This Sunday, September 11th, returning from a weekend in Massachusetts for a wedding and a concert, I will take an overnight plane back to Europe from Logan Airport in Boston. Logan was the origin for American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, both to Los Angeles, both hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center Towers.
I can remember where I was for several of the 9/11 anniversaries, if only because the date’s significance made me more attentive. The 3rd anniversary, a Saturday in 2004, marked the last time, one of the last times, or the day after the last time, that I talked to my mother on the phone, from her hospital bed, before cancer killed her on Tuesday three days later. The following year, at home for the fall, I went with my younger brother and sister to an Of Montreal concert that Sunday night, the band just about to hit the inflection point of their rise to success and relative fame, my siblings and I nearing a similar inflection point in our mutual bond through music, self-forged rather than handed down from above. Last year, I was in Copenhagen with Ben and Amy, where we came upon a rally, a small one, in a main square, calling on the U.S. to reveal the truth about 9/11 being an inside job. Lastly, if not chronologically so, on the 5th anniversary in 2006, I was also on a plane, flying a couple hours from Tallinn to Moscow as I ended my initial European jaunt and began a 2 ½ month stay in the city of my parents, of my mother. Somewhere I have my journal from that trip, where during that flight I wrote down the things one could live for, that I could live for, which basically came down to love – of another person or of what one does in life – art, and serving others, as well as some combination of these elements. At the time, I thought I had neither the fortune nor the constitution to succeed at anything but art, cynically, naively, pathetically believing the romantic love that had yet to reach me in 21 years never would. I’ve been wrong, occasionally. In any case, it makes me wonder whence and whither I will be flying on September 11, 2016, and how my worldview will have changed.
I’m not making too strong a political statement in saying that we as a country have, at best, struggled in our response to the attacks over the last decade and, at worst, failed. Economically, politically, militarily, and in terms of safety, we are no better off than we were a decade ago and, in most of these and other measures, worse off. While no one at the time expected the brief sense of unity that emerged in the aftermath of the twin towers falling to last, no one expected irony to disappear, no one expected our culture to reinvent itself, it still strikes me how much our unity has deteriorated, how much our culture eats itself into paradoxical irrelevance, how guarded and ironic and snarky we’ve become, we’ve had to become.
(I will insert here because I don’t think I have a chance later – having visited New York City again this summer, I’m reminded that the city, more than anywhere else in the country probably, has internalized the lessons of 9/11, has reacted appropriately, and has grown from the experience, exceptions like the Ground Zero mosque controversy notwithstanding. Whatever else I’ve said about the city, it is clearly our greatest city, and best represents our hope and dream in 2011.)
Living abroad, I have had experience with both sides of the “telescope effect”. I’m not sure if that’s the technical term, or if anybody has conceived of this idea (though surely someone has; also, what I’m talking about differs slightly from the “CNN effect”, which has certainly been coined), but the idea is that when we hear about news from another place, some place faraway, we are inevitably going to hear only about the most important events or stories, and the most important events or stories are inevitably going to be bad. Israel is a good example of this, I think – when in the U.S., in Europe, one only hears about Israel through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict, or in this summer’s exception, about social upheaval in the country over the price of housing. Living there, I found a sense of normality, a sense of the mundane, and while the newspapers ran a conflict-related headline on their front page almost every day, there was more to life than the news. But living away from Israel, as I am now, I fear for the latest violence, fret about the situation, and freak out just as much as the next interested observer, and forget that life goes on there.
The same goes for living outside the U.S.A. From afar, from the news, the U.S. appears to be crazy. The healthcare “debate” especially hit me – the raucous town hall meetings, the vulgar insults, the Nazi comparisons (usually thrown in hand in hand with “socialist” cries, which reminds me that my saddest moment teaching high school history last spring was when I had to convince a senior that no, Hitler was not a Communist. Those Americans who confused the two may not have had such corrections in their schooling). It seemed like the country was going mad, and since this was the only decade in which I have been something of an adult, since I had no true grounds for comparison, it startled me. It scared me.
