Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Anniversaries and the Lies

It's time to have it out with the date, to have the date out, and all that it brings, to neutralize the things above it. I have written about September 11, 2001 twice now, and I never thought that I would write about it once. I hadn't the right, for one thing, and I am not special. Further, there was nothing to say: what does the fly say about the glass sky scraper it bumps into?

Immediately after September 11 itself, there were calls for oral history projects. One of the major insurance companies, I believe, offered to cover psychological counseling for anyone. (The catch was that they wanted you to become a policy holder, and then they'd offer it.) There were services available, but I needed and had a right to none of that. First, there were worthier stories, worthier people, worthier deeds and witnesses. Secondly, I had nothing to say. Nor was I honoring my phlegmatic heritage nor modesty by trying to allow the graver wounds a place in line.

Whenever there are military memoirs, they begin with statements like, “I arrived on Paris Island October 3, 1967” or “I served Mil. Sec. IV, Advanced Combat, for III Corps in-country 1971.” This is one reason such memoirs have always had the smell of gun oil about them for me. They begin, and sometimes continue, with barking of incomprehensible military acronyms and slang, and I never understood why any honest person would write that way until I came to write about 9/11 for a wide audience this year (2011). I make no claims for my honesty, but the reason that the military memoir starts with such mystifying language is fear. It is the same reason that I would not go forward at the time, the same reason I would not speak of my experiences, the same reason that I do not have a right to be bothered by them now.

We live in a world of official voices and official views, an atmosphere deep in images and narratives of what has happened and, worse, what it means or meant. A soldier writing about Fallujah first knows that an official account exists and/or that there is a news and television narrative competing with his own. (If there were not, he would have no need to write. He could simply say, “Richard Lowry's book on the battle mentions X, and I was part of that” or “Most people know that the battle for Fallujah happened twice....” This is why soldiers, to qualify themselves, and to validate and limit themselves, to protect themselves, have to say exactly who they were inside the context of the military and how they have a right to a story in the first place. Even if the public never challenges the author, the author feels that challenge, just because she or he knows about the competition, knows that, in a sense, the world does not need a new story as much as the author needs the world to hear it.

If a memoirist continues with the slang and acronyms, then he or she is probably a chowder head, but most do not. The same is true, I think, of those who write now, years too late, of 9/11. I will not speak for others, though. They speak for themselves.

My experiences were non-traumatic. I lost no loved ones. I was not injured. My apartment did not burn, and I did not even go without electricity. I have the least right to a voice of any who were on Manhattan that day. This is a fact, and it is an inescapable one. I have reminded myself of it, too. Every time that the vague misery, the disquiet that cannot be found or quelled, the sense of misunderstanding and theft, has come up, I have repeated this to myself. I can be depressed about my economic position, my finances, my family life, my love life, politics, the people claiming to speak for religion, but not this.

“Nevertheless, it moves,” as the man said. In 2002, we did not talk about the attacks. In fact, no one I knew talked about them at all. We knew about them, so we didn't talk about them. Even as we navigated around the attack sites, we did not speak of them. As we developed strategies for teaching students who had lost parents, we did not speak of the attacks. As we saw and read about the clean ups that were going to identify “abandoned” cars and property, we did not say anything. In fact, the first time I remember even alluding to the attacks with another New Yorker was in early August of 2003, when I was on the #6 train, heading home at 4:30, and the power went out just as the train was over the Bronx River. We sat in the car for twenty minutes before MTA had a solution, and, while we sat there, we talked, and several of us were of the opinion that it was another terrorist attack, and we'd just have to find out after we got somewhere what was affected. (We sat in the car for only twenty minutes, because the MTA had all sorts of plans and were very well practiced. They got us from a trestle bridge to a station without A/C power.) The attacks were there, like the delays, like the smoke, like the hole, like the idiot tourists, like the souvenir sellers from New Jersey, like the new emergency plans, like the economic depression that hit the island, so what was to talk about?

In 2006, I was away from there. I was in small town Georgia. The television did not have a major paroxysm over the anniversary, but public radio shows that were based in New York or Philadelphia did. I found myself, though, having sadness that I could not argue myself out of. The day – the unfathomable mixture and lack of meaning of it – was a revenant, and I had come to its grave. I had had an experience. I had an experience that a million shared, at least.

My experience was of an open question, of an unsolvable riddle. I do not mean “Why did they do it?” Who cares why they did it? It would make no difference. I do not mean, “What are we going to do about it?” It doesn't matter what we do, neither to the dead nor the living. I also do not mean, “What does this mean?” I think most people would be satisfied with knowing that it is random or purposed or cut off from sequence. I mean, instead, “Who am I in this? What happened?”

That year, 2006, I grappled with the single question that had been most on me since the day: am I brave, selfish, giving, or cold? Hundreds of people without training ran down to the pile to help, but I didn't. Tens of thousands suffered the ash, but I didn't. Dozens hugged and cried with survivors, but I didn't. I was practical. I was analytical. I was intellectual. I considered the various authorities, evaluated them, and made decisions. The jumpers and those who were showered with body parts or the binary of life/death presented in a second mesmerized me as a symbol of all of these questions combined. Neither prepared, thought, analyzed, but each had to be herself or himself, and I did not know that I had such a self to rely on, that there was a core beyond the analytical. The artist – refined soul, delicate senses – and the vision most raw and unsought flung upon her became my heroine. She was 9/11 in sum. [I link little. I can tolerate few.]

