Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11 and its legacy

I am surprised. I have read numerous articles in the past week assessing the impact of 9/11 and how it has changed our nation. For the most part, these articles have been cynical and pessimistic concerning how things are 10 years later. Frank Rich wrote about the fractured, exploiting, downsized and downgraded America "where rampaging greed usurped the common good in wartime, [and] the country crashed just as Bush fled the White House..." This disappointing America that Rich asserts we now live in "has little or no resemblance to the generous and heroic America we glimpsed on 9/11 and the days that followed." (Frank Rich, "Day's End," New York Magazine, Sept. 5-12, 2011)

Other editorials and articles I have read express much the same negativity. We are not a nation changed, they say. We are not a people learned, they claim. Is this true, I wonder? Is the legacy we have been left with a legacy of inevitable decline?

Adam Gopnik, writing this week in The New Yorker, addresses the popularity of 'declinism' as a cultural thesis, as a perspective on one's own, and for that matter, all civilizations. Having unconsciously internalized Spengler's tragic view that we are now living in the winter of our civilization's life-span, we exude a sense of appropriate discontent at our sliding downfall which leads to a situation wherein:

" isn't enough to say that the past two decades have been rough in Japan, or that the recession has been hard on Americans, or that the war in Iraq was a folly; the mistakes and the follies have to be shown to be part of some big, hitherto invisible pattern of decline -- and made more vivid by contrast with the patterns of some other, as yet undeclined society." (Adam Gopnik, "Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat," The New Yorker, Sept. 12, 2011, pg. 42) Is the splendor of this story the only thing we have left to celebrate? Is declinism so popular because it aligns with the predominance of cynicism in our age?

Or is the story retold as one of disillusionment and deterioration because we are somehow predisposed -- perhaps even biologically -- to see everything (our lives along with the progress of humanity) as moving towards dissatisfaction, as tomorrow being less somehow than yesterday? Summer fades to fall to winter. People grow old, become less able to do what they could when they were young, don't even believe in the impossible anymore. The flowers in the vase by your window fade and wither. Gopnik finishes his article with the following position:
Declinism is a bad idea, because no one can have any notion of what will happen next. Yet the idea of our decline is emotionally magnetic, because life is a long slide down, and the plateau just passed is easier to love than the one coming up. One of the painful things that smart people learned in the last century is that the future cannot be an object of faith, and only the credulous can see clear auguries in the patterns of the past. We read history not to find predictive patterns but for the same reason that we listen to oldies stations on Sirius radio as we drive back roads on holiday: the old songs matter. Many of them were better than the new songs. That we might not learn anything from them, aside from the obvious truth that what worked then worked for then and what works now works for now, doesn't alter our taste for old music. The long look back is part of the long ride home. We all believe in yesterday. (Gopnik, p. 47)
Has our assessment of 9/11 and its legacy fallen prey to this tendency? Is 'never forget' just another way of saying 'the memory of before was so much more comforting'?

Witnessing death is a life-altering event. In the novel, Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio accidentally becomes a spectator to the shooting of an allegedly crazy and dangerous town member. He reacts in a panic:
I turned and ran. The dark shadows of the river enveloped me as I raced for the safety of home. Branches whipped at my face and cut it, and vines and tree trunks caught at my feet and tripped me. In my headlong rush I disturbed sleeping birds and their shrill cries and slapping wings hit at my face. The horror of darkness had never been so complete as it was for me that night...The river's brown waters would be stained with blood, forever and ever and ever... (Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima, 1972, pp. 22-24)
Witnessing death from afar can have the same effect. The photograph of the falling man terrifies us. The coverage of 9/11 was consumed nonstop by most of us for days on end. I don't think this was totally a case of emotionally numbing. Sure, it seemed unreal and watching it over and over somehow had the potential to make it more so. I think for many of us, though, it was a reminder. A reminder that all had changed. Perhaps the repetition was meant to give us needed time to think about how to handle our brave new world.

I remember being a teenager when the Gulf War began. I was supposed to be on my way to Confirmation class at my church when it was announced on television that the war had officially begun. I stood in shock for a few minutes before melting in tears, finding it impossible to go to class, finding it impossible to think about anything else but how much my world had changed, how much would never be the same, and how to continue. As a child, I never thought I would live in a time of war. Perhaps that was wildly naive. It just seemed to be such a thing of the past. And I was glad for it to stay there. But then it invaded my present, my lifetime, and I began to understand that we are not safe from anything. That may be another reason people watched and rewatched the burning buildings. Just as Oskar realizes at the end of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, we will never be safe again.