Last year, mostly living in the States, I found things calmer on the day to day, of course, and many of the most vitriolic debates were stowed away until the debt ceiling clash of last month, but news remained full of crazy events. Politicians certainly seemed incapable of talking to or with another, rather than past one another, and I felt like normal Americans, citizens, continued to exist in their own circles, talking about politics, for example, only with people they agreed with, supporting themselves with their own online sourced arguments that all of the group in the circle had read and shared, refusing to talk to the other side because they wouldn’t listen. Neither side listens. Even a circle-closing, uniting event like the killing of Osama Bin Laden led to several inane political arguments, though fortunately short-lived ones.
Then again, perhaps it’s always been this way. Maybe it’s inevitable that any democracy of our size will become irreversibly fissured, if they didn’t start out that way (which makes watching India and, if the Communist Party ever loosens their grip, China fascinating as we move forward). Look at U.S. history. We had to make several great compromises to put the Constitution together, the two-chambered legislature that has the anachronistic Senate, the Electoral College, and the Bill of Rights chief among the results. Under John Adams, the government tried to outlaw dissent. The antebellum period included a series of last-minute, crisis-averting compromises and violent incidents and crises nevertheless, leading up at last to the Civil War. Slavery and its legacy continue to stain our nation, as does the legacy of gender inequality. Immigrants were controversial and discriminated against every time a new wave hit land, with the previous group of immigrants often the ones to conduct the train of spite against the latest arrivals. The Cold War brought with it a series of near-apocalypses, its fair share of reductive “us vs. them” thinking and grandiose vilification of the them (see: President Reagan), and the frequent sense that we were falling behind, even when we weren’t. The 90s, the decade of my childhood, was a calm one in the U.S., maybe an exceptional decade, a beautiful decade to grow up in if one is interested in peace, prosperity, and happiness as an American, though not if one wants exciting big picture events – then again, the persecution of President Clinton for his wandering libido, while ultimately not consummated, was as much an example of craziness as anything we’ve seen since, though now we look back at it comically.
Or, perhaps, the issue is that we are weak for the first time. Really weak. In the 20th century, the turn of which saw the U.S. become the world’s largest economy, the U.S. was seriously shaken from its eternal, beautiful optimism, its dream and its self-belief, by four events, I would argue – the Great Depression, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. The first struck us economically on a level theretofore unseen; Pearl Harbor was the only instance of a military attack on the U.S. in the 20th century, I believe (though even then, Hawaii was not yet a state); the Cold War was our first encounter with the paranoia and competitive urge that comes from trying to be the world’s leader and superpower; and the Vietnam War proved our leaders utterly fallible, our government’s intentions not always clear and noble, our world leadership not necessarily a blessing to others or ourselves.
Through all of those traumas, our nation emerged. We emerged due to the blessings of geography, of isolation and natural resources, of demographics, but also due to the attraction America held and holds for other peoples in other nations, free or not, the principles of religious freedom and personal freedom and everything else, due to the power of our dream and due to our nation’s strength, especially that much vaunted greatest generation which, forged through the hardship of the Great Depression, perhaps the last time the middle class lived on the basis of need rather than want, served in our time of greatest need, when indeed our goals were clear and noble, World War II, and paved the way for the 50 years of mostly uninterrupted prosperity that followed. While I am one of those who would likely be tarred as an apologist, as someone who denies America’s exceptionalism, if I ever got into a conversation on the topic with someone of a certain political bearing, or if I wrote for a publication with more than five readers, and while I believe that indeed every country is in their way exceptional, for better or for worse, and that chauvinism is not a necessary ingredient of national pride and patriotism, I will state that America is indeed exceptional, and that has led to good things. I will always be grateful for growing up in the U.S.A., and even more so for the country accepting my immigrant family and providing them a climate of opportunity and freedom they wouldn’t have had elsewhere.
