September 11: A Decade Later

I don’t know if it’s obligatory for all bloggers to post a reflection today, a decade after September 11, 2001—to dig up memories of the unforgettable morning, the emotions that surrounded all of us that day.  It feels obligatory for me, given my blog’s exploration particularly of America and Americans, to confront in some sense that day on which I felt most American: American in a way I will probably never fully feel again.

I have a lot of memories of that day.  Waking to find one of the towers gone (the West Coast time difference really mattered that day) and watching in silence with my mother in the living room as the second tower fell.  Driving to work, realizing upon arrival that I could not last the day not knowing what was happening, then running out to buy a cheap FM radio and headphones at the nearest drugstore at 9 in the morning.  Relaying reports to co-workers all day: “they say that 30,000 might be dead”, “they say there may be several other planes hijacked”, “they say Saddam Hussein might be connected with this”.  After the workday, a meeting of YMCA Youth and Government advisors (I have no idea how we conducted a meeting that evening) and then dinner with Graham and Josh at a local Subway where we struggled as 20-something guys to articulate feelings we couldn’t get ironic distance from.  Driving over to Betsy’s to find her crying, since her father had told her we’d probably go to war and I’d get drafted (thanks again to my father-in-law for that, by the way), and attempting to console her without really knowing how, without really knowing if her father was wrong.  These fragments don’t quite fit together—I return to the jigsaw puzzle that is my memory of that day to find half the pieces missing.  There are things I saw and felt that day I cannot retrieve, and perhaps it is better that way.

I have a lot of other memories that surface today.  The 1st anniversary, when my boss gave us the morning off to do whatever we thought we needed to do, so I went to St. Mark’s and was one of a handful there for Morning Prayer.  Afterwards I walked around memorials in the nave, and stopped at the book to write remembrances and prayers for the dead.  I wrote down Jason and Alina’s names, because, although their deaths had nothing to do with 9/11, somehow the personal tragedy of March 2002 was inextricably wrapped up for me with the communal tragedy of that day—in a year, so many good things were unexpectedly gone.  And then the wars, both of which I supported at the outset—I’ll admit it, I believed Colin Powell and the President and the rest when they told us we had to stop Iraq or there would be another day of death and sorrow.  And since then, the long years of death and sorrow.  The names of the military dead read aloud every week at St. Margaret’s, each of them a man or woman who will not return to family and friends, each of them a life irrevocably altered by that day, ten years ago.  And the names we do not read, but which every week I contemplate in my silent praying along—the names of the innocent dead, collaterally damaged, thousands of them, Iraqis and Afghanis, whose fates are bound up in this as well.  We do not learn their names; we do not display them on monuments or read them solemnly at the end of our newscasts.  As much as possible, we forget them entirely, not because we are inhuman, but because we are human.  We don’t know what to do with all of this.

I don’t know what to do with all of this.  We live in a nation that will be shadowed by 9/11 for as long as my generation lives, in the same way that Britain and France lived out a generation in the shadow of Verdun and Ypres and Passchendale and all the other trenches that claimed millions of young men, in the same way that I see the shadow of Hiroshima falling over every film that Miyazaki has ever made (and doubtless the art of many other Japanese writers and painters and film-makers, if I was only well-read and widely traveled enough to know them).  I am not convinced that the presence of this powerful memory has worked to our benefit more often than to our harm.  I find that when I am most haunted by 9/11, when the emotions of that day come back to me most vividly, I am not the man my country deserves.  I become frightened, defensive, and filled with vengeful anger at men who could have done such horrifying things.  My vision fills so fully with the smoke of the collapsing towers that I cannot see anything else.  And it is no disrespect to the memory of the lives lost that day, over three thousand of them, to say that seeing only that day blinds me to America, and blinds me to who we need to become.

I think the real trouble with 9/11 is that we cannot find the right emotion for the day.  Anger led us into conflicts which have not quenched that rage.  Fear continues to maim us as a country, restricting what we feel we can say or do, restricting most of all those among us who look or sound or act in ways that we associate with our fears—I talk about living in the shadow of 9/11, but who among us is more gravely affected by that day than American Muslims, whose love of country and whose commitment to peace are under constant scrutiny, and whose motives are always suspected by a vocal group that I pray is a minority, not a majority, of my countrymen.  And talking of nobler and better sentiments can seem strangely inappropriate—I personally believe in the power of love and forgiveness to transform human hearts, but in using those words in this context, will I offend you?  Will you tell me that I have no right to talk of forgiving murderers since I lost no one I loved that day?  That I have no right to talk of loving people who acted with such hatred for their fellow human beings?  Maybe you would be gentler than that with me…but not everyone would.  And it is hard for me to know how to deal with all of this: to know how I really expect love and forgiveness to act on something of this magnitude.

