Sunday, September 11, 2005

Past Tense, But Present Tenser

[[A N N I V E R S A R Y]] * Much is being published today in remembrance of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and I cannot hope to compete with the lyrical wordsmiths whose talents will undoubtedly be brought to this task. Instead, and in the storytelling spirit I believe this occasion merits, let me just recount some of own my memories from that day of tragedy, confusion, and heartache.

It was a Tuesday. When the first hijacked jet, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, Massachusetts, slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), I was asleep. After all, it was only 5:45 a.m. in Seattle, Washington, where I snoozed peacefully under the sheets, oblivious to the disaster unfolding on the opposite coast of the United States. I was still asleep 18 minutes later, when a second jetliner barreled into the Trade Center’s south tower and exploded, setting both buildings to burning. Another hour would pass before I finally rose, padded into my upstairs sitting room, and flipped on the television--just in time to see the south tower collapse like a pillar of sand, leaving behind a malefic cloud of dust. I remember being suddenly awake then, transfixed by the images on the screen. Was this actually happening? Were the two tallest structures in America really under attack, as the newscaster said, and had one of them actually fallen into the city streets below? A lifetime of TV watching had hardly prepared me to be a witness to such horror. My closest comparable experience had come 38 years before, when I was 6 years old and sitting in front of my family’s black-and-white set on the morning of November 24, 1963--just in time to see presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald shot in front of live TV cameras by a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby. I’d really been too young then to comprehend the enormity of what I was watching; I was no longer so young in 2001.

I dashed off to wake my wife, to tell her briefly what was going on, to recruit a companion in amazement. I remember switching back and forth between stations, frantically trying to grasp the extent of what was occurring. Did somebody just say that another jet had hit the Pentagon? Were more planes destined to be turned into killer missiles? In my surfing, I almost missed seeing the collapse of the second Trade Center tower at 10:28 a.m. EDT. That was soon followed by rumors of a third jet that had gone down somewhere in Pennsylvania. Was its fate related to the others?

The same scenes kept playing over and over on the television--the Twin Towers crumbling; people running through the streets of New York, fleeing the falling debris and Brobdingnagian billows of dust and flying paper that rushed out from the attack site; fires at the Pentagon. I recall checking off, in my mind, how many people I knew in Manhattan. Not many anymore, I realized with relief, and I didn’t think that any of them worked at the World Trade Center, though I knew that one of them had been a frequent visitor to those towers. Had he been there that morning?

It wasn’t long after 8 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (PDT), that Mayor Rudy Giuliani started appearing on the screen, telling his fellow New Yorkers to remain at home and letting the rest of the world know what was going on in America’s greatest city. I had not paid much attention to Giuliani prior to that moment, but his calm presence that day seemed reassuring in many ways. However, it also made me wonder: Where are the nation’s elected leaders, the folks who should be giving such briefings, letting us know whether or not the whole country was under assault, whether suicide planes were winging toward every major U.S. city? Where was George W. Bush? Where was Dick Cheney? Why was a mayor addressing the nation as if he were commander in chief? Was anybody still in charge in Washington, D.C., or had the capital been abandoned?

Confirmation filtered in about a United Airlines flight, en route from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, that had gone down in Pennsylvania. Had there been a mistake, had that plane been pointed at a more prominent objective? Nobody seemed to know. But there was plenty of speculation about other possible targets--San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Chicago’s Sears Tower, even Seattle’s Jetsons-ish Space Needle. How might my adopted city cope with the loss of its most recognizable landmark?

I gave thought to staying home, remaining glued to the TV screen. I was employed back then on a history database project, with offices not far from the Space Needle. Should I risk going to work that day? Would anybody else be there if I did go in? Following a quick call to my boss, I hopped in the car and drove downtown. The first person I encountered in my building’s elevator volunteered that she’d talked with a friend of hers who worked in the World Trade Center--but who had stayed home sick that morning. “A miracle,” she declared with a sigh. As I entered my office, I found knots of my colleagues, swapping the barest bits of news, calling acquaintances and family in New York, and checking in with relatives who lived nowhere near Manhattan or D.C., simply because they needed the reassurance of a familiar voice. There was a TV set going in my boss’ office, with its volume turned up so that half the floor could hear. While everybody acted busy and involved with their regular duties, they kept one ear cocked to the blare of that set, as their fingers checked online news sources obsessively. Before long, any pretense of a regular business day was forsaken. Abandoning keyboards and resource books, we huddled in a conference room to discuss what was going on. There must have been similar gatherings all over the country, people sharing their questions and concerns, supporting each other as much as they could, trying to mine understanding from the unreasonableness of everything before our eyes.

Thus communally girded, we drifted off homeward. I found my wife sitting where I’d left her, in front of the television. She filled me in on what I might have missed--the evacuations of airports in Los Angeles and San Francisco (the destinations of those hijacked jets); the cessation of all commercial air flights over the nation; Bush’s belated appearance and declaration that “the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts”; suspicions that Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi militant, was instrumental in the attacks. There was so much to comprehend, such numerous spectacles of pain and death, such an abundance of confusion. I found I couldn’t look away. Home again, in the bosom of my own proscribed normality, I settled down to watch. And watch. And watch. I finally turned off the television at around 2 a.m. PDT the next morning, having seen the deadly jets and the tumbling towers, and hearing reports of heroism in New York and Pennsylvania recounted so many times, they couldn’t shock me any longer.