(Bad things too – the U.S. WWII museum in New Orleans, a fine museum, does indeed have a section on the internment of Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans living in the states, as well as a series of awfully racist posters teaching citizens and soldiers how to distinguish between Chinese (our friends) and Japanese (our enemies) through physical and racial characteristics. No matter how much one is inured to the biases of the past, it still shocks to see in actual print. Or in other words, no matter how far we have to come in racial equality, anybody who has seen Gone with the Wind can acknowledge the great strides we have made in that area, thank God.)
In the first decade of the 21st century, however, we’ve been suffered almost as many traumas as in the 100 years previous. Iraq and Afghanistan combined loom as something similar to Vietnam in its impact on our nation’s psyche, public coffers, and image abroad; the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession that we struggle with today is not quite the Great Depression, but the situation doesn’t look much more promising; China already looms impatiently as the next world power and the greatest threat to our global preeminence since the Soviet Union, and indeed a greater threat at that; and of course the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 10 years ago, the yet to be replicated second time we have suffered an attack on American soil since the Civil War.
(I could change the typology slightly and claim the war on terror is the parallel to the Cold War, but I think this works better.)
The combination of these events instills a self-fulfilling quality in our national spirit. These events or situations suggest that we are not what we once were, that we are indeed in decline, that we need to change direction. Hence, incumbents get voted out of office quickly, the winning side presumes a huge mandate instead of accepting that we live in a divided country and that one has to govern either brilliantly or carefully, not foolhardily or timidly, leading to another cycle of new politicians, new overstated mandate, and new disillusionment. Hence, people grasp to further and further extremes in the hope of finding an answer to the nation’s problems, which leaves a widening gap between the two sides, even if one side or the other manages to pull the whole conversation in a direction they prefer (as the Right did in the debt-ceiling debate – I suppose you could argue the Left did this in the healthcare debate or, even better, gay rights, but I don’t know enough about it. I think I can objectively state that the Right is currently better at shifting the conversation). Hence, at a time where to solve our problems and show our strength amid this typhoon of challenges we need to come to greater consensus on a national level, a greater agreement of what sort of sacrifice we should share, what sort of country we want in the big picture, and what we are willing to give to that country, we pull at one another’s hair and allow the recession to persist, the war to continue without clear direction, and China to go past savoring our struggles and into scolding us for threatening their economy and vision of their slower rise to preeminence.
Hence, dead or not, Bin Laden did pretty well in fucking America up.
September 11th, 2001 was the first day of the school year, of my senior year in high school. It was a sunny day. As tradition demanded (and probably still demands), after the three lower classes had been seated in the chapel for the All School Meeting that would begin the school year, we seniors marched in with great pomp and cheer, holding up two fingers for the class of 2002, yelling a lot, and acting out a sense of naïve chauvinism that can only belong to high school seniors. I’m sure I participated in the revelry less than most of my classmates, not because I have a disinclination to naïve chauvinism, though I’d like to think I do, but because I have always had a bit of the contrarian asshole in me, and felt it was silly to whoop it up the way everybody else did.
The All School Meeting must have ended by 8:30. We had a day of abbreviated classes, as befits the first day of school. I think I had Physics first period, and then a free period that started somewhere in the 9:00am hour. With nothing productive to do, I went down to the Ryley Room, the “hangout” area below our dining hall. They had TVs there, and I watched a rerun of SportsCenter.
This is the part that always embarrasses me upon recollection. As I was watching ESPN, sitting on a stool on the elevated platform area in the first back corner of the room, unconcerned with the world outside, as it were, my friend Tom O. came down. He had a free period too, obviously. After standing by me for a second, he went over to the far end of the room, towards the other back corner, to buy a snack or a drink and watch the big screen TV they had put in Ryley Room that summer (not a big screen TV, actually, but a big screen on which a projector projected TV programming).
A few minutes later, he called out to me. “Shvarts, you gotta check this out! A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t move. I might have said I wasn’t interested. It just seemed like news to me, and I was not yet a news reader.
