DATE: 9/11/2004 05:03:00 PM
Has the smoke cleared yet?
Every year on Sept. 11, I sit down to write something about the events of 9/11/01. In past years, it's been a poem. In the first year, it was a poem, too, which I will put up here in a moment, because I realized yesterday that though it feels like I have kept this blog forever, it's really only been a little over two years, and the blog began the day Danny Pearl was beheaded in Pakistan--in response to it, actually, and that initial 9/11 poem has never been published here.
But poems, in my experience, are tricky thing. Poems have a tendency to gather in the back of my brain like wasps of cloud, till one by one they clump and draw together and eventually strike me like lightning, often causing me to sigh, flip over the covers, turn on the light, shield my eyes and curse, reaching for a notebook. Poems can't be forced. They can't be drawn up for an occasion. At least, not for me. The past two years, there has been enough stinging emotion left from 9/11 for poems to crystallize for me in time for the anniversary date. This year, there isn't. Maybe next year there will be--in other words, maybe there isn't a myopia to this phenomenon, a dulling and fading of emotion, but a statistical fluke, a logistical error.
But, whatever its indications for future rememberances, this year, there is no poem. So I must attempt to encapsulate in prose my thoughts about the darkest day of the country's history in my lifetime as its anniversary comes around again.
In previous years, I have also been sure to be awake by 8:46, the unforgettable hour that the first plane struck the World Trade Center. And 9:03, and so on. The first anniversary, I lit candles at each of the moments that marked the crashes of the four planes and the collapse of the twin towers. This year, though, exhausted beyond belief after attending the Patriots' home opener against the Indianapolis Colts, I was fast asleep until 10:30--until the whole echoed event had passed.
In many ways, though, this was eerily simlar to where I actually was on that date--in English class, this time fighting sleep to listen to a lecture about American literature, but just as unconscious of the world. I happened to leave Bartlett Hall to sit outside and have a cigarette when a young man ran up from the footpath with some news for his friends...
But still. I do feel ashamed that I couldn't be at least awake to remember an event in which 3,000 people lost their lives.
Which raised the question, for me, that forms the central rubric of my recollection today, which is, what do we owe them?--we, the people yet living, and they, those that perished? Rudy Giuliani made the decree that we owe them the re-election of George W. Bush. George W. Bush, in turn, has spent much of his Presidential term convincing us we owe them the deaths of thousands more overseas.
Sept. 11 has become a gimmick. It's become a political slogan. A rallying cry. A cliche. A stereotype. This, the bumper stickers caterwaul, is what we owe them--a cheesy, Hallmark-Hall-of-Fame style remembrance. We owe them...Saddam Hussein?
I'm sorry, but I'm not convinced. Not that we don't owe the dead something, but that what we owe them is politics. In my view, what we owe them is rememberance, but it is much different than which politics we support or where we send our military.
Because if there's one thing Sept. 11 highlighted to me and many for the first time is that we are not actually in control. One day, you could be vice president at Cantor-Fitzgerald. The next, you could be a Victim. I am not in control, really, of where our army fights or (if the 2000 election is any indication) of who will ultimately become President. What, then, within my own small life, that I can tangibly control, can I do for the people who died so painfully three years ago?
The overwhelming feeling I have when considering the events of Sept. 11 is one of disgust for politics. There is a creeping feeling that what happened on that day was in part a result of world politics and yet had surpassed them, in their scale and trauma and violence, into something altogetherly more universal and more human. The people who died, falling from the great heights to escape the flames, vaporized on the crushing impact of fuel-loaded jet engines, were Muslim, Jewish, Christian, atheist; they were Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated; they were black, white, asian, or something in between. Who we were going to vote for, who we had already voted for, who was to blame, was far from our minds in the initial moment of impact.
One enduring image that stays with me from Sept. 11 wherever I go is of a young woman photographed standing at the edge of the plane-shaped hole in Tower 2, her hand shielding her face from the sudden bright sunlight; she appears unscathed, and yet you know, with the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge that Tower 2 collapsed soon after, that she is doomed. What should I tell that woman, making eye contact with her through the camera's lens? That I will vote Kerry in 2004? What would I want to be told by the future, were I in her place?
Of course I can't claim to speak for her--let me get that out of the way. But my assumptions about what I would want were the tables turned are all I have to go on when I calculate my rememberance. It's all any of us have, really, which is why we've begun to align ourselves as Democrat or Republican, American or foreign, Christian or heathen, as we reconstruct the event year by year.
So what would I want, were I among the Sept. 11 dead? What I would want is certainly for people to remember--to stop their daily routine if only for a moment to reflect on me, to remember my loss, to remember what happened to our country that day. But what I would also want is for them to return to action, to break out of that freeze-frame and go about their lives in all the diverse ways our country lets them. I would want them to argue politics, maybe, if that's what made them happy, but I wouldn't necessarily choose either side. Angels are above all that.
I would want them, in short, to do the things I'd never get to do again--to drink in the crisp air of another autumn morning; to play in the snow, ideally in the company of children. I would want them to go on rooting for their favorite team, cheering for their favorite rock group; I would want them to go on crying at movies and singing along with the radio, with the wind of the highway whistling through the open car window. I would want them to go on as before, and if my loss had anything to do with it, it should be not to foster guilt or determine their course of action, but to make them appreciate it, to look around and think, this life, and this country, and everyone in it, are beautiful. And that means everyone. Conservatives and liberals. Firemen and protesters. Muslims and those of different faiths. Every race and culture that melts into our country's identity. Bush in 2004 or Kerry in 2004 makes no difference. Life in 2004 is what does.
If only for this one day, let's stop the arguing. Let's stop trying to figure out which of us occupies the highest ground now that our tallest buildings have lain in ashes these 36 months. Let's stop the finger-pointing, and remember not only the people who died, but the people who went on living that day--the men with their bunker gear on, slicing their hands on rubble in their haste to save their fallen comrades; the heartbroken doctors, their heads in their freshly scrubbed hands, as no injured victims turned up for them to help; the New Yorkers and people around the world who suddenly embraced one another in the face of disaster. That day was a great equalizer. "Today, we are all Americans," said one French newspaper. I disagree. That day, we were all just human beings.
What I wish for, as someone spared on a day when so many fell, is that someday it won't take blood and fire to bring that about.
And now, as promised, here's the poem I wrote, sitting outside the UMass Student Union in the ghastly-beautiful sunshine of Sept. 11, 2001--the best way I can think of to get back to Ground Zero, and all the things it meant:
Snow Over Brooklyn
The newspapers of the day were all out
in their little cages -- they lied.
Today was on our whispering lips
Instead--"impossible", we said,
"Impossible." We gathered in the quiet crowds
and stared through our fingers into screens--
watched the toothpick figures plummeting
watched the silence in the skies,
watched the vacuum left by giants
watched the shattering, so much glass.
In the fallout, Brooklyn had a sudden winter,
snow in Indian summer,
strange flakes fripped from heaven
blizzards of words,
broken, a dry bloodfall,