Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11/09 - Remembering our Collective Humanity

I don't really have much to say on this eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. So much has happened since that day, that day when the whole country was glued to their televisions and computers unsure of what to make of the tragic events. When I find myself watching footage from 9/11/01, I am almost overwhelmed in thinking about all of the historical steps that the United States would take beginning on 9/12. Wars, torture, lawsuits, the Patriot Act, wiretaps...connecting how we travelled from then to now is a confusing, frustrating, and often enraging task.

People were very afraid after the attacks and who wouldn't be afraid? Normalcy was abruptly interrupted by the horrific images that the entire world got to see in real time on television. The whole world seemed to be spinning as all kinds of information flowed into our heads and as all of us tried to make sense of every last detail. Some of us turned to our peers to comfort our fears, some of us turned to our families, and some of us turned to the leaders of this country for direction and guidance. Our leaders fed on this fear. Our leaders took this fear, mixed it with rage, and began to march this country into a war that is still going on to this day. All of a sudden we were bombarded with color-coded warning systems, enemies that seemed to take on mythological characteristics, and a version of Patriotism that was more interested in gathering support for "payback" as opposed to discussing a rational way forward.

The next thing you know, we were being led into a war that was based on false claims, our phones were being tapped to "protect us", and our leaders were justifying torturing prisoners and their supposed authority to hold them without charge for an indefinite amount of time. We had spiraled out of control and were a nation that was divided. "With us or against us", black and white, good versus evil. No middle ground and no questioning. Our leaders told us that they knew best and anyone that objected to torture or to launching an unprovoked war were labeled anti-American and accused of living in a "pre-9/11" mentality.

This was quite amazing considering that the real story on 9/11/01 centered around the heroism of the ordinary. In New York City, boundaries that once separated, were broken and stereotypes seemed irrelevant to those who were caught in the chaos of the falling towers in Lower Manhattan. Heroism was not defined in a singular figure that was a Hollywood creation, heroism was defined in the collective. The coworkers who helped others to safety, passersby who lent a helping hand to those fleeing the smoke and debris, and those who ran back into the danger to bring the helpless out. Simply put, we were human that day. Our labels didn't matter, our colors didn't matter, and our beliefs didn't matter...our humanity mattered.

Rebecca Solnit has a good piece posted today at on this very point and it is worth your time to read. These moments that allowed for the magnification our collective humanity were the real stories of 9/11 and I think that point needs to be stressed and remembered. This was all but forgotten as this country raced off into the so-called "War on Terror" and began eroding the very characteristics of humanity that were magnified on 9/11.

I will close with a portion of Solnit's piece:

Every city that has had, or will have, a disaster should have such a carnival of remembrance and preparation. For one thing, it commemorates all the ways that San Franciscans were not defeated and are not helpless; for another, it reminds us that, in disaster, we are often at our best, however briefly, that in those hours and days many have their best taste of community, purposefulness, and power. (Reason enough for many of those who are supposed to be in charge to shudder.) For the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians were invited to ring bells, lay wreaths, pray, encircle the Superdome, that miserable shelter of last resort for those stranded in the hurricane and flood, and of course listen to music and dance in the streets to second-line parades, but also to keep volunteering and rebuilding. (Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of that disaster is the vast army of citizen-volunteers who came to the city's aid, when the government didn't, and are still doing so.)

New York has its pillars of light and readings of names for the anniversary of 9/11, but it seems to lack any invitation to the citizenry to feel its own power and prepare for the next calamity. For there will be next times for San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, and possibly -- in this era of extreme and turbulent weather, and economic upheaval -- a great many other cities and towns in this country and elsewhere.

That hydrant on a quiet residential corner of San Francisco is about the only monument to the 1906 earthquake and fire. The rebuilt city, the eventual rise of disaster preparedness, the people who go on with their everyday lives -- these are the monument San Francisco needed and every city needs to transcend its calamities. New Yorkers could gather in Union Square and elsewhere to remember what happened, really remember, remember that the heroes weren't necessarily men, or in uniform, but were almost everyone everywhere that day.

They could open their hearts and minds to discuss mourning, joy, death, violence, power, weakness, truth and lies, as they did that week. They could consider what constitutes safety and security, what else this country could be, and what its foreign and energy policies have to do with these things. They could walk the streets together to demonstrate that New York is still a great city, whose people were not frightened into going into hiding or flight from public and urban life. They could more consciously and ceremoniously do what New Yorkers, perhaps best of all Americans, do every day: coexist boldly and openly in a great mixture of colors, nationalities, classes, and opinions, daring to speak to strangers and to live in public.

The dead must be remembered, but the living are the monument, the living who coexist in peace in ordinary times and who save one another in extraordinary times. Civil society triumphed that morning in full glory. Look at it: remember that this is who we were and can be.

This piece is crossposed here.

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