A stillness at 9/11

19 years on

© 2001 Michael Foran used under a Creative Commons license

This is from yesterday’s Jackson Country Floridian:

On Friday, September 11th, 2020, Wreaths Across America is asking every American to stand outside and wave a flag for one minute at 8:46 a.m. 9:03 a.m., 9:37 a.m., and 10:03 a.m. in remembrance of those who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The organization is best known for providing wraths for the graves of veterans and helping organize their placements around the country.

There’s something that I guess we can call old-fashioned about that — this call to show patriotism on September 11. I wonder how many will do it. I wonder how many of those who do will have served or had kids or parents who served in the wars that grew out of it. I wonder how many will have lost them. I bet those are the ones most likely to take part.

I remember 9/11, now nineteen years ago, as a citizen of the target city, being turned back from crossing the Williamsburg Bridge and going back to watch the smoke from from my Brooklyn rooftop; and I remember the aftermath, the days of fighter jets screaming across the sky, the stench, the uncertainty and roiling of resentments (which I wrote a little about at the time), and the wars that were supposed to be a response but were, it became obvious sooner for some of us than others, the exploitation of an excuse.

That exploitation is still happening; “Inside Joe Biden’s history of falsely claiming he predicted 9/11 attacks,” headlines the New York Post, as if anyone looks at the shit and says, “Gee, I’m not sure I can vote for Biden, who wants a liar for president.”

(Joe Biden, I am told, is blacking out his advertising for the day in tribute, and at first this struck me as mere stupid pre-emptive Democratic disarmament; but really, what meaningful response can be expected from Trump, who is reported to have called servicemembers suckers and, as his lackeys were screaming he never did, said right out loud — on the theory, I guess, that when all else fails the truth might work — that the Armed Forces only want to gin up wars to make money? When he stands there blitzed out of his mind at whatever 9/11 tribute they dump him at, who will look at him and think “how sincerely he mourns the fallen”? Not even his fans will, because like him they have nothing but contempt for the loser-dead.)

Some of the newer exploitation is subtler and also more infuriating. Here’s Christopher Miller, a Republican NSC hack and now “director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” telling us at the Washington Post that “this 9/11 anniversary arrives with the end of the war on al-Qaeda well in sight.” Miller lets us know his “roots are as a soldier” and that “my assessment now is that al-Qaeda is in crisis.” In crisis! “The group’s leadership has been severely diminished by U.S. attacks…”

I sit here in 2020 and think: If you’d told me in 2001 Republicans would be telling me, even with Bin Laden dead nine years, that al-Qaeda was still in business and the “fight” against it was still draining our blood and treasure, how much angrier would I have been? How much angrier could I have been?

There’s even the same kind of petty political campaign bullshit surrounding 9/11 — though it’s a little more low-profile than it was in the days of Have You Forgotten and Andrew Sullivan’s Fifth Column. The Louisville Courier-Journal tells us, “Sen. Mitch McConnell’s reelection team continues to hammer challenger Amy McGrath ahead of the November election over her 2017 comments comparing President Donald Trump’s election win to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” McGrath’s comparison may seem just, if not apt, to you and me, but maybe the kind of people who would elect a Mitch McConnell in the first place would not agree.

Then again, apart from the Gold and Blue Star citizens, they may not even care. Look at the America we live in. Maybe the ones who love Trump (no one loves Mitch McConnell) will just be happy McConnell is sticking it to that commie-lezbo-bitch, and the people who don’t love Trump will just wish they could get the hell out of Kentucky. To them — to most of us, I imagine — 9/11 is just another culture war throwing-star like Antifa or Pizzagate or Benghazi.

As the years pass it only gets harder to scrape away the nonsense that is stuck to 9/11, and to remember that on the day not only a great number of people died, but also that a number of people died trying to save them. While the papers were pumping out patriotic bullshit and insane visions of The Face of the Evil One, it was the stories about actual courage and sacrifice — cops, firemen, and some civilians who went up the steps, or who wouldn’t come down them before everyone else was out — that moved even the most cynical of us. Naturally those stories were used by third parties to bully the country into compliance with war fever, and those of us who resented it had to avert our eyes, as it were; but now that we’re not all so hot for those wars, nor for the cruel, stupid philosophy fulfilled by them, we can look without distraction at the extraordinary thing they did.

In Nevada, Iowa, firefighters are doing a “climb for 9/11” at a tower in the VERBIO refinery today. At the Ames Tribune, Kiley Wellendorf reports:

The climb at VERBIO, which reaches 232 feet in the air, is nearly one-seventh of the original towers' heights. Last year, a few participants climbed up and down six times to honor the 343 firefighters who climbed the twin towers while wearing full gear and lost their lives, [Nevada FD Chief Ray] Reynolds said.

“Our folks after the third leg were stripping down to gym shorts and t-shirts, so it kind of puts it into perspective the level of fitness and the heroics that were actually involved on the 9/11 day,” Reynolds said.

Most commemorative gestures are purely symbolic, like making Stations of the Cross to commemorate Calvary. These guys are trying to physically experience some of what their doomed comrades from 2001 went through. I doubt they have any illusions about how close they can get. They know better than most what will be missing: the terror and surrender of what Lincoln called the last full measure of devotion. Some who have seen hard duty may have an idea of what that’s like, but the great mystery is something none of us living can know. To honor it is to admit it.

We have been telling stories about that kind of sacrifice for centuries and they’re always easier to take, and to understand, after time has passed. Some ages take it better than others. In this current one, ruled by whom and what we are, it seems both very out of phase but also very necessary. Maybe it’s showing us what we need, beyond politics and policy, to pull us out of this great tailspin we’re in. Maybe it’s being shown right now by people who put themselves in harm’s way to push back at the ugliness around us, in protests and career-ending committee hearings. Maybe the fight that’s coming will bring it out of more of us. If that’s the case, here’s hoping that this time there’ll be a happier end.