Monday, September 11, 2006

Obligatory & Reluctant 9/11 post

I'm not exactly anxious to write about 9/11, but trying to ignore the date doesn't seem right either. Over the last five years the day's mutated into a sort of creepy fundamentalist martyrdom festival and Republican campaign rally. Each year we're asked again to collectively wallow in wounded national pride and endless self-pity and ugly xenophobia. I certainly don't think the day's main event ought be yet another divisive partisan speech by GWB, the guy who took this national tragedy, misused it for his own ends (i.e. Iraq), and then botched the resulting stupid, needless war. If I was mayor of New York, Bush would be politely and quietly disinvited to the day's events. No need to make a scene; it's just better if he's not in town to steal the limelight from the real heroes and victims of that day.

What I remember about five years ago:

September 10th
On this, the vilified day of the "September 10th mindset", Portland's new MAX line to the airport opened to the public. This still strikes me a truly weird historical coincidence. I took a lazy summer's day break from work and rode the train out to the end of the line and back, and thought how much easier air travel was going to be in the future.

September 11th
I didn't really know anything was wrong until part of the way through my commute into downtown Portland from the westside. At the underground Zoo station, a National Guard soldier was standing on the platform, automatic rifle at the ready. At that point it just seemed kind of odd. It didn't seem like something they'd do if there was just a criminal on the loose. So I already knew something unusual was going on.

When I got off the train at Pioneer Courthouse Square, there were a few people standing around looking bewildered, or I seem to remember it that way in hindsight. The newspapers on the stands at that point didn't have anything unusual to say, so I figured I'd find out when I got to the office. A few blocks from the office, a car drove by with the news on, blaring. I couldn't hear what was going on, but the voice sounded agitated, and people usually don't drive around with the news turned up to 11. Something strange was definitely happening. So I walked the rest of the way to the office very quickly. I got to my desk, pulled up CNN, and saw everything. It took a long while to sink in. The unthinkable had happened.

September 12th
Some things can't wait, even when terrorists attack. It was the day after, and I had a birthday present to buy. The salesclerk said she thought it was a life-affirming act, and five years on that's still the best description I can think of. The people in DC who insist 9/11 changed everything are wimps. They wet their pants every time someone in a turban says "boo", and try to pass it off like it's the macho way to be. It's not. You grit your teeth, you pick up the usual quart of milk at the grocery store, you celebrate birthdays, you go on with life even when it seems the world's wheels are flying off, and you don't demand a medal for it. And you mourn the tragedy, for real, without ulterior motives. You don't wring your hands with glee over the partisan advantage you've just gained, and the wars you can start now, and the laws you can ignore. That would be unthinkable for any normal person. Clearly we are not ruled by normal people.

On the train home, several people were openly sobbing. I almost joined in, but saved it for later. Teardrops would've been bad for the giftwrap.

The Sky
I don't remember a lot about the next few days, except that the weather was warm and beautiful and impossible to enjoy. I'll never forget the sky, pure and blue and absolutely empty. Empty, and silent. The jets were gone, the small planes were gone, it seemed even the birds were gone, somehow. On the day they lifted the flight ban, a light propeller plane flew over the house just before dawn, startling me awake. There were still a few hours before the ban expired, but there it was. I've never heard a single thing about that plane, but I know what I heard. Doubtless it's all classified, and I'll never know anything more about it. I wonder what it was like, being in that plane?

That day I stood and watched jets in the sky. Contrails really are remarkable things, and after a few days' absence, nothing could be more beautiful.

Or, my not-very-narrow near-brush with post-9/11 heroism. My company at the time had a small supporting role in getting the New York Stock Exchange back up and running again after the attacks. A couple of people were on call in case there were problems, but I wasn't one of them, and there weren't any problems. Once or twice I imagined being strapped into a C-130, crossing the otherwise empty skies, laptop at the ready, the free world's economy hanging in the balance. That was never a serious possibility, but I still thought about it. And I admit that, on some level, I kind of hoped I'd be needed in some capacity. (Although that would have meant that the software I'd worked on was being problematic at a critical time, and I certainly didn't want that either.) After 3+ years of war in Iraq, I feel like a chump for ever daydreaming like that.

The Afghan War
I was glued to the TV. I was glued to the net. Even now I'd probably do very well in a trivia contest if the category was "recent military hardware". We'd just come off the Kosovo war (remember it?) in 1999, where I'd come to terms with not being a pacifist, so I never had qualms about Afghanistan. I still don't, really, although I think Bush & Co. have botched the postwar period, if you can really call it postwar. Then Iraq happened, and I remembered why I was so skeptical about war in the first place.

