Reflections on 9/11 and all that

We just passed the 11th of September, a date where many native New Yorkers avoid social media because we don’t want to see images that can still trigger PTSD. Falling Man in particular will never be okay for me — even linking to that amazing piece of writing made my hands shaky.

Also on social media one finds the polarizing effect of the Concept of 9/11 writ large. You’ll find lefties and libertarians lamenting the way 9/11 was used to strip individual freedom and you’ll find right-wing types posting “never forget” patriotic memes.

The USA just keeps getting weirder and more polarized. It’s now in a state I call the Cold War Civil War. Every topic has two sides, no nuance, and lots of anger.

Listen, some posts on my website are intended for my children to know my thoughts even after I’m gone. A repository for mommy’s OPINIONS about all sorts of topics. Because I’m an opinionated person. So I suppose it’s time for me to set down my thoughts about a momentous historical event. Particularly since I lived through it. But I admit that I avoid the topic and any discussions of 9/11. People have strong individual attachments to the event and I don’t like to impose my own sadness on whatever they’re feeling.

However.

Then you see the “real patriots” jump down the throats of people like my friend above when they post what I consider a perfectly apt response to the way 9/11 is used by the dominant culture in America to foment more conflict. She got a huge lecture from relations and older Americans about how the country came together in the weeks following the attack and how real patriots simply wish lefties would be unified behind the president and the nation once again.

What a load of bollocks. We were never unified.

In the days after 9/11 New Yorkers (read: liberal elites) were terrified. One of the dominant things they were most scared about was how the horrible President Bush (fils) would use the attack as an excuse to wage war on brown people. How they’d use it to strip our individual liberties. And most lefties I know weep at how all of their worst fears came to pass.

New Yorkers were disgusted by the makeshift tables of swag set up down at Ground Zero for tourists to purchase Twin Tower pins and ‘never forget’ hats. They were even more appalled that this weird pilgrimage to the crater became sanctioned as a kind of patriots’ march to Mecca. People who hate New York and everything that city stands for will travel to NYC just to go do all the things 9/11. It’s super gross. Reminds me of what we know of how people behaved at public executions.

When I was in NYC this past summer with my girls my eldest did ask me why we were skirting the area and not going in with the crowds to go and visit the giant fountains. Not realizing the depth of my animus I did launch into a monologue about how it cost half a billion dollars to build a massive water-wasting hole in the ground during a time of climate crisis. How it costs $60 million a year to operate and don’t NYC public schools and mass transit need that attention more than a memorial for what was ultimately only a few people?

My fiscal anger used to only get set off when passing the Irish Hunger Memorial (measly millions to create and operate by comparison) because there are no longer starving people in the world the Americans can afford to build a hillock on a city block to honor the dead of long ago? What a tremendous waste of civic energy.

After listening to my 9/11 Memorial rant for a while my eldest wisely suggested that the City of New York should have built an international food court instead “because everyone loves food” and the symbolism of tourists from all over the world coming together in a place where people were murdered over ideological differences and breaking bread instead and celebrating the food of many cultures would be far better and more satisfying than operating a giant hole in the ground. I had to agree with her.

I do understand how the “real patriots” feel about 9/11 though. I felt the same way in the days immediately after the attack. I wanted revenge. I wanted to stay in my pit of anger because it was easier to feel that than to feel pain. Riding mass transit we saw fights break out with an explosive anger that New Yorkers don’t normally exhibit. I was in a rage. I had witnessed people get murdered by unknown brown people and if I’d been a bit more racist, a bit more testosterone fueled, and a bit less heartbroken, and a bit more drunk I expect I could have done something stupid like vandalizing a nearby business that represented the enemy in my mind. When they flashed images of middle easterners celebrating and told us that was because they were happy Americans had been hurt I was livid. Just like other “real” Americans. I was too emotional at the time to recognize that we were getting played.

It took a few days but eventually my seething anger settled and I was able to start mourning enough to recognize the government was using it as an excuse to wage war. The eternal war of the USA. Keeping citizens controlled through fear.

