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The 9/11 Tribute In Light

I was about to turn off my computer late Sunday night after resting my eyeballs on some mindless TV when all of a sudden, a quick scan of the New York Times shook my peace and ruined my planned sleep. Bin Laden dead. Bin Laden killed. He’s bin terminated. He’s a has Bin. He’s bin there done that.

The Upper East Side, the sleepiest part of the city that never sleeps, had already gone to bed. Two hours after the announcement, I’m still looking out the window on my beautiful city and its always changing landscape and seeing no gathering of people. The local ABC affiliate immediately ran out to Times Square after the announcement and the reporter gushed that it was filling up with people. Behind her, trash blew around in the deserted sidewalks. I highly recommend this clip to the producers of “The Soup” and perhaps Columbia Journalism School graduates who want to learn how to avoid embarrassing themselves.

But put aside the levity and let’s attack the meat of the matter:  The man who slaughtered almost 3000 innocent Americans 10 years ago is dead. The man who was willing to exploit American power for his own ends in Afghanistan until he decided he’d rather murder American civilians to impress psychopathic Islamic fundamentalists–is gone. The man who evaded capture for 10 years and told us what his real aim was–the restoration of the caliphate along the lines of the repressive Taliban, is obliterated.

I am one of those people who has never believed in the concept of closure, whether it’s political, spiritual or even romantic. People love closure the way they like crack–they promise this time is always the last time, and yet they always seem to want more of it after it’s over. So when my wife said to me tonight, as we watched the updates on ABC, that this entire thing felt anticlimactic, I knew exactly what she meant.

It feels that way for several reasons. One, the war is not over. Al Qaeda, what started out as an agreement over a table a couple of decades ago among a few rogue military leaders, one of whose rules was to have good manners, has metastasized into several networks with different leaders all vying for prestige and leadership over a restive culture of America-haters. Two, the relatively bloodless dispatch of Bin Laden in a raid on his compound in Pakistan reminds us of something we have all forgotten: He was just a man. He was not a God. He was not a country. He was not even much of an army. One of the biggest tragedies of 9/11 is that it showed us how a relatively small group of people can cause so much harm. We were attacked by a club, a mafia even, and the justice meted out was never going to compensate emotionally for the pain inflicted. It’s for similar reasons that we can’t accept the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald may have acted alone: How can one puny, limited, brutish person cause so many hopeful people so much grief? It’s for denial of that reality that America inevitably overreacted to 9/11 by invading not one but two countries, one of which had nothing to do with the attack.

The next reason it feels anticlimactic is that we will never get back the people we loved that day. As President Obama said, children are still missing fathers, husbands missing wives. Friends missing friends. The death of one man can’t make up for the pain of that either.

And finally, the reason bin Laden’s death feels anticlimactic is that we waited so horribly long for the day to arrive. For ten years, we had to live with the idea that the man who openly admitted to plotting the destruction of the World Trade Center was indeed sitting somewhere exactly where we imagined him–not in a cave fighting hand to hand but in a comfortable compound in Pakistan, in the nurturing bosom of friendly Pakistanis–drawing ten more years of breath. That was 10 years for many of us to get comfortable with some uncomfortable ideas–that life isn’t fair. That a mass murderer might indeed go unpunished. When George Bush announced at one point that bin Laden had been marginalized and was no longer a big deal, you might have read it the same way I did: He was practically promising that this account would not be reckoned. Now the mass murderer is indeed gone, but the uncomfortable idea remains. What if there had been no tip off last August? What if bin Laden had lived to a ripe old age? It was entirely possible. There were lots of Nazis, after all, who died peaceful deaths after spreading out to the four corners.

