A former engineering student, on seeing film of the World Trade Center towers collapse on September 11th, 2001, indicated surprise. He told a friend that he would have thought that on being hit with jumbo jets, the two or three immediately affected floors of the tower would have been destroyed but the structures would probably remain standing, or at most the floors above the impact sites could possibly collapse due to melting support beams but the lower floors would stand. The complete collapse, above and below the impact sites, of both of the structures was a surprise to him, given his engineering training.
Those remarks were made shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Almost ten years later the same man who made these remarks was shot to death by US special forces agents in a raid on a residential compound in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. And just like Osama bin Laden, the former engineering student1 who made those remarks, also a businessman, and ultimately, the world’s most serious terrorist ever (and no relation to me), I also have a hard time believing that it happened. But it did happen and the fallout from that event is still with us, and in fact, getting worse.
Many have spoken of the Post Patriot Act world, affecting day to day life in America, the wars, our treatment of our fellow humans at Gitmo and untold secret prisons around the world, the rise of the most expensive bureaucracy ever, all that. Icons of post 9/11 loom over us largely, and also exist in a small way in every nook and cranny of day to day life. And it rarely makes sense.
I once told you about a rural Iowan, who felt trapped and scared in the Big City, calling an elderly African American homeless wheel chair bound gentleman a “Terrorist.” That was an example of regular people substituting mundane daily fears, in this case, the “inner city” the “Black man” and I suppose “Wheel chairs” … oh, and we were in a “deli” run by “middle eastern people” so there was that too … with the largely made-up bogeyman of “Terrorist.”
One day last summer criminals drove down our street and carried out a criminal act before our very eyes, so we called 911. The police showed up way too late to matter and with way too many cops to make me think they were anything but frightened to go out alone, and the first thing they did was to demand to see my identification. I’m standing in my yard at the Weber, coals hot, brats cooking, a long bbq style fork in my hand and an apron that says “A Man and his Grill” on it and the cop is asking me for my identification.2 I blew him off with a stern look, and he went away. (Our cops are fairly meek. That would not have worked everywhere.) But that has become the norm: When the cops show up, you better damn well assume we live in a police state at least for that moment, or pretty soon you’ll be assuming the position just for standing there. Yes, folks, more and more people are being treated just like black folk in this country always have been. That should tell you something. One step backwards. Then a few more steps backwards.
I used to be a guy who called 911, when appropriate, and probably more than others on average. Now, I only call 911 if someone is in physical danger or needs medical attention. If I’m going to get shaken down for helping the coppers, the coppers can help themselves, thank you.
When an accident happens, or even some crap falls off a truck and causes an obstruction in the road, the First Reponders show up and close more lanes than they need to and they saunter. Yes, that’s what I said. Instead of rushing in and managing the situation safely and effectively, they saunter around in full view of the drivers who are all forced over onto the shoulder to get by the scene. One day I sat in traffic for a half hour going north on State Route 169, and for the last six or seven minutes of that I could clearly see the two fire trucks that were blocking most of the lanes of traffic and the first responders sauntering around with absolutely nothing going on, no debris, no inured citizens, no other vehicles, nothing on the road to clean up, no “investigation” in progress, and they were passing around coffee. I’m sure there were donuts somewhere. I’m a fairly observant person and I’m not especially paranoid, and I’m pretty sure that I’m right: Post 911 first responders think they are the shit because hundreds of them died in the World Trade Center. This change in status and attitude is seen everywhere in our culture, I don’t need to convince you of that. Here, I’m just adding in that extra bit of unnecessary and costly sauntering at scenes that should be cleared. Because the cultural details matter even when they are small.
Do you know that during the late 1960s, when the US was in the throes of an unpopular war and a on the edge of revolution at home, there were an average of well over one hijacking of a commercial airplane flying out of a US based airport every month? Do you know what the reaction to that was? Metal detectors, and eventually baggage screening. Society did not change. It just got slightly harder, but not much harder, to get onto an airplane. Post 9/11 changes have been enormous and far reaching and pervasive. Now, I’m not trying to equate, or even compare, the scores of hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s with 9/11 and related acts (such as the attack on the Cole and the earlier WTC bombing, etc). There is no way to make that comparison. What I am trying to compare is the reaction, then vs. now. And, I’m not even comparing the reaction, exactly. What I’m trying to point out here is that in the 60s, the governmental and societal reaction to a significant spate of hijackings was to address airport security. The more recent reaction (to 9/11) was to shift all of society and almost every aspect of American culture, the activities of ever government department and agency, the expectations and rule sets, the budgets, the procedural manuals, and everything else to a paranoid modality and to institute what is essentially a low-level police state. That’s a difference worth noting. And worth complaining about.