Yet, I don't look back and then forward again and see us as a nation declining to its fateful ruination. I do think the 'horror of darkness' is much more complete for us than it was before. Though I know it's cliche to say so, it's in the darkness that we see the brightest light. I don't think the 'generous and heroic America we glimpsed on 9/11' has disappeared. Those people, and others like them, are still here with us, among us. I think the stories of those people are perhaps not being told in the way that they were during the tragedy when we so needed to hear stories of courage and selflessness and sacrifice. Really though, we always need those stories.

Witnessing death is life-altering, yes, but so is witnessing the smallest act of pureness and generosity. One of my favorite Salinger stories is For Esme -- With Love and Squalor. Before being sent to Bavaria as an infantry member fighting in D Day and ending the second World War, Sergeant X meets a young girl, Esme, and her brother when he stops for tea at a cafe in London. She is polite and curious and somehow incredibly touching to the young soldier. Her concern for him seems genuine, but who knows with a twelve or thirteen year old? Esme possesses the strange combination of the genuineness of a child and the empathy of an adult. In the second half of the story, we find X severely traumatized by what he has seen and dangerously hostile towards humanity in which he has lost faith. It seems he might not even make it to tomorrow. But then he receives a small package:
Inside the box, a note, written in ink, lay on top of small object wrapped in tissue paper. He picked out the note and read it.

17, ----- Road
------, Devon
June 7, 1944

Dear Sergeant X,

I hope you will forgive me for having taken 38 days to being our correspondence but, I have been extremely busy as my aunt has undergone streptococcus of the throat and nearly perished and I have been justifiably saddled with one responsibility after another. However I have thought of you frequently and of the extremely pleasant afternoon we spent in each other's company on April 30, 1944 between 3:45 and 4:15 P.M. in case it slipped your mind.
We are all tremendously excited and overawed about D Day and only hope that it will bring about the swift termination of the war and a method of existence that is ridiculous to say the least. Charles and I are both quite concerned about you; we hope you were not among those who made the first initial assault upon the Cotentin Peninsula. Were you? Please reply as speedily as possible. My warmest regards to your wife.

Sincerely yours,

P.S.I am taking the liberty of enclosing my wristwatch which you may keep in your possession for the duration of the conflict. I did not observe whether you were wearing one during our brief association, but this one is extremely water-proof and shock-proof as well as having many other virtues among which one can tell at what velocity one is walking if one wishes. I am quite certain that you will use it to greater advantage in these difficult days than I ever can and that you will accept it as a lucky talisman...   (J.D. Salinger, "For Esme -- With Love and Squalor," Nine Stories, 1948)

X sits stunned with Esme's letter for a long time. Finally, he finds himself feeling sleepy. Though this may seem a strange response or a bizarre ending to the story, it is all too fitting. For, one can only sleep when one feels calm and safe... and that is the gift that Esme has returned to X through her simple act of kindness, through the display of the kind of integrity that X didn't believe in anymore. Certainly, this explains why James Taylor would choose to sing a song titled "You Can Close Your Eyes" at the commemoration of 9/11 at the World Trade Center in NYC. This is the legacy I see from 9/11, a legacy of small acts of great meaning. A legacy of people who genuinely care and remain dedicated to acting generously towards others.

But moments don't close. The past rushes into our present violently, leaving us breathless, raw, and shaking with the renewed newness of it all. Antonio, in Anaya's novel, fears and yet revers the presence of the river. I always struggled with this aspect of the novel, but thinking about it in connection with 9/11 it makes more sense to me. Perhaps, the river is meant to be the movement of all those events that change our lives. They have a great power -- they cut through the very earth beneath us. They course and move away from us... and yet, at the same time, they are always running towards us again. The past is not really in the past for most of us. It is a presence... like a river. A presence that can choke and drown, a presence that can be 'stained with blood', but also a feature that can guide us. "The dark presence of the river was like a shroud, enveloping me, calling to me." (Anaya, p. 256) The presence of 9/11 is our shroud, enveloping us... and yet a living, breathing thing, always calling to us as it courses through the rest of our lives, through the rest of humanity, as a guide.

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