Some twenty minutes after that, towards the end of our free period, I still at my small TV watching my small picture sports news, Tom yelled again. This was when the second plane crashed, I think. At the time, I think the significance had yet to sink in. I collected my things and went to English class.
It was at that point, walking over to the English building, that I was aware that the news had traveled. Students were talking about skipping class to watch the news. Teachers in our classrooms talked about what was going on, about what the school’s response would be. News was happening, the world was changing, and we shouldn’t be made to sit there and wait for it ignorantly. In my International Relations class, as we talked about what was going on and who might be behind it, appropriate a discussion as it was for that class, I thought in a very Jewish, which is to say provincial way, that it might be Palestinians, but that that would be crazy, it wasn’t like they weren’t doing anything in Israel now, it wasn’t like they were silent (at the Rosh Hashana service I attended at my temple a few days later, the Rabbi’s sermon tied 9/11 to the recent Jerusalem Sbarro bombing).
Later that day we had another All School Meeting, less celebratory than the morning’s. Gathered on the grass in front of Samuel Phillips Hall, we heard our Head of School and Associate Head of School tell us about the gravity of the day’s events, about what connections it had to our school, and about our response. I don’t remember what they said, really.
I remember checking with my roommate Matt, a Manhattan native, to see that everyone he knew was ok. I remember waiting twenty feet away from my friend Derrick, an African-American from Brooklyn, a guy who as a freshman we dubbed “Grandpa Warrior” because he seemed so much older than us, tougher than us, a friend on whom I happened to walk in once a year or two before at an inconveniently romantic and personal time with a lady friend, a friend who more than any from high school I am not in touch with and wish I could be in some way, even though time and distance and experience has rendered that unlikely (Facebook does not help in this effort, by the way), as this strong kid waited for a response on his cell phone with a worried look on his face before finally finding out, around 3:00 pm, that everything was ok.
That night, I remember thinking how awful it all was. I still thought out nightly prayers back then, whispered them even sometimes, prayers to God for my mother’s health and happiness, for the happiness of those I cared about, for things that would lead to my happiness, though I tried to avoid asking for that directly. That night, I prayed for all affected by the attacks, those who died and those who lost someone and those missing and those hurt and so on. I don’t think I directly prayed for the lands from which those who killed themselves came, for their neighbors and peers and countrymen in poverty and oppression, for relief from whatever could drive people to such madness and hatred (even though, yes, many of the terrorists involved and Bin Laden himself were middle class or wealthy), but I thought about it. I tried to understand where it came from. I couldn’t. I fell asleep, eventually.
This trying to understand is at the center of what I think has been missing from our decade since the attacks. Understanding, seeking understanding of the other is the only way forward in a problem with two or more sides (in a problem with one side, the way forward is understanding oneself, which is harder). Understanding does not mean acceptance, condonement, or even that dreaded buzzword of political correctness, tolerance. It means tying together at least a plausible background story that led our enemies to become our enemies, in the hopes of defeating them or changing them or knowing what comes next or improving ourselves or growing or living in the middle of these options or all of the above, as ultimately the solution will always be.
For example, trying to understand the terrorists could lead to the following thoughts: anybody who harms civilians is a bad person. The attackers on 9/11 chose to attack America. Why? Partly because of the American military presence in the Middle East and America’s support of Israel. Some might jump off here and say let’s end both of these things. I would encourage continued thought (Israel on its own is a topic that requires great effort to understand all sides involved, and a place where they do that more than in the U.S., but where all sides need to reach understanding more urgently).
I would suggest that we think about how unique America is or isn’t in suffering a terrorist attack. I can remember off the top of my head major terrorist attacks occurring in Madrid, London, several places in Russia, Israel of course, India, and Norway since the attacks on the U.S. The scale may not be the same, but the frequency is much higher. When I lived in Russia five years ago, I remember having dinner with my uncle and talking to a friend of his. I was telling him about how I was writing a novel, largely autobiographical, centered on the traumas a young girl (not autobiographical) faces growing up when I did. Two of the main three traumas were the death of her mother and the events of 9/11. This man, hardly a Russian patriot, Jewish and hence disinclined to trust Russia in fact, but also possessing that old world elitist view towards America that, say, my father so well embodies, asked me if I thought 9/11 was really significant enough to base a novel on. “One attack and you want the world to cry for you?” Later, I dated a Russian woman who, in part referring to our response, described America as a child.