Five years later, the world has only grown colder, and the chill has allowed not oblivion, but deception. The stunned, altered, confused, tearful visage has suffered another insult: it has been erased, substituted, and summarized. None of us could perceive what happened, either in real time or in its contours. I do not think the Palestinian family or neighborhood struck by an 'errant' missile, or an Afghan wedding party mistakenly hit by Hellfire missiles can. Death that appears so quickly with such ragged and arbitrary edges cannot be understood by the living, because to understand a thing, we have to have a concept of it, and that means being able to define it. To define something, we must know where it begins and ends. (Hegel's phenomenology vexes us because, if someone points at an apple and says, “I mean
that apple,” he says, “By apple to do you mean the skin, the red, the shape, the thing on the table, the thing on this table, the thing and the table, the thing, table and chairs? What is it exactly that makes it 'this'?”) When there is a 9/11, no one inside it can know it. It is too big, and we are too small.

We started out not knowing what was happening, but we who lived did so only by never understanding what it was that actually happened. To live, we cut our perspective down into segments of arc. However, the nation outside us had an image. While we knew who we lost, for the nation the victims of the attack were changing. We all knew and mourned and loved the lost firefighters and police who responded to the attacks. We took flowers to the fire houses. However, before Oliver Stone's movie, “9/11,” came out, but definitely shortly after, the nation's image of the victims of the attack changed from stock brokers and office workers to firefighters and police. The image now is perhaps two large, empty buildings falling on 3,000 firemen.

Additionally, the then-president used the attacks as a reason to bomb (which I supported) and invade (which I supported somewhat) Afghanistan. After that, the then-vice president began trying to use 9/11 as a reason for invading Iraq. I was one of 500,000 New York City residents who marched to protest that. However, in the national consciousness these are both “wars of 9/11.” Thus, for many people and, ten years later, media services, the 9/11 attacks are 'about' firefighters and the U.S. military.

The attacks also meant the rapid passing of numerous laws that took away civil rights from citizens. There followed new practices and Executive Orders that reversed longstanding U.S. practices. These are each comprehensible. The wars fit into a narrative logic for the national mind and mood. The civil rights measures affect citizens and inflame imaginations. If we combine this “meaning of 9/11” with the other, we have either a fascist or proudly strong state either regaining its strength or betraying its foundations. Either way, it makes for good television and good debate. It also makes for possible debate.
From Iwo a vigorous debate!
As the tenth anniversary has come along, outrage pushed me. I am no closer to solving the questions the day embedded in my soul. I do not know who I am at core, do not think that I have now grown some core being that would show in the flame. I do not know what the day meant. I do, however, know that understanding its ineffability will do absolutely nothing to cure the pain the question causes. However, when someone else comes along and says that there are “conclusions” for 9/11, I boil. Conclusions? We can't even find the facts yet.

I should allow the nation its track and train, and saying “Not in my name” rings hollow, but there is an evil at work that is as old as the serpent. Humans can turn on the television or the DVD-box and watch people get their throats slit, listen to the blood gurgle. We can excitedly tune in to see a man saw his leg off to get to a knife to stab another man in the stomach. However, if we hear a baby cry, or if our own child is screaming, or if we see a starving child, we cannot bear it. This is because, as animals and creatures, we have a place in our minds called Story. In Story, violence is acceptable, because it is “not real” and always has a reason. For a non-sociopath, reality is sharply different, and the person who can watch violence in story may not be able to watch any pain in person. So long as narrative (story) is used only for made-up things, it is useful.

Evil occurs when reality is put into narrative so as to remove part of its meaning. Sometimes, this is done on purpose, and we call it propaganda. Other times, it is done unintentionally, and we should watch out. I hope what is happening to 9/11 is unintended. I hope that the news people of the moment and the producers today were and are overwhelmed by the event and as unable to put contours onto experience as we were, that they were as shocked and blinded by the violence as we and that their subconscious minds merely protect them by imposing a narrative. However, after a decade it is no longer possible to forgive or excuse imposing story.

The actual story tellers have avoided narrative (“9/11” and “Flight 93”), but the news people have resorted to it. From them we get “What is the reason” (cause) and “How will we react” (response) and “What with the country do” (reply), to “How is the battle to find the Guy” (climax) and a wished-for “Mission Accomplished” (denouement). This narration was overlayed on our reality. Stories have their conclusions built into them by their forms. The political story news created was on top of the original fiction of getting “the guys who did this.” They, of course, were dead already.

We have to stop telling lies. It isn't that the conclusions of that narrative are worse than another. It isn't that it's a bad story or a good story. It's that it's a story. Let at least one thing be untellable. Let it be uncontainable. Let it be too big to explain. That, after all, would be the only experience-based explanation. The only way to stop inflicting the trauma on us is to let the trauma be too big to be falsified.

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