I think about this as I look at many of the faces gathering in Washington and Lower Manhattan on television. Many of them are young adults. A lot of them seem to have even been children in 2001. For them, 9/11 was likely the single most important political and philosophical experience of their lives, the event that forged their characters and their morality. It would be much harder for them to live the last 10 years with the same existential unease–that an evildoer would prevail. It doesn’t matter whether they lived in New York City and watched the World Trade Center smash into the ground (as I did) or whether they are willing to put the events in some sort of historical context (which I try to do, as painful as it can sometimes be). For them, bin Laden simply couldn’t be walking about freely in a moral universe. He had to go. I felt that way at one time. I was 31 on Sept. 11 in 2001 and the attack drove me to a despair I’d rather not describe. I had a hard time sleeping for a long time and the sound of planes gave me the creeps. For a few months, many New Yorkers lived with a grim, almost mordant pessimism that the end was near. But my hatred for bin Laden and my desire to see his lifeless corpse dragged through the streets behind a chariot yielded after a while. That kind of hatred did me no good.

But anticlimax or not, we’re still fighting a couple of wars (though Iraq is winding down). And probably the most important question raised by Osama bin Laden’s death is now this: Why are we over there? Osama bin Laden was for so long the answer to that question that you needed little other. But now the palimpsest has been erased. The central premise of our wars overseas has been removed. Though we might still be fighting networks that mean to harm America, we’ve now reached the point in which we remain present only to fight those who fight against our presence. The idea of Afghanistan slipping back into a Taliban-ruled violent, repressive theocracy is repugnant, but so are the accidental killings of civilians and the razing of towns by American forces and the funneling of American money into the pockets of Taliban leaders through public works projects. Now is the time to save face and ask if it’s time to leave. Barack Obama can have his own “Mission Accomplished” moment if he likes. It’s no sin to bug out if what we’re doing in Afghanistan is counterproductive and we got what we came for.

But I’ll sign off with this thought–I’m proud of my country tonight. As I was about to drag my sorry ass to bed, part of me wanted to throw on my clothes and go downtown at 2 in the morning to cheer with my fellow New Yorkers the removal of Osama bin Laden and his hatred from this planet. There is a narrow, joyless view that everything America does it does Energizer Bunny-like for money and oil. Sometimes, it happens, I’m sure. But a more expansive view might allow that Americans have altruism in them and that there is a goodness in us that is worth protecting. Naive perhaps, sometimes, about their own role in the world. But definitely capable of good.

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Longtime political analyst Juan Williams was fired by NPR this week after he told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News that he gets nervous when he sees Muslims on airplanes, especially when they self-identify as Muslims. He then declared that it made him no bigot.

What are the many different ways we can look at, break down, deconstruct or reverse engineer this episode?

–*We could say Juan Williams made a bigoted remark and should have been fired.

Or

–*We could point out that if a white man said he gets nervous around black men, it would anger Juan Williams, so he should know better.

Or

–*We could say that the sentiment itself wasn’t as bad as the insistence that it wasn’t bigotry and Williams’ refusal to apologize for it.

This means he might have gotten away with saying the first part, but not the second part. We think. This is where we need lawyers to come in and break it all down for us and tell us when, in fact, he became bigoted. Unfortunately, all we have are his defenders, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, who are probably as qualified to parse language as they are to teach us the linguistic roots of Sanskrit.

Or

–*We could point out Juan Williams said something that quite a few Americans feel, even if it’s wrong. In other words, he was dumb enough to say out loud what Anderson Cooper, Brian Williams, Christiane Amanpour, Katie Couric and Regis Philbin might well feel but wouldn’t dare say.

Or

–*You could say it doesn’t matter, because evincing his own personal feelings is not his job as a reporter.

Or

–*As the song goes, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Maybe sometimes we should say what’s on our minds or in our hearts, even if it’s bad, to examine what it’s about. But now Williams and others are on notice to hold those feelings in so that they never go examined. We are not allowed to make a safe place for discussion about the things we feel even though it might help us know what our problems are.

Or

–*Juan Williams could have made that same statement with more sensitivity and still said something newsworthy: “I know it’s wrong, but I feel nervous around people in Muslim dress on airplanes, and that’s important to say out loud,” because this is something important we ought to know about the very large non-Muslim community in the U.S.–they fear people who are not like them.

Or

–*We could acknowledge that if a Muslim went on TV these days and told us he gets nervous around non-Muslims, we’d probably see his point and we do want him to feel free to express himself right? If a lone woman, for that matter, got nervous walking when surrounded by strange men, we’d probably see her point, too. It’s not always rational. Does that make it illegitimate?