Americans often say now that “everything changed” on September 11, 2001, but that’s as much a conceit of limited perspective as it is a historical truth. Most things weren’t altered one iota--we still go to school or go to work, we still pay our taxes, we continue to endure the most insulting sitcoms and reality-TV series imaginable. Yet, certainly, the nation’s recognition of its vulnerability was transformed by those events of four years ago, leading to heightened airport and building security, as well as a willingness to fight wars abroad on the dubious presumption that it will stop violence from reaching our own shores. Ever since 9/11, whenever a plane crashes under mysterious circumstances, or explosions rock a city, or questionable powders are found on letters addressed to lawmakers, fears of terrorism are reignited. What America came away with from the 9/11 tragedies was a sense of fear it didn’t previously possess, a recognition of how easily violence could invade our giant, militarily protected haven of shopping malls and cineplexes and ubiquitous coffee shops. The United States, for all of its strengths, has become a much more suspicious country than it was before--wary of strangers, apprehensive around packages left behind on subways, less resistant to calls for criminal profiling. We, as Americans, have lost the innocence of perceived safety.

The trouble is, that combination of vanished innocence and acquired fear served as the key to a doorway through which opportunistic politicians and other ideologues were later to walk, carrying their agendas. The consequence has been controversial legislation such as the USA PATRIOT Act, which, while it may have some benefits in terms of investigating and pre-empting terrorist acts, also endangers the American rights to privacy and free speech. In the aftermath of 9/11, we’ve watched George W. Bush squander bipartisan good will and use fear in order to win re-election; we’ve watched the 9/11 attacks be used as an excuse for everything from launching a lies-based war on Iraq to enriching the wealthiest Americans with repeated tax cuts; we’ve seen real heroes, like John Kerry and former Georgia Senator Max Clelland, brought down by opponents who substitute in-your-face, flag-waving patriotism for honest sacrifice to their country; we’ve seen the rise of a new McCarthyism, employed by folks such as Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity to denigrate those who have the courage to speak out against leaders they find ignorant or abhorrent; and we’ve watched as the United States--guilty of torture, of deliberate deception, of a Napoleonic arrogance--went from being a respected member of the community of nations to being reviled, a superpower intent on having its way no matter what.

Democrats and other progressives have been complicit in allowing these things to happen. They’ve cravenly hesitated to meet debate with debate, force with force, letting their loudest and most short-sighted opponents win the day. They have failed to point out the damage being done to America’s economy and standing by people who would manipulate memories of 9/11 to their own shallow advantage. But those are failures of courage; the people who delivered into our lives the PATRIOT Act and the increasingly bloody war in Iraq, and who attack their political opponents as “traitors,” are guilty of far worse abuses, putting forth agendas that deliberately undermine American values.

Only four years after those jets careened into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon does it seem Americans are finally realizing what has gone wrong ever since, the unbelievable costs they have paid for allowing their futures to be shaped by the Bush White House and others who wield corrupted forms of religion and patriotism as their cudgels. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we’ve seen George W. Bush--who based his entire “war presidency” on the promise that he could protect them from unimaginable dangers better than “the other guys”--fail utterly, in every respect, to protect the inhabitants of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama from a disaster that had long been predicted, but was essentially ignored by the prez. In light of those facts, should pollsters really be surprised to hear from Americans that they don’t trust Bush anymore to make correct decisions during domestic or international crises? Although we’ve come to expect a certain degree of ignorance and blame-ducking from this White House, the magnitude of Bush administration cock-ups ever since the Gulf Coast storm struck on August 29 has shocked even a public that thought itself inured to such things.

Yes, much has changed in the United States since 9/11--not all of it for the better. And I, for one, am looking forward to it changing again. Very soon.

READ MORE:The Bitter Lessons of Four Years,” by Joe Conason (Salon); “9/11 and Manipulation of the USA,” by Norman Solomon (TruthOut); “Beleaguered Bush Tries to Evoke Spirit of 9/11,” by Richard Luscombe and Jamie Doward (London Observer); “Revising 9/11” (The New York Times); “9/11 and 8/29” (The Los Angeles Times); “9/11--and Counting: Four Years In, No Clear Plan,” by Michael Hirsh (The Washington Post); “More Gaps Than Gains” (The Philadelphia Inquirer); “September 11 Revisited,” by William Rivers Pitt (TruthOut); “Taking Stock of the Forever War,” by Mark Danner (The New York Times Magazine); “Where Is Osama bin Laden? Day 1,461 and Counting,” by Michael Tomasky (The American Prospect); “American Idle,” by Lawrence F. Kaplan (The New Republic); “The War on Terror: Mission Ambiguous,” by Olivier Roy (Los Angeles Times); “After 4 Years, New 9/11 Revelations,” by Jim Dwyer and Michelle O’Donnell (International Herald Tribune); “Katrina bin Forgotten” (BAGnewsNotes); “Katrina Exodus Could Change Political Mix,” by Nancy Benac (AP); “Arrested Development” (Bull Moose).

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