The greatest fear I felt on September 11, 2001 was not as a citizen, but as a new father. My fears about that day — and about its legacy — remain centered on my children.
I rose very early that day to meet my father in the hospital. He was scheduled for an early surgery at Huntington Memorial in Pasadena — a triple bypass, following six years of messing around with angioplasties. I met him in the prep room before 6, and talked to him for a while, reminiscing out our recent trip to Korea to pick up Evan and joking about the condom catheter they'd made him use. I don't know if he was afraid; I was, but we didn't discuss it. Eventually the nurses waved me away as they started to ready him for surgery. I walked out of the prep area towards the family waiting room. As I did so, I noticed two nurses, a receptionist, and a doctor talking in an agitated fashion about something.
I walked into the family waiting room at about 6:20 a.m. Pacific time, and encountered two other families staring uncomprehendingly at a television depicting something out of a bad Bruckheimer movie. I spent the day in that sunny, cheerfully painted room, waiting with other people already numb with anxiety over the operations their loved ones were undergoing a few doors away, watching the terror as it unfolded. The flow of new people ebbed as Huntington canceled non-emergency surgeries to accommodate victims of any local disaster. Strangers all, we sat together, comforted each other, got each other coffee, celebrated when news of a loved one's successful surgery arrived, and used our cell phones to contact family members in surreal conversations bouncing between immediate medical peril and incomprehensible existential peril. The volunteer receptionist, a frail elderly lady with hair a shade of blue normally associated with county fair cotton candy, wept inconsolably until we found a supervisor and had her ushered carefully home.
I remember the inhuman, robotic tone the anchor used to note that the second tower had collapsed. I remember the desperate fear about how many more planes turned angry missiles might still be in the air. I remember the way we all had our eyes locked on the screen until the reception phone would ring to bring an update about a patient's condition, at which point we would all stare at the phone the way a bird looks at a snake. I remember calling my wife, telling her to turn on the TV, and thanking God that my son was too young to understand or fear what was happening.
My father's surgery was a success. In recovery, before they removed the breathing tube from his throat, he tried to write "NY?" and "DC?" on my hand with his finger to ask what was happening — he heard doctors talking about it. I stayed with him until he went to sleep, and then I went home and held my son and wondered how the Hell I was supposed to raise a child, and what I could tell him.
It's been ten years now, and I'm still thinking about what to tell him, and what to tell his sisters. As discussion of 9/11 has reached a fever pitch with this anniversary, I've thought about it a lot more. I've thought about it in the context of what lessons I think I've learned, and what lessons I'd like them to learn, from the 9/11 atrocities and our nation's reaction to them.
These are the ten things I think I'd tell them to take away from the last ten years.
1. Ordinary People Are Capable Of Extraordinary Things. On 9/11, hundreds of police and firefighters died struggling to save lives — to do their jobs under unfathomable circumstances. Many of them charged into those towers knowing the risk. Some of them stayed in the towers in defiance of orders to withdraw because they would not abandon the injured. After the collapse, more police and firefighters rushed into a dark, smoking Hell in a desperate bid to find survivors. Hundreds of miles away, on Flight 93, civilians rushed bare-handed to assault a squad of trained terrorists aboard a hurtling jet.
This was not a mystical and improbable gathering of superheroes. It was a gathering of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances who did all that they could do despite their fears. They were like us: some "good", some "bad", some humble, some proud, some trustworthy, some not. Faced with unprecedented circumstances, they did not say "I can't do this, I'm just a regular person, not Superman." They stepped up. They died, but they died struggling to save others — and in some cases undoubtedly succeeded.
Since that day, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have strapped a ton of shit to their backs and shouldered weapons and walked across perilous unfamiliar landscapes in Afghanistan and Iraq. They've done so under miserable conditions, in constant peril from enemies indistinguishable from civilians and from bombs that look like piles of rubble. Thousands have died. Thousands more have left maimed, concussed, tormented. And yet still they come. Still they do their jobs.
It's nearly mandatory to call the cops and the firefighters, the citizens of Flight 93, and the men and women on the tip of the spear heroes. They are, but not in the sense that they are a people apart from us, people who were able to meet incredible challenges because they started with some sort of extraordinary abilities. They are heroes because they are ordinary Americans who did their duty under fire. Especially in an age of excuses, that is extraordinary.
I'd have my children remember that as they face challenges and opportunities and duties. If my children carries some responsibility, some burden, and want to lay it down because they are frightened, I'd want them to ask themselves — am I more frightened than those people were? They stood up. They made a difference. So can you.
2. Evil Exists. Sorry, kids. This one might be shorthand, but it's true. Evil exists — not just in The Other, but among us. Evil wears guises — ignorance and fear and pride and ambition and hatred — but it's the same under all of those. Being good — being innocent — being right — none of that will make you safe. You can do all you can to live a reflective an principled life, and that won't stop someone from hurting you for ideology or profit or amusement. Evil will not stop existing just because all of the well-meaning people in the world hope and believe that it will. Plan accordingly.
3. Good Exists. This is the one that lets you press on despite #2, above. Compassion, decency, honesty, generosity, selflessness all exist amongst us. I believe that there is nothing evil in us that cannot be overcome by what is good in us. Act accordingly.
4. It's Best To Define Yourself By Your Reaction To Events, Not By The Events Themselves. Here I borrow a page from my pastor, who preached today on living from the inside out rather than from the outside in. A life lived from the outside in is a life defined by what has happened to me. A life lived from the inside out is a life defined by how I conducted myself in reaction to what happened to me. We should not define ourselves as the nation that was attacked on 9/11. We should define ourselves as the nation that stood up again, dusted itself off, looked to the injured, honored its dead, and persevered after 9/11. Alas, that's complicated, as we see in number 5.
