Sunday, September 11, 2011

An Elegy

Ten years ago today I was stepping out of the shower to find my husband, looking grim, handing me the phone. It was the producer from NPR I'd been working with the past week on a piece on living in Wyoming that was supposed to air this morning, a piece that had already caused numerous headaches for me to finish writing. I'd been dreading this day's work nearly all week and now the producer was calling to tell me it was cancelled. I began to make silent, celebratory gestures at my husband, but he cut me short. "No," he hissed. "No, it's not good."

The producer told me something was happening in New York. Something or someone had hit the Twin Towers, and now something had just hit the Pentagon as well. It wasn't clear if they were related or not.

"The Pentagon?" I asked.

"Yes," the producer said, her voice fraying a little.

"My cousin works at the Pentagon. He's in the Navy wing."

The producer paused. "My cousin works at the towers," she finally said.

"Have you talked to him?"

"No," she said. "Do you need to call someone?"

"I think so. Do you?"

We sat silent on the phone for awhile, as my husband rushed to the next room to turn on the radio, our only source of communication. The producer turned to speak to someone just behind her, and then came back on the phone.

"Oh my God," she said, but didn't clarify what this referred to. Then she added, "Good luck."

I wished her good luck as well and went to find my husband in the living room. He was standing by the old stereo he'd bought in grad school, black, the one with one of its speakers still blown out from a Halloween party. He was standing with his forehead furrowed so tightly I could see one of the veins in his temple throb. He turned to me. He said, "We need to get a television."

The rest of the day was spent in an odd fog, as my husband and I tried to go about our day in Laramie, Wyoming, while all around us televisions and radios were turned on full volume, people gathered in small groups in front of the screens and speakers, listening, talking, crying as they called friends. Each time I entered a room with a television in it, the towers had just finished falling or the video in which people were running away from the twin towers had just started up again. People in the rooms who'd seen the video footage were crying or shouting at the screen. But I never saw the towers fall.

My cousin Jon worked at the Navy wing in the Pentagon. AA flight 77 hit the Pentagon at the ground level in the Navy wing at 9:37 a.m. Jon, like many men in my family, was a military man: he'd gone to the Naval Academy in Annapolis and graduated in the top 10 of his class: a distinction all the more impressive to us as he was also one of the few Asian Americans in the academy itself. He went on to command a nuclear submarine; he was, in fact, the person in charge of deploying some of the first missile strikes against Iraq in the first Iraq War. At home, my parents and I liked to joke that he was the "awe" in the "shock and awe" campaign. Jon was my favorite, most revered cousin--revered not just by me, but by my entire family, as his good looks and quiet, intense intelligence regularly left us speechless with pride and a little intimidated. Not only was he the most ambitious member of our family, he was the most focused, the most driven. He was always a little out of our league, we thought, which may be why we took to calling him "Jon-Jon," as if he were one of the Kennedys. When flight 77 struck the Pentagon, shearing into the very section of the building where Jon worked after he had retired from active duty, it killed over 40 people that Jon worked with and had been close to for years. The only reason Jon himself was unharmed--the only reason he is alive today--is that he was stuck in traffic that morning on his way to Langley, where he was supposed to get promoted.

But we didn't know that for many, many hours.

Two months after that morning, I was at a conference in Oxford, England, at something called The British American Project, which gathered together what the conference called the "best young minds" of Britain and America, to talk shop, schmooze, sit in little conference rooms in small groups to discuss the topic listed on the dry erase board for us. I never really understood the point of the conference, but the people were all smart and interesting, and there was a lot of booze. And then, one afternoon, my group was asked to talk about September 11. We were each supposed to go around the room and say, one by one, what that day meant to us.

Most of the people in the room were British or from Northern Ireland, so they kept their memories short. There were only four Americans in the room that day, including me, and two were from New York City. When it came to our turn, the New Yorkers--unsurprisingly--started to cry. While I understood and generally sympathized with their emotion, this also made me a little angry. The whole situation was designed to make us teary and upset: I didn't want us to play into that conference's expectation of us. I certainly didn't want to cry; I had no plans to turn myself into a side-show of pain for strangers, and I didn't want to see other people have to do that either. After all, we were in a room filled with people who were NOT Americans, and many of them had already experienced, from their time living in London or Belfast, the real costs of long-term terrorism on their own soil.

But when it came to me, and the moderator asked what my experience had been on September 11, I opened my mouth to say "My cousin Jon worked at the Pentagon--" and then, horrifyingly, I started to cry.

An argument immediately erupted. "I get that this is horrible for you all," a young man from Belfast said. "But in time it will get better."