Generation 9/11. History will be at least a little embarrassed by us.
Recently, we’ve been discussing the State Mandated Recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. The reason this is becoming increasingly enforced around the US is because of various state laws passed in time to be in place for today’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, or more generally as part of a post 9/11 culture. In one of our local schools, students had interesting responses to this happening on their turf, expressed in a school paper’s “debate” layout. The printed views were even … same number for and same number against. Those against the pledge requirement made all the usual and generally quite convincing arguments and did a great job. Those in favor of the jingoistic approach were, well, jingoistic, but, with an interesting and very positive twist; Most of them gave sway to atheists and agnostics. They said that they fully supported people leaving off the “under god” part and totally understood why they might do that. And none of the pro-pledge opinions were dripping with religious commentary or reference. It is important to note that of all the high schools in the region, the one to which I refer to is in the top four or five with respect to conservatism of the area served (it is in a Michele Bachmann clone’s Congressional District), and in the top two with respect to per capita wealth of the residents, and is probably the least diverse district in the state.
And that is interesting because the average high school kid is about 16 years old, meaning that they were 6 when the 9/11 attacks happened, and therefore, the attacks themselves are not necessarily part of their own cultural composition to the same degree that it is with older folk. These are kids that grew up in the post 9/11 world without necessarily feeling the powerful disbelief that many of us felt, followed by whatever fear or rage or helplessness or sense of dread or revenge that affected so many. The bad news is that this generation has become accustom to a much, much lower standard of freedom than many older people have, but this also means that when they confront this lack of freedom they may be more willing to rebel against it because they related less directly to the Defining Moment.
Sauntering firemen and cocky police officers are not the end of the world and they are not the Nazi’s or the Bradbury’s Salamander. They are, rather, puddles of dried blood from a minor wound. When you get into a bad accident, you may get a major wound that could kill or maim you, but you will also get a lot of minor wounds that on their own would not mean much. But you know that the accident was truly traumatic when the minor wounds add up to a plethora but are uncounted or ignored because they are just background. Sauntering firemen, cocky police officers, and Iowans who label homeless wheel chair bound African American old guys as “terrorists” are the tiny scrapes and bruises on a battered corpse.
And now might be a good point to ask the question, “What has risen from the ashes of the 9/11 attacks?” There was much talk at the time, and since then, and again today, about how great America is, how great Americans are, and how we will move forward and become better and stronger and so on and so forth. But it is just talk. What has happened instead is something entirely different.
The giddy fear and sense of dread that comes from a violent moment clouds the mind, of the individual or more broadly but also the collective social mind. The disorientation that caused that lady from Iowa to mistake the wheel chair bound homeless man for a “terrorist” represents an internal derailing of logic. The guard rail is down, the road is slippery, and rational thought has spun not just into the ditch but across the highway into oncoming traffic. The playbook has become garbled and the Quarterback is running the wrong way. The general, gone mad, is locked up on the army base with the launch codes. Twelve Angry Men, Lord of the Flies … stop me before I metaphor again! I think you get the point. There are a lot of people who benefit from our present social pathology, and that surely has been a factor. But also, it is simply a social pathology that we are experiencing, a terrorist victory, a lack of character on our part as a nation.
But the scary part is what comes out of it, and by now you have probably guessed my point. The Tea Party and things like the Tea Party. Strongly held anti-social illogical destructive beliefs with no hope of critical self evaluation, in a large and organized part of the population. It is obvious why this happened in the Republican Party and not the Democratic Party, but people on both sides of the political aisle have contributed. Literalist, libertarian, paranoid, self-centered, easily frightened, reactionary, sub-average in intelligence, deluded in self worth and unmovable in conviction and belief despite all evidence to the contrary. The lady from Iowa, the sauntering firemen, the sheep who welcome being harassed by the TSA agents at the gate, the people who are happy to click “I agree” when confronted with a 43 page EULA that, somewhere in there, tells you the thing you just bought and paid for is not yours; A general social willingness to be told what to do, fear of not being told what to do, cynicism that we can think of what to do on our own, and utter disbelief that collective progressive action any longer has potential or meaning.
The little puddles of drying blood are everywhere, splatter evidence not from the 9/11 attacks but from our national and social flailing about and rending of cloth and flesh as aftermath. It isn’t just that the terrorist won on that day; It is much much worse than that. First they beat us, then they recruited us to do ourselves in.
Happy Anniversary 9/11
1Apparently there is some question as to whether or not Osama bin Laden was actually an engineering student, but we’ll roll with it for the present purposes. Here’s the video of him making the remarks I paraphrased:
2I’m exaggerating. There was no apron. But I was wearing my Darwin I Think Cap.