Or

–*We might get angry that Juan Williams lost his job for something relatively minor when a week ago Bill O’Reilly said “Muslims killed us on 9/11,” which is much more outlandish and insipid, not to mention ungrammatical–and O’Reilly has never once feared for his job. Rather than creating a nursery of dissenting voices, NPR seems secretly determined to drive decent reporters to the Wild West town of slander that is Fox News, where they can more comfortably say uncomfortable things.

Or

–*We could notice to our shame that liberals close ranks against heretics just as blithely as George W. Bush does. What we couldn’t do to O’Reilly, we’ve decided to do to a much more reasonable guy.

So

–*We notice that liberals like Juan Williams must fear for their jobs if they go outside the bounds of political correctness, while right wingers never need fear it. That means we risk putting more reporters like Juan Williams on Fox News’ payroll and continuing to polarize the United States.

Or

–*We might point out that Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez, two journalists with relatively reasonable centrist viewpoints, have both recently been fired for making racially inflammatory remarks that were totally out of character for them. This means soon we will all be reading from scripts, and hewing to our party lines all the time. There will be no free-associating, no counterintuitive arguments, no alternative premises, no synthesizing of paradoxical statements, no free marketplace of ideas. Everybody will sound like Barney the Dinosaur.

Or

–*We could say that NPR is trying to hold the line for objective journalism and that everyone with an opinion can feel free to go express it on Fox, where there is nothing but opinion and precious little news 24 hours  a day.

Or

–*We could come up with a conspiracy theory that Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez were likely fired for backstage intrigues we know nothing about, because there is lots of infighting in the competitive world of broadcast journalism that is bigger than any one red herring racial comment. It might sound like a conspiracy theory, but Williams said that NPR didn’t like him being on Fox, so they found a reason to 86 him, and that doesn’t sound so far-fetched.

Or

–*We could just say Juan Williams got fired because he was black.

Yes, it’s a stupid thought. It may sound like the most ludicrous argument of all. But think about it–why does everybody get to be a bigot but Juan Williams? Is it because we think he should know better since he’s a black man? Well who says that?

I don’t want to defend what Juan Williams said, but I think there’s too much readiness by some news organizations to fire good people for 1) obvious brain farts and 2) a failure to adhere to orthodoxy. I know when I free associate, stuff comes out of my mouth that I regret later. So maybe I should never be on broadcast news. But then I ask, who should?

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As I get older, I feel less enthusiastic about marking the anniversaries of horrible events (or even good ones). I hope that doesn’t sound callous, especially since I didn’t lose any friends or family members in the Twin Towers. But at some point, grief becomes self-perpetuating. I have known people who have built entire shrines to their grief as a way of holding on to it. I was familiar with this behavior on Sept. 11, 2001 from reading. I know it first-hand this year after losing my mother in a car wreck. Grief is something you have to let go of. And anniversaries are just one more way of preserving grief in amber.

But for documentary purposes, I’ll tell you that as a New Yorker, I went through periods of shock, depression, mania and denial due to the terrorist attacks, if not nervous breakdown. I’ve heard there are studies suggesting that the closer you were to the towers on Sept. 11, the greater your chances of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. I was two miles away, for whatever that’s worth. And looking back, I sometimes wonder if I indeed suffered from it, if not from some milder, derivative form of despair.

I was a freelance journalist at the time, living in downtown Brooklyn. I had just finished up a morning Web feed for a financial news site when a friend called and told me to turn on the TV. Seems the World Trade Center had been hit by an airplane. I walked to the Brooklyn waterfront and found not one but both buildings gashed, with flames licking up the sides–vast walls of flames that it takes you a moment to realize are as tall as small buildings themselves. But why two crash sites? I thought at first that maybe one plane had sliced through Tower 1 and hit Tower 2 (though the trajectories didn’t match). The radio said two planes.  “That’s impossible. Surely I’m hearing it wrong.” Terror wasn’t in my thoughts.