5. A Thing Is Not the Same As Our Reaction To A Thing. This one is a little metaphysical for the kids, I'm afraid. What I mean is this: the catastrophic attacks of 9/11 are what they are, a series of physical events that took place on that day. Our reactions to 9/11 — our fears, our beliefs, our assumptions, our slogans — are something else. Magritte's picture of a pipe was not the pipe itself; Warhol's depiction of Campbell's soup cans were not real soup, and what we decide to think and feel and do about 9/11 is not the same as what happened on 9/11. So when someone tells us "we must do this, because of what happened on 9/11," they are fundamentally misleading us. What they mean is "we must do this, because of my interpretation of the significance of 9/11." This leads us to #6:
6. Beware of How People Use Great And Terrible Things And Events. The lesson I remember best from my religious instruction as a youth in the Catholic church came from a nun who was explaining the ten commandments. She asked me to explain the prohibition of taking the Lord's name in vain; I said it meant I should not curse using God's name. She corrected me — ultimately the commandment means we should not invoke God's name for our own power or glory or purposes rather than His own, she said.
9/11 — like every great and terrible thing and event that has ever come before it — is invoked to demand and justify a wide array of ends and prove a confusing jumble of conclusions. Many of those ends and conclusions were sought by their advocates well before 9/11. It has ever been so. People will seek power, seek prominence, seek money, seek their religious and ideological goals by invoking events — by trying, as I suggested in #4 above, to blur the line between the thing and our reaction to the thing. This has been a constant theme on this blog: the government has sought more and more power over us, and more and more limitations on our rights, by invoking 9/11, only to use those new powers to fight old fights unrelated to terrorism and to suppress things they didn't like before 9/11. The PATRIOT ACT was an incoherent jumble of law enforcement wet dreams and wish lists, components of which had been floating about for decades. But though the government's efforts to use 9/11 has carried the most weight, the invocations have not come only from the government — they've come from everywhere, left and right, seeking to use the tragedy to prove preconceptions about America and its foreign policy. Which brings us to our next topic:
7. Fear, Anger, and Apathy Are Perilous. If you make a decision out of fear or anger, or shrug and accept someone else's decision out of apathy, it's only sheer dumb luck if that decision is a good one. If cops and firefighters charged into the towers to their death despite their fear, if soldiers dodge snipers and IEDs despite their fear, if the passengers of Flight 93 took on terrorists unarmed despite their fear, then dammit, the least we can do is use the brains God gave us and think things through even when we're angry and afraid. And for Heaven's sake, the least we can do is care. We're told to remain vigilant in the face of terrorism. It would be damn foolish not to realize that fear, rage, and grief make us vulnerable to bad decisions, and therefore to exercise skepticism and caution in making decision and concessions, and to resist siren calls to act from our fear and rage.
8. Understanding Is Not The Same As Justifying. "I learned everything I need to know about Muslims on 9/11," people say. What rank cretinism. Some extremists — how many is in dispute — want to kill us. It's self-indulgence of the worst sort, a fit of stylized bravado, to refuse to inquire why. Wanting to know an adversary's reasons for acting is not the same as agreeing that those reasons amount to justification. Learning about enemies — and learning about the cultures, religions, and peoples from which they are drawn — helps us protect ourselves, and helps to separate friend from foe. Ideologues among us suggest that all Muslims are suspect. I don't believe that at all, but even if I did, it would be catastrophically foolish to decide as some point of misguided honor not to learn all we can about them. If, as I suspect, the extremists who want to kill us a relatively small percentage of the world's Muslims, then learning all we can about them helps us separate potential friends from implacable foes. It's ridiculously insecure to see the quest for understanding as a sign of weakness or concession. After all, scientists don't study Ebola Zaire because they like it.
9. People Are Not Abstractions. Each person who died on 9/11 represented an entire world ending. Each American soldier killed in the last ten years means the same. Each enemy — and each civilian — killed in those wars was a person with a life and friends and family and a viewpoint, just like you. They might not appreciate you using them as a talking point. The soldier who believed in what he was doing might not appreciate you using his death to argue for a withdrawal from the Middle East. The citizen who died in the towers might not appreciate you invoking her to justify going to war. The people who may die because of our actions — because we fail to protect ourselves, or because we go to war — will be entire worlds unto themselves as well. We ought to remember that at every step of this discussion, and remember to separate the reality of those people from the use we want to make of them.
10. There is Nothing New Under the Sun. Our nation has endured great horrors before, and endured them. Across the globe other peoples have endured worse, and have survived. Some are still enduring worse. Though this was the gravest terrorist attack on us in our short history, it was not the worst thing we've ever faced. It's wrong to think that it was. It's wrong because it encourages us to buy what people are selling — that we must change America because we've never faced something this bad before. In fact, the dedication and courage and decency and sensibility that got our forebears through privations and wars and every sort of national trauma will serve us perfectly well, thank you. 9/11 was terrible, but proclaiming that it was the worst thing that ever happened to anybody is deluded and lacks proportion. It was terrible. Honor our dead, bind up our wounded, examine and remedy our weaknesses, and study and subdue our foes, all using the blessings long since given to us — and then move on.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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- True Threats v. Protected Speech, Post-Election Edition - November 16th, 2016
- Lawsplainer: About Trump "Opening Up" Libel Laws - November 14th, 2016