September 11, 2011

From Safety to Where?


In recent days it’s been hard to turn on the television or radio or look at a news site on the computer without drowning in teary-eyed, heartfelt “9/11” crap. Because of this, I’ve avoided my television, radio, and Internet news sites. First and foremost I’ve never had any patience for the term “9/11.” I don’t even know how that became the Officially Trademarked Brand Name—the fucking corporate logo—of the events of that day. I watched as the networks squabbled over whether to call the rubble of the twin towers “The Pit,” “The Pile,” or “Ground Zero,” eventually settling on the one that made the least sense. It took them a week or two, and if you go back and watch the original broadcasts it’s pretty funny.

            Ah, but that’s beside the point. Our contemporary media’s obsession with the semantics of tragedies is one of our culture’s more blatantly irksome (if absurdly entertaining) trends. I preferred it when we could just call things what they were, like “The Bombing of Pearl Harbor” instead of, oh, “JapWave ’41.”


            In the days surrounding the tenth anniversary of the attacks, thousands of people with any kind of public outlet will be recounting ad nauseam the tales of what they did that day. I’ve already done that, and I’m not interested in doing it again. Instead, I want to try to explain what I did in the months following the attacks.

            I’m ashamed to admit that in the days immediately afterward, I was as blindly (so to speak) swept up in the jingoistic vengeance hoopla as anyone as I wandered the streets with Morgan, the air still stinking of melted plastic, every free bit of wall space plastered with hastily-made “Missing” posters. As we sat in the bar with the rest of the silent crowd watching the first airstrikes on Afghanistan, I thought it was a good thing. A bit of swift revenge and bloodlust is good for the soul. The building I was living in at the time even had a big American flag hanging out front, just like every other building on the block.

            But then with each passing day, things I was seeing, and things I remembered from that day, were making less and less sense to me.

            The bumbling newscasters reporting that car bombs were going off all over the city were one thing—that sort of misinformation comes out whenever newscasters are left on their own. And I could be entertained by the urban legends that immediately began popping up—the famous photo of a tourist posing on top of one of the towers as behind him, a plane is about to strike, and that story about the man who survived after skiing down the side of the tower as it fell. Silly stories of course that made no sense at all if you thought about them, but they made the rounds.

            Those things I could accept. But there were other things, like the report from the White House stating that they had in their possession a list of intended targets (including the White House). Now, wait a second . . . where did this list come from? And how long have you had it?

            (Two months later, the White House released an official retraction. I guess they didn’t really have a list.)

It also seemed a little strange that the first doctor on the scene in the Pennsylvania field—a crash that would for a while anyway become such a symbol of something or another— reported that there were no bodies amid the wreckage. The official argument was that they’d all been vaporized in the impact, and it was left at that.

Then within just a day or two, the unburned passport of one of the hijackers was found on the ground near the trade center site. What’s that now?

            It wasn’t just conspiracy nut bits like that that started making me scratch my head. As the months dragged on, then the years, I saw what was happening to us.

            The Patriot Act was passed without debate in what, hours? And the cameras started going up everywhere. Airport security screenings became increasingly invasive rolling slapstick affairs, and every time some numbskull did try to blow up a shoe or set fire to his underpants, a new layer of absurdity was added. It wasn’t just a matter of closing the barn door after the cow ran away—it was more like going around and closing every barn door in the county after the cow tried to get away, but didn’t. The F.B.I. began releasing lists of James Bond gadgets they claimed “terrorists” were using right now to destroy us all. Guns disguised as ball point pens and shampoo laced with anthrax. I’m amazed we’re still allowed to board planes while clothed.

Armed troops appeared outside restaurants and in the subways, stopping and checking bags and IDs. A code on the television told us how scared we needed to be that day. The families of the people who died in the attacks—very few of whom were architects that I’m aware of—were given a say in the final design of the building that would go up on the spot, and their idiotic squabbling held up any actual work for years. But nobody could say a word because these cretins had been granted some weird status on account of being related to dead people.

            Anti-car bomb barricades started going up in front of important buildings. More cameras went up. Then camera and video phones hit the market, allowing people to keep an eye on themselves and the people around them. A forgotten Macy’s bag on a subway platform could shut the trains down for hours, and the MTA encouraged this with an ad campaign. People started losing their jobs over things they said or wrote about “9/11.” The term “9/11” also became a ready excuse for anything from sleeplessness to poor job performance to child molestation. And people accepted it. (Feel free to add your own personal outrages whenever you see fit.)

The names of hundreds of thousands of suspicious characters were kept in a database, and suddenly dozens of shifty-eyed seven-year-olds were being told they couldn’t get on a plane because they were a security risk. The Justice Department started a program called Total Information Access which would keep records of well, everything. People were being arrested for things they wrote in emails. Phone companies were happily passing customer records to the NSA.

            Sikhs were beaten, and the owners of Middle Eastern restaurants had to slap new signs over the old ones to announce that they now served burgers and pizza.

            Few people said a word about any of this. It all seemed perfectly natural. Those who did point out that this was all pretty nutso found themselves accused of being terrorists, and suddenly their names started appearing on government lists. The same held true for anyone who brought up “civil rights” or “The Constitution.”

            I could go on and on and on and on with this. But the punch line is that all the while—at least for the first year or so, after which it didn’t matter anymore—we had been told by official after official that we “needed to continue living our lives as we always had, otherwise the terrorists win.” Well take a goddamn look around. Are you living the same way you did say, in the late nineties? Well guess what then.

            I’m not pointing fingers here at anyone in the Bush Administration or a cabal of wealthy industrialists because I think it would’ve happened anyway. I don’t think one administration or another would have made a difference (I’ve noticed very little has changed in recent years). It’s what would’ve happened anyway because at heart I get the feeling that this is what most people want. The last two and a quarter centuries have proven as much. And once again, Ben Franklin that drunken ol’ sot, has been proven right.

            Happy Anniversary! And be sure to stop by the nearest Hallmark store for all your greeting card and party supply needs.


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