Though I knew about Al Qaeda and the bombings of the U.S.S. Cole and the African embassies, I never really understood Osama bin Laden, a former U.S. ally whose beefs still seemed too esoteric and obscure to me. He didn’t seem to be a guy fighting against colonialism or for the freedom of his people but rather a self-important freebooter who felt double-crossed by the American military. He seemed so proud, blustering and overly sensitive that he had probably felt double crossed a lot in his life–by the Americans, by the Saudis, by his family. People like that make great sociopaths.

I then made what in hindsight turned out to be a foolish decision. I decided to go back home and call a few editors to see if there was anything I could write about the emergency. I have never been much of a spot reporter, but 2001 was the year I had quit my job with the intention of being more of a go-getter.

So I ran home thinking, again foolishly, that the fires, still burning at that point, would be contained. “Why sit here and watch it burn?” I thought. “It’s not like the towers are going to collapse.” In 1993, the World Trade Center had already been attacked, when a terrorist loaded up a van full of explosives. The destruction underground opened 100 foot holes five stories tall. And yet the towers stood. And a B-25 Mitchell had hit the Empire State Building in 1945 without felling it.

My bad. As we all found out later, the math changes when the most vulnerable beams are all on the outside of your building. They didn’t have to melt. All they had to do was fail. I raced home to find out from the radio that  Tower 2 had indeed fallen right where I’d stupidly left it. Shows how good a spot news reporter I am. I ran home from the real story.

I then sallied back outdoors to see from my cramped Brooklyn vantage point what Lower Manhattan had turned into. Many TV cameras have caught the images of that day, so I doubt I could do them justice with poetic ruminations of destruction. But what had been lower Manhattan was subsumed in a dark purple-yellow cloud with some buildings sticking up out of it. It looked as if part of the sky had been erased by a furious illustrator unhappy with the work he’s done. But it was obvious from the columnar shape of the cloud that what had been erased was a building.

A guy nearby on the Brooklyn waterfront said “I know there’s a God now because I’m over here and not over there.” It sounds horrible, but the graveyard humor started before both towers had gone down.

I headed north to my friend Michael’s house. He  lived much closer. Before I got there, it started snowing–not precipitation but pulverized concrete, getting into my eyes and piling up on the cars. Winter in September. And overhead of course, the lighter material was flying away–reams of paper. You could only imagine what was printed on it. Thousands (millions?) of pieces of paper flying away on top of the rising heat. With Brooklyn suddenly enmeshed in clouds of the destroyed Tower 2, I had to go indoors with my friend and watch the final destruction of Tower 1 play out on television like the rest of America. I knew by that point we’d be going to war. Some friends and I went to the water front again when the skies had cleared a bit. “This is the new skyline,” said a guy with a video camera. “Guess we better get used to it.”

I went back home to attend to e-mails flooding into my box from friends and family asking me if I was OK. On the map, I looked very close to the destruction, especially to people out of state.

At some point I cried. I don’t remember what set it off. I think it was a friend’s letter asking me what they could do. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but then a friend from Texas gave me a virtual slap upside the head: “You’re a writer. Write about it.” As it happens, I had only one writing gig at that point at a nurse’s magazine. Not exactly what I had in mind. But they wanted a story. All of a sudden I was a real reporter covering a life and death situation.

So I lay down on the floor and had a panic attack. Not only was I going to have to write about something I hadn’t come to grips with, but I was going to have to become a spot news reporter instantly, which I hadn’t been before. My chest hurt and I felt when I got up like I was going to fall over. At some point, though, I made it to the George Foreman grill, and shoved a piece of chicken into it, then ate the bland, vulcanized thing for the protein. It was the bit of strength I needed to get out the door.

I somehow got a subway train to Manhattan, which coughed me up in Greenwich Village, but most of the routes downtown were barricaded at Houston Street. Nobody was allowed to go south, even if they lived there, and I couldn’t convince the cops to let me through. It was the middle of the afternoon and the day was still, all things considered, quite pretty. The traffic was diverted and in the middle of Sixth Avenue, the usual river of taxis had dried up. In the middle of the empty thoroughfare was a young man who had set up an easel and was splashing across his canvas a giant expressionistic acrylic version of our national tragedy while it was still in progress. More gallows humor (or coping?)