"What are you TALKING ABOUT?" snapped a woman from L.A. "You have no idea what this is like for us. What do you mean IT WILL GET BETTER?"

"I mean that the pain will fade," he returned angrily. "And in its place will be an understanding for why this happened, what America's place in all this has been."

"I'm sorry," said one of the New Yorkers, a film director who had recently put out a film on drag queens in Paris. "You come to my place in Brooklyn, you stand with the windows open and smell the smell of burned flesh and scorched metal and god knows what else, and you tell me this will fade."

"He doesn't mean your emotions aren't raw," an academic from Cambridge broke in, "but this will be a reminder that the event--tragic and horrible as it is--isn't historically unusual. It was extreme in its creativity and effects, but it isn't unusual. America is like the rest of the world now."

"How can you say that?" the woman from L.A., a producer or agent or lawyer (I never figured out what she did), cried. "Name one other country that this has happened to!"

"Pakistan, Israel, Northern Ireland, England, France, Spain, India, Indonesia," the Cambridge academic began.

"But nothing like this! Nothing like this!"

I sat silently, drying my eyes. I agreed with the woman from Cambridge and the man from Belfast, but my tears--uncontrolled, unbidden--had put me on the side with the other outraged Americans. In truth, I was probably in the middle of the two groups--outraged, terrified, but also aware America had now simply joined a long list of other nations of the world living with terrorism. The attacks made victims of certain Americans, but it did not make America innocent. We were ridiculous to think we could continue to do--politically--what we'd done for generations without some nightmarish cost to pay.

But there I was: a lumpen, sodden mess, snivelling and--when it was really important to explain myself, to say that it was all fine, my cousin Jon was not killed, I was not myself wounded or injured, I was not one of those hawkish war-mongers seething in our congress--silent. And that, for me, has been what's been like, living in America the past ten years. All of us caught between two impulses in conflict--the emotional and the rational impulses behind patriotism--that have progressively destroyed our nation. Around the time of September 11, I read a New Yorker article about Al-Qaeda that had a line in it that's stuck with me. Paraphrased, it's this: "What the leaders of this movement are most afraid of is modernity, its challenges, and its sense of competition." That has haunted me to this day. Because that day, crying in front of a bunch of other strangers about something I didn't even cry about when it happened, I, too, was afraid of modernity. If this was what the modern world was--a place of sudden and extreme violence, being victim to political and economic and technological forces you can barely understand, let alone control--then I didn't want to be a part of it either. It strikes me that this fear of modernity has infected America as a whole as well. We're the country where major political contenders now disagree with evolution, disbelieve science, want to slash federal funding to schools, public arts and news organizations, health care, social security: all things that have, in part, defined the secular humanist values of modernism. We're the nation that has a man running for president who thinks fasting and prayer are the way to solve a deficit crisis. We're the nation that mistrusts the educated, and forces political candidates to explicate their religious beliefs and affiliations at length. If a fear of modernity is what, in part, defined Al-Qaeda, then it certainly defines us now as well. We went from being one of the nations that shaped the political and cultural advances of secular humanism to being a nation in numb retreat into fundamentalist ideology.

You tell me that the terrorists haven't won.

I finally did see footage of the towers falling, two years after September 11. I had just moved to Salt Lake City for my new job and was in the Broadway Theater, alone, watching a Canadian film about a family in Montreal. It was the sequel to another film, The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, I think it was called, which I'd once seen in my twenties. This film was meant to follow up on the themes of capitalist collapse, though I don't remember much about the film itself. Nothing, that is, except that at one point the entire screen fills with news video footage of the towers in the act of falling, masses of smoke twisting and seething as floor after floor after collapses--fast as a chain of dominoes--all the way to the ground.

"Oh my God!" I shouted. The whole theater turned to look at me. Who is THAT? someone muttered. Who the hell hasn't seen THAT before? Tears were once more--dismayingly--running down my cheeks. I couldn't control myself; my hands were trembling. All those years without a t.v., I'd never seen it. The other patrons were still looking at me. I scanned their dark faces in the crowd, thinking I'd see the same stunned look on some of their faces looking back at me--how are we living like this? How can we bear thinking of it?--but found their faces, even in the dark, were blank. The look the other patrons gave me--bored or surprised, a little annoyed at the interruption--made me blush, embarrassed for myself. "Sorry," I whispered. And the other movie-goers, shrugging, turned back in their seats.

3 comments:

  1. I am one of your shirt tail friends on FB, mostly because I am originally from Utah and I m a poet, too. Thank you for writing this.

    I served in the first gulf war and I often find myself in the "middle" of such discussions and as you have, found myself being lumped in with groups for reasons I am not exactly certain of.

    This is certainly the sort of memoir people need at times like this, a decade after.

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