I am paralyzed by today, not because of the depth of my feelings (though they are present again, and real), but because I do not know how to navigate waters that are so painful for so many.  I think this is the paralysis present in the whole nation.  We do not know how to confront something like this—to say “move on” can sound like “we don’t care about the people who died”.  To say “never forget” can sound like “never leave behind the feelings of anger and fear”.  I have written and discarded at least three different endings to this post today, and I can’t say if I should have written or discarded any of them.  All I know is that I feel compassion and sorrow for too many people today.  For those I know who lost someone on 9/11 and still feel the searing pain of it, and for those I know whose countries and cultures and religion have been demonized and abused because of America’s attempts to take away that pain.  I can’t compartmentalize it today—can’t “just” remember those who died on 9/11 or the heroes of that day, and ignore all I feel about what’s happened since, both good and bad.  And I can’t oversimplify it today, either, and say that I know exactly what we should have done in Afghanistan, or Iraq—that I know exactly what would have been the right thing to do at the time.  I know how I feel today, but I know how I felt on 9/12, and how I felt in the spring of 2003 when we were headed for war with Iraq.  Feelings are hard to trust.  And increasingly I live in a world where it is hard to say what I “know”.

I know this.  I want to live in a more loving nation.  A more forgiving nation.  I want to live in a nation where 9/11 is not a day to remember our anger and fear and sense of powerlessness, but rather a day to celebrate the lives of those we love and how we have been inspired by the examples of heroic and selfless sacrifice exhibited by so many, not only that day, but every single day and all across the world.  I want to live in a nation that can distinguish between revenge and justice, between hatred and honest criticism, between those who want to destroy us and those who, having been hurt by us, want that pain made right somehow.  Frankly, I want all of the above, not only for my nation, but for my planet.  I don’t know if the kind of reflection and conversation happening today can get us closer.  But I think it’s worth a shot.  In the meantime, wherever you are today and however today touches you, may peace be with you.

“Camila had intended to be perfunctory and if possible impudent, but now she was struck for the first time with the dignity of the old woman.”

There is a remarkable beauty to the scene that begins with the above quote.  The situation is this.  The Marquesa, an increasingly confused old woman (in part because of alcoholism she uses to blunt the pain she feels at the cruelty of her daughter), attended a theatrical performance in which the greatest performer in Peru acted and sang.  The Marquesa was so taken at the beauty of the actress, the quality of her voice, and the pathos of the play, she was oblivious to the fact that the actress, Camila, had added songs between scenes of a satirical nature.  These satirical songs took many verbal jabs at the Marquesa, mocking her age, her looks, etc., to the great amusement of the audience, until finally the Marquesa’s serving-girl convinced her to leave (with the Marquesa remaining blissfully oblivious that she was the target of the laughter).  The Viceroy, a powerful man who wants to stay on the good side of the Marquesa’s son-in-law, decides he cannot allow a middle-class actress to take such liberties with the noblewoman, and orders her to go to the Marquesa, dressed in black, to apologize.

This is where Wilder creates a scene that is almost philosophical.  Camila, the actress, is indignant—she cannot believe that she must humble herself to go apologize to this strange, ugly old woman who is a joke to virtually everyone in town.  But when she comes to the Marquesa, she finds a woman strangely serene—serene, of course, because the Marquesa is still unaware that Camila had been mocking her from the stage.  In fact, the Marquesa is extraordinarily kind to Camila, praising her talent, assuring her of how much she enjoys her performances.  This behavior fills Camila with shame, with real humility, at the graciousness of this elderly woman who will not so much as allude to the offensive way she had been treated.  And so as the scene unfolds, Camila expresses her repentance with the sweetest sincerity and the most genuine regret to a woman who does not understand it, while the Marquesa offers a benevolent forgiveness without even knowing it.  This ought to be humorous, as I describe it, and yet it isn’t—it feels like deep truth.  There is something real and honest about the idea that we often forgive more than we know; that we regret offenses that have offended no one.  I found the scene very moving in a way I’m struggling to articulate here.

And the whole of the Marquesa’s story affects me in this way.  I don’t have time to dig into this whole section of the book, but the relationship of the Marquesa to her serving-girl (a novice from a convent who is being trained by an Abbess who is wise to the world’s ways), and their respective relationships to the women they care about (the Marquesa’s daughter and the Abbess, respectively) as expressed through letters, are really wonderful to read.  And even though I’ve known from the first sentence of the novel that the bridge falls, the end of this section, with its simple conclusion that “while crossing the bridge of San Luis Rey the accident which we know befell them,” hit me with a sadness I’ve only felt once or twice in the Pulitzer journey thus far.  The only problem with Wilder’s approach, of course, is that all of the characters I’ve grown attached to are now either dead or irrelevant, as we move on to the next victims of the bridge’s collapse—I’m not sure he can sustain my emotional connection to the novel.  But if he can, this is shaping up to be a very solid reading experience and a book worth recommending to others.