(Note to prospective literary agents reading this: that novel is finished and sitting on my hard drive, shockingly not yet picked up by any major publishing houses! Inquire within.)
I don’t think their criticism, especially its barbed tone, is wholly legitimate, but we would do well to remember the traumas that we, or our leaders and government at least, have visited upon other places, whether through action or passivity (Cambodia, for example, suffered from both). If we want to view ourselves as exceptional, as the preeminent power in the world, if we think Pax Americana is a good thing for the world, if we want to believe in ourselves and our manifest destiny this way, we need to try to understand, or indeed to understand how the world views us, and why. It’s not enough to just say that America is the best and if you don’t like it, you can get out. It’s not enough to make French jokes and wonder why they forgot about World War II, just as we forget about the American Revolution. It’s not enough to fight the terrorists and fear China. It’s not enough to call the Right batshit crazy or the Left liberal communist apologists (or, yes, Nazis). If we want to be exceptional, great, we have to try to live up to it, to what made us great: our openness, our attraction for immigrants, our ability to revive ourselves, and perhaps our newfound ability to understand one another and those beyond.
My 9/11 this year will be festive. High school friends and I will wake up in a house rented on Cape Cod for the wedding, amidst empty alcohol containers, strewn about clothes, and the vague silliness that memories the morning after a wedding consist of. We might watch the beginning of that day’s football games, many of us in a fantasy football league together, before Ben and I drive in his rented car up to Logan, possibly stopping by my dad’s house to pick up some things I could use in my Luxembourg apartment. We’ll hang out in the international lounge, then he’ll go to Madrid, I’ll go to Luxembourg via Paris, and somewhere over the Atlantic, hopefully asleep, I will pass that arbitrary day of significance, arbitrary in the way all measurements of time are, and awake on September 12th, 2011.
I would be mildly surprised if, amidst our revelry, any of us bring up what day it is (hopefully they don’t read this before that weekend, or else I will have spoiled my experiment and hypothesis). I would be more surprised if, even amidst our revelry, we don’t talk at least a little, indirectly, about the effects September 11th has had on us, individually or collectively. About the economy, about jobs, about the recession, about politics, and so on. It may be lazy to draw a direct line between all of those things and September 11th, but it would be foolish to deny that they are part of the same web.
On the plane, I will not pray. My belief is vaguer than it was ten years ago, more of an agnostic-tinged Jewish-Universalist view that I’m sure you’re not interested in hearing described. What I will do is what I have done since I was in high school, if not earlier, which is to tap my forehead with the first two fingers and thumb of my right hand in the shape of a triangle, first pointing up and then down, forming the outline of the Star of David. I cribbed it from Catholics crossing themselves, obviously, and I’ve stuck to it through years of spiritual wandering and wondering.
Were I to pray on the plane, I would not pray for my and my fellow passengers’ safety: I fly frequently and well, with little concern, and whatever fears I’ve had on planes came only after I started having someone to come home to, someone I would be afraid of losing and who would be afraid of losing me. I would not pray for my happiness, for the happiness of those who matter to me, for my mother to rest in peace, or anything that I prayed for before (which included, often, praying for the Patriots and the Red Sox, hardly noble subjects). My experience suggests that goal-driven prayers are not very effective, and that actions taken to achieve those things are more valuable.
Were I to pray on the plane, I’d pray for our country, and the world, prayers not meant to be mutually exclusive. I’d pray for us to continue to try to understand one another. I’d pray for us to listen more and browbeat less. I’d pray for America and the world to show renewed strength, to enter a new era of cohesion, of prosperity and growth and happiness. And I’d pray for us to understand one another, again.
I would have no illusions about these prayers being fulfilled.