In fact, I’ll tell you the exact thing I said when I watched the second tower collapse in real time (oddly watched most of it standing in a replica of a 1960s TV lounge with my museum colleagues). “Well. We’re all Israeli now.” What I meant was we were now always in a state of conflict. F-15s buzzed overhead as though to punctuate the thought. Something I never expected to see in the skies over NYC.

In the days that followed I quickly realized the enemy was the fear and the way people were handing control to the government. The enemy was not fellow (brown) citizens or foreigners with evil intent.

Cliche and yet we don’t internalize it enough.

My friend on Facebook was also told earlier this week that she wasn’t old enough at the time of 9/11 to permit her to have a valid or accurate opinion on the matter. As someone who was plenty old enough I will reiterate that I am not here to tell you how to feel about the event. Some things are big enough that they have an impact on everyone and I am not here to tell you how to feel about it. I am here to tell you that once feeling has been burned in you need to take a beat and think about it. A lot of real patriots seem to forget that second step.

A few days after 9/11, I was trying to get back to normalcy and I went to a screening of Black Hawk Down with an Australian friend. Not realizing the depth of the trauma I’d suffered I was shocked to experience what turned out to be my very first panic attack after the movie. I went into the lobby with my friend after the film and after he’d left my chest went tight when I was left alone. A piece of paper on the floor of the movie theater lobby set off memories of papers and ash flying in the air and I started hyperventilating. Now, mind you, I was not even near the Twin Towers when they fell. I was all the way up in Queens watching from the relative safety of my workplace at the Museum of the Moving Image. But all of the war images in this movie set me off. Because my city felt like a war zone. And soon my entire nation would feel like one, too.

Clearly, it would be a while before I was okay with any of it. It appears it’s taken me nearly twenty years to even write this post. So for a lot of us, the events of 9/11 are woven into our psyche so deep it’s almost too difficult to process it.

One of my friends worked clean up at the site and called me because he’d collected an arm off a rooftop earlier in the day and needed someone to talk to who wouldn’t fall apart when talking about grisly stuff. I had the honor. I shared in his nightmare day. He wept and I held it together. I thought I was fine until I had that panic attack a few days later. A coworker was dating a cop at the time and she had a similar experience, he called her weeping and almost unable to explain what he’d witnessed at the crash site. Some of us stood in the hallway and watched her take the call. Her face passive as she repeated what he was saying to her. “You’re worried you’re breathing in bits of the people. I understand. It’s probably just cement, honey.”

Then, we spent the following decades witnessing people who don’t even live in NYC use our personal nightmare to wage perpetual war. We watched them spend millions of dollars to honor the dead and turn the entire nation into a war zone. Except worse because instead of empowering citizens like a real military family they treat them like children and keep them scared so they can be more easily controlled.

Having excellent episodic memory skills kinda sucks sometimes.

Weeks later, I was in Grand Central Terminal waiting for a subway. I stood on the platform, nearby one other young guy around my age. It was very late. Suddenly, a dozen soldiers (cops?) in full fatigues and assault rifles rushed the platform and told us to get down. The dude and I both hit the deck. His eyes met mine and his face became permanently imprinted into my memory by our shared moment of fear and vulnerability. It was yet another bomb scare but we didn’t know that at the time. We were waiting for an explosion.

We stayed on the ground, only our heads lifted, he with his arms over his head as though we were getting arrested, holding eye contact with me and keeping our wits about us until the soldiers helped us up and instructed us to clear the area. No trains running. We stumbled upstairs in a daze. The young man and I worked our way up through the station as silent wraiths, amazed by the complete emptiness of even the main concourse. Outside in the cold October pre-dawn our eyes were blinded by dozens of flashing lights from emergency vehicles surrounding the train station. The stranger at my side and I parted ways as we went searching for taxis to take us home. “See ya,” he said. And I still do. Forever. United by our lizard brain terror. I can only hope his fear didn’t make him grow up to vote Republican.

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