(photo by ck/ck)
San Diego was the city of naval bases, the air show every year. Certain bright afternoons I would be in my room and hear the loud engine of a plane overhead. San Diego’s airport is right in the heart of the city, and the planes flew so low it looked like they might skim the tops of trees. I caught myself wondering, worrying, if one might crash into a house nearby. One year a small plane did and crashed in a neighborhood my friends lived in. It was much more bizarre than frightening. But I don’t think I ever thought very much about the noises of the planes before that day in 2001.
This weekend I read countless retrospectives, wrenching tales from New Yorkers who lived through 9/11 first hand. I read a story in The New Yorker, published in February, 2002, about a real, forgotten hero, a Security Advisor at the World Trade Center and a war veteran. The tag line named it a love story, and it began with a narrative of the unlikely meeting between the hero and the woman who would become the hero’s wife. It was a beautiful romance, and it ended with his valiant evacuation efforts on 9/11. He didn’t manage to save himself. I read it on my iPhone, on the subway and waiting outside a restaurant. It made me cry.
Then I read “The Decade of Magical Thinking” by Steve Almond, published in The Rumpus two days ago, 2011. He wrote about the “hysterical indulgence” and “bullying narcissism” of America. It was a critique of America’s lack of sympathy, its tendency to lean on political agendas and manipulations even in response to a tragedy, but a tragedy that was diminutive compared to the rest of the world’s infinite unrecorded tragedies. It made me upset, angry.
But why? I felt like I sided with the New Yorkers who were here, who lost, who stumbled, whose lives had a clear divide: before and after. Who saw Ground Zero and felt something. Except that I had no claim to it—I didn’t have friends or family or even distant acquaintances caught in the towers. When it happened I barely even knew New York.
I don’t think about 9/11 very much. It was something that was always past tense, a snapshot of devastation, with its aftermath infiltrating life in subtle but natural ways. I couldn’t remember the time when I went through an airport without its now ubiquitous security rules. Today I wonder if I had somehow, missed something. I wonder if my experience of 9/11 wasn’t quite right, I wondered if I lacked the authority to write about it.
The night before the storm, before the subways shut down for the weekend, I couldn’t sleep. I worried about the leak in my ceiling, how the shattered glass from my window might change my room. In the morning I totted a few belongings to a friend’s apartment further inland. I saw and felt a smug recognition at the bulging overnight bags the other people on the subway platform carried. It felt a bit like the end of the world. But it was wonderful, too, something I knew everyone had in common. Well wishes and collective paranoid concern.
Steve Almond writes that a central duty of the artist is to complicate moral action. He writes a beautiful, brief scene of a child silently starving to death in a mother’s arms. He writes of Americans talking about their experiences of watching television, this grotesque juxtaposition. He’s right, of course. Look at the bigger picture, at the history of the world, the notorious wars and tyranny and exploitation and violence, at the infinite nightmares that occur every moment. But it is also a futile point—it is easy to take this omniscient, all encompassing, objective moral perspective, and deem every tragedy an opportunity to reflect on all other tragedies in the world. (Though…not so long ago, Roxanne Gay wrote a moving piece in the The Rumpus in response to Amy Winehouse’s death calling for infinite compassion: “death is a tragedy whether it is the death of one girl woman in London or seventy-six men, women and children in Norway. We know this but perhaps it needs to be said over and over again so we do not forget.”) But why this, why now? Is criticism of a taboo subject really bravery?
I wonder. Maybe there aren’t so many other essays that take this perspective, not because others haven’t thought similar criticisms, not because they are too scared of judgment, but because 9/11 is a sacred occasion. One that makes it possible to, however fleetingly, share a moment of warmth, of grief and love and pain and forgiveness, of a unity rarely possible elsewhere. Maybe it’s best that this date should be focused solely on America, should be allowed to be bitterly, truthfully narcissistic. Maybe this is the one date that Americans shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about the hunger and war and poverty of the rest of the world. Maybe this is an opportunity to show the compassion that Almond so calls for, in exactly the way that he dismisses, by, yes, writing about watching television.
One story at a time, with no global platform and no lectures, only the voices of each person who remembers this certain moment in history, every touched and changed life. Maybe it is this call for a response, collective story telling that is the most wonderful memorial. No matter how insignificant, no matter how far fetched.