I went to St. Vincent’s hospital and found a press area, defying the press credential requirement and jumping into the pit. I asked doctors and nurses what kind of injuries they were seeing. Turns out, there weren’t many. Sept. 11 was extremely binary in its casualties list (at least during the first day) Either you died or you didn’t. You can read the story I wrote on it here if you like. It’s not Pulitzer material, but it got me through the day.

Drinks were free that night. We told more inappropriate jokes. We asked each other if we were OK. Some people hooked up. Others just walked around. The next day was like a Saturday at Disneyland. People walked around with their kids in a light so soft it was almost impressionistic. People called friends they hadn’t called in years. Even I called an ex with whom I’d had an acrimonious break up. I don’t know why. I had to make sure she was OK.

I met Stephanie a few months after the attack and went back to work full time and can say now that 2002 was one of the best years of my life, following 2001 which was undeniably the worst. I came through it better, but different.

I am extremely clear headed about the political questions raised by 9/11. Whatever America has done in Chile, Nicaragua, Vietnam, East Timor, Angola or Cuba, you can’t possibly take the side of a murderous religious fundamentalist, somebody who wants to revive a medieval caliphate, and think it’s OK for him to murder American civilians to right American wrongs. If you are one of the people who think America had 9/11 coming, I don’t count you much of a thinker. I think of you as doctrinaire and sad.

At the same time, the burden of introspection on Sept. 11 was unfortunately on those who were hurting the most. Only a few brave contrarians pointed out back then that Afghanistan was going to be a mess if we invaded. Now we have that mess. People cried war, because at the time we figured at least 10,000 people were dead and surely that was an act of war. Logic didn’t bear this out, however, since no government per se had attacked us. Ultimately I backed our president’s incursion into Afghanistan because the Taliban were at least undeniably protecting the people who attacked us.

Not so, Saddam Hussein. Americans still in pain 20 months later were still not thinking critically at all, and they let George Bush and his cadre of think-tank neoconservatives take advantage of us by leading us to war in Iraq. We know in hindsight that we were vulnerable to manipulation. It’s very, very hard to say we should have anticipated it from Day 1.

But the political realities are just one thing that have made me grow up. More important was that 9/11 made me realize  how much I love my city. Moving here and becoming part of New York with its bustles and frustrations had been a dream of mine since I was little. Learning the city means making it a part of your body–you have to know the rhythms, the steps, the hustles, the battles. You have to know when to step back from the subway. You have to know when to fight city hall and when not to. When you make the city so much a part of your own body, perhaps it just makes sense that you would hurt when it hurts. The strangest thing I can say about 9/11 is that, even though I didn’t lose anybody close to me in those planes or in those buildings, I took the attack very personally. This great metropolis they had built was in my mind, despite its flaws, a paradise. And to see so many ideals ripped down at once–the aspirations of young people, the aspirations of peace makers, and the aspirations of people who build things like tall buildings–was the saddest thing to me as a New Yorker and a young person, too. Soon, I wasn’t young anymore.

Photo: The 9/11 Tribute in Light

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Imperatives

Here are a few imperatives for you, dear readers, as you go about your day.

This is the anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 2001. I exhort you to do the following:

Live. Breathe. Eat. Hug. Read something. Write something. Tell someone you love them. Make love. Brush your teeth. Go to the bathroom. Walk. Think. Dream. No, don’t just dream. Dream big. Why shouldn’t you? You’re alive. And that makes you the luckiest son of a bitch there is.

Don’t think about what you haven’t done. It’s a waste of time. Don’t think of what you’re too old to do. There’s no such thing as too old. Don’t think of what you’re too young to do. You can do plenty. Don’t think of missed opportunities. While you’re thinking about them, you might miss more.

Take responsibility for your own happiness. Take responsibility for your unhappiness too. If you got up this morning with happiness to spare, share it. Whatever you’re doing, try not to become too obsessed with the end result. Just realize that in the act itself, there is a dignity and the integrity of a living person making his or her way on this planet.

The universe may or may not be a fluke, but you change it just by being here. Time doesn’t exist. Not unless you weave it into something. Make it something good.

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