Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering September 11: the first two years.

I'm growing a little tired of the marking of the anniversary of September 11, 2001, every year. I was in New York that day, starting a regular day at work, on my first day after returning from a long vacation. No, I don't bear any scars from that day, but I do wish we'd tone it all down a bit. It's time, isn't it? Let me show you what I mean.

I was in the World Trade Center's underground plaza half an hour before the first plane hit. My train came in from New Jersey at that stop. I was in the office fifteen minutes before the first plane hit.

We evacuated the building after the second one hit. No one seemed to think anything of it until the second one; it was just a curious one-off. I was stranded in Manhattan until about 4:00, when I finally caught a ferry back across the Hudson River and walked three miles home to the west side of Jersey City.

I was in the World Trade Center's underground plaza half an hour before the first plane hit. My train came in from New Jersey at that stop. I was in the office fifteen minutes before the first plane hit.

We evacuated the building after the second one hit. No one seemed to think anything of it until the second one; it was just a curious one-off. I was stranded in Manhattan until about 4:00, when I finally caught a ferry back across the Hudson River and walked three miles home to the west side of Jersey City.

For the next couple of weeks, the day was referred to as "Tuesday," because it was a Tuesday. Then we started saying "the eleventh." Then as time went on it became "September eleventh." About the middle of October a coworker said "9/11," and I said, "What's that?" and she said, "'9/11.' That's what they're calling the attacks now." I didn't like it. I still don't. I still say "September 11." I won't use the term "9/11." It sounds too much like marketing, and if anything, this incident doesn't need any more marketing.

We breathed the dust from the smoldering heaps ten blocks to the south for months. It smoldered from burning office building parts. The ash was also burning human parts, but no one talked about that. I sure didn't. That was too much to talk about, especially if you're going to inhale it every day.

Flags appeared everywhere. By Veteran's Day, which was exactly two months later, I decided I couldn't take it anymore. I half hoped that after Veteran's Day, everyone would think that since this was the end of a legitimate patriotic holiday, it was time to take down all the flags, and on November 12 we'd be back to normal. That didn't happen. Someone wanted to change our lives with those attacks, and they did it. Everyone was waving flags well into 2002, posting threatening messages for all would-be terrorists. They were supposed to be lurking everywhere, eager to strike at any moment, but that didn't happen. The White House wouldn't shut up about them, though, and wouldn't stop bellowing about how we're going to fight terrorism by waving flags and shopping. The recession was underway as sales of Chinese-made American flags soared. "9/11" had changed everything, including the federal marketing strategy.

I went to my native western Pennsylvania on the first weekend of February, 2002. I wanted to go to Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day to see Punxsutawney Phil forecast the weather. I'd never seen this. I headed to Gobbler's Knob with a record number of participants and waited for dawn in the bitter cold under a clear Appalachian sky. The nineteenth century-style pomp carried on and this over-the-top celebration of America's favorite oversized rodent advanced as more or less usual. But the officiants, while announcing Phil's imminent appearance, lauded the groundhog's patriotism, which pissed me off. Groundhogs can't vote. Okay, I recognize that groundhogs can't forecast the weather, either, so what's the big deal, right? I still didn't appreciate the taint, though. There's something innocent about the absurdity of Groundhog Day, and these people were wrecking it. Maybe I was being too sensitive, but can you blame me? After being beaten with the White House's "9/11" club for four and a half months, I think I had a legitimate complaint. At Punxsutawney's Groundhog Day festivities, someone had drawn a cartoon groundhog in army fatigues with the caption "Sgt. Phil huntin' for terrorists." What the hell? The September 11 attackers had demanded that we give up our way of life, and the White House was helping them to get us to give it up. The terrorists had terrified us, and the Bush administration made sure we stayed scared.

I still remember walking around New York after the World Trade Center had fallen. They talked about how "everything had changed" on TV, but I didn't feel it. It took weeks for that feeling to actually start to become apparent, fed by Republican politicians and conservative talking heads who were always ready for something else to beat up the Democrats about. America didn't have to change, and it didn't actually change until the efforts on the part of America's insecure conservatives started to change it.

The moral of the story: If someone punches you in order to make you do something, you only lose if you do what they say. We were morally obliged to not be intimidated by al Qaeda, and we failed. Calling our conterterrorism efforts a "war" was our first major mistake. Continuing to call it a "war" only makes things worse.

Every year I feel more bitter about the manipulation of this day. Every year it's worse. I don't feel that I was more affected than most people by it—sure, I lived in New York at the time, but I didn't actually lose anyone in those towers. But isn't it strange that right wingers from all around the country are the ones waving the bloody shirt about New York City, while New Yorkers (apart from their former mayor) are not so quick to do so? Think about it.

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