Updated 9/11/2011: I changed my mind about Afghanistan a few years ago. It began to seem like a pointless exercise even before Bin Laden was offed. That occasion would have been the ideal time to declare victory and come home. But the powers that be are quite adamant that we have -- at minimum -- three more years of war to look forward to. I can't imagine what's driving that, other than a particularly fatal form of bureaucratic inertia.

My company's HR director(!) forwarded a chain email to the whole company. You've probably seen it, or one like it, one of those things that goes on about how we saved the world from the Nazis and Commies and Redcoats and Grenadians, etc., and we've done so much for everyone, and the entire world hates us for it, wahhh. This was a just couple of days after the attack, and bore no resemblance whatsoever to how the world was reacting.

I was furious. I put together a long email with links to all sorts of news stories, with people all over the world condemning the attacks and expressing support for us, including such seemingly unlikely places as Iran and Cuba. I assembled everything, and replied to all. Soon my inbox was full with private thank-you emails, including one from the CEO himself.

I felt vindicated at the time. But in the end, the laugh was on me. Over the last few years, the self-pity folks have remade the world into the place they always imagined it to be. And what a terrible place it is.

I keep thinking it was the same day, but it may not have been, that a religious group laid siege to my MAX stop heading hope. They all had ashes daubed on their foreheads, and were going around silently handing out leaflets. The leaflets were crudely drawn, with a plane hitting a building, a couple bible verses from one of the Old Testament's endless lamentations over Israel and Judea, plus a bonus exhortation that the end was near and it's time to repent, and God had allowed the evildoers to attack us because of our sinful ways. I kept one for a while, as a souvenir of a deeply strange time. Some months later, I dug it out and looked at it, and immediately ran it through the shredder.

Looking back, the whole episode was creepy as hell. So why is it, again, that these crazies get to own our entire Middle East policy, and nobody else can get a word in edgewise?

Blood Drive
Like many people, I felt a need to do something about 9/11. Remember the huge, almost spontaneous blood drive right after the attacks? It wasn't a logical or a rational response, but it was necessary somehow, even if the Red Cross ended up quietly discarding most of the blood. I hesitated at first; I'd never done it before, because needles scare the hell out of me. Then I decided I needed to do it, precisely because needles scare the hell out of me, and this was no time for giving in to petty squeamishness. So I started looking around town for Red Cross vans and found one after a couple days. The nurse told me they were ok for blood for the time being, or something to that effect, and gave me a sign-up sheet so they could call me if they ever needed me. To this day, I haven't heard a word from them. If they called me today, I really don't know what I'd say.

Day of Prayer
There was a weekday shortly after the attacks, when the nation was encouraged to attend the church of their choice, for special memorial services and so forth. In hindsight it looks like an early example of the creepy Republican melding of war and religion, but we hadn't all cottoned on to them back then. This was in the middle of the day, and the office was encouraged to go. The usual HR rules were bent, as several people (including a few managers) sent out mails saying they were going to such-and-such church and they had room if anyone needed a ride. I thought about it for a few minutes. I am a confirmed nonbeliever, and have been since I was very young, although I was baptized Episcopalian back when I was too small to have a voice in the matter. And it's one of the few churches I still see as Mostly Harmless, so I did briefly consider going, but then I thought, no, as comforting as it might be, I'd still be pretending. I don't believe, and I don't want to believe, and just as it was no time to be afraid of needles, it was no time to be a hypocrite about core beliefs.

Perhaps you've noticed I was trying extraordinarily hard to be all square-jawed and principled and more than a little self-righteous. I'm not bragging, nor am I apologizing, I'm just recording what I remember. And I remember thinking that was what the times called for. At least I didn't rush out and join the Army right after 9/11. I'm not criticizing people who chose to do that, but I know I'd be feeling extremely betrayed by a certain Commander in Chief, if I was in their boots. I'd feel I hadn't joined up to dodge IEDs in Fallujah just to boost Halliburton's bottom line. That would seem very, very wrong to me.

In any case, I mention this particular incident because it was one of the first moments post-9/11 where the "unity" everyone reminisces about had broken down, and I couldn't participate in the big event without being a hypocrite.

Flags Everywhere
I also didn't join the rush to stick flags and patriotic slogans on every available surface. The flags were not an especially vivid memory for me right after the attacks; what I remember are the huge gas-guzzling SUVs with tattered, faded flags in their windows as the tanks rolled into Iraq.

I'd like to give a good, principled reason why I didn't join the flag-n-banner brigade. I'd like to say something about scorning purely symbolic acts when real acton is required, something like that, but it wouldn't be true. The best I've got is that it just didn't seem like an authentic expression of how I felt, but I can't really explain why in any great detail.

Instead, I found a beautiful, atmospheric photo of the WTC and made it my desktop background at the office, so that it was always right there. It stayed there until the Iraq war started.

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