itself, and not, say, Al Qaeda or Iran -- and therefore any war the US joins makes America detestable and malignant. This is not an accidental or avoidable part of their belief system; it is a necessary and iron-clad corollary. As they say, when all you have is a hammer, every problem in the world looks like a nail. For the left, it simply must be the case that each and every war can and should be avoided. Ergo, their hammers cannot be used to drive nails into Al Qaeda, or Saddam, or the apocalyptic cult of Iran's Mullahs. To savage an external enemy even by rhetoric lends, necessarily, support to the idea that something should be done to stop, check, or decimate that external enemy, and therefore that is a line which cannot, must not be crossed.
They have a hammer. But their nails can only be driven deep into American wood, staking through American flaws and American blunders and American arrogances, and cannot be driven into any other external enemy. To even acknowledge an "enemy" is to acknowledge that sometimes war is quite justifiable -- even necessary, both practically and morally -- and that they cannot permit themselves to do.
As they say, the Constitution is not a suicide pact. And for the left, 9/11 is not a suicide pact. They will not allow it to destroy that which defines their essential selves.
Trutherism is only this syndrome taken to its ultimate and logical end: America itself literally destroyed the Towers, destroyed a ring of the Pentagon, downed a plane in Shanksville. But even those on the left who do not carry Trutherism to its logical conclusion are still bewitched by the enchantments of this magical thinking: We provoked them. We manipulated them. We caused this to happen, with our globalization, with our hubristic hegemony, with our environmentally callous greed for material things and oil that makes those things and brings them to our doors, with our invasion of the pure, ecologically-sensitive cultures of the Untainted Third World, tearing apart the fabric of their societies with our McDonalds and our pop music filled with Satanic Verses.
The only departure between Truthers and the left generally is on the proximate agency for 9/11. Both agree that, whether Bush or bin Laden gave the order to bring the Towers down (or both turned their keys simultaneously, like a nuclear launch), we were ultimately the ones behind it all, either knowingly and maliciously, or stupidly and arrogantly and negligently and with such ill-regard and lack of care to be equal to actual malicious intent.
This is the problem we face, and, unfortunately, will always face. One of Bush's miscalculations, and mine as well, was that the unity of the country could survive very long once the immediate psyche-shattering crisis of 9/11 had faded from our memories. We are not united and never will be.
I miss that feeling I had with my neighbors, people I'd barely said hello to after three years of living among them. It was such a good feeling to feel truly connected to one's fellow Americans, to feel as if we really were in this together, that we were a team, united and mighty.
But it was of course an illusion. As someone wrote the other day, one cannot expect one third of the country to commit psychological suicide, to kill the very core of their politico-religio-psychological identity. Their identity did not die; it simply went away for a little while to recover, to heal up in the woods.
A short while later were were more divided than ever. Not united but alone. What had been a relatively low-impact difference between us was now more central than ever, as half of us thought our worldviews were quite well corroborated by the demolition of the Towers, and a third of us, after a time of reflection, reasserted their own core belief -- There is no war but that the US provokes or permits to happen through negligence or malice -- as full-throatedly as ever. Though, for political purposes, always with the asterisk.
And so it is six years on. It's not that the "lessons of 9/11" have been forgotten by some; it's that they never truly believed them to be lessons, or at least did not see the same lessons most of us did. What 9/11 taught most of us was that our respective political philosophies were not simply correct but more demonstrably correct than ever; what may have been incongruous or discomforting to liberals about 9/11 has since been recontextualized, retrofitted, and retconned so that for liberals too 9/11 proves they were right all along.
We both point at hole in New York City where people used to work and sit in a rather barren and windswept plaza and eat lunch. We say, "Never again." They too say, "Never again." We have the same evidence, the same slogan, but wildly different interpretations of both. For us, Al Qaeda is the ultimate enemy; for them, war itself remains the ultimate enemy, Al Qaeda merely the symptom of a greater disease, and that disease is the arrogance and hegemony and belligerency of an America that blunders and bullies around the world like a drunken soccer rowdy with a can of petrol and an appetite for destruction. And that will never change.
Until the next time.
For about a month.