I had promised myself that I was not going to get completely wrapped up in all of the remembrances, memorials, and other such things over 9/11. However, as that evening came along and the first weekend of pro football ended, I found I could not help but get sucked into a couple of new documentaries on the subject. This made me revisit my own strong memories of that day and reflect upon the years that have passed which have now hit one of those nice, round numbers that we humans always find so irresistible.
Those memories are indeed strong and, I believe, as accurate as a human can have. After having gotten up early that morning to take my then house-mate to work due to his blown car motor and then arrived back home and turned on the television just 45 seconds before the second plane hit the World Trade Center, it took me about two minutes to get over the shock to realize that this would be my generation’s defining moment of history. Just like those that were around for Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President Kennedy, it would be remembered and asked about for the rest of my life. Thus, I thought it was extremely important to really open up my brain and remember every little detail of the day from the temperature to how the flowers looked.
In general, my memories of that day are the same as most other people’s especially for those that live outside of New York City and Washington. They are not terribly spectacular and I am not going to bore my readers by detailing all of them. However, there is one that still nags at me and I believe is a reflection of where we are at now after that benchmark day changed the United States forever.
California has a reputation for being a mellow place. As one that has lived all over the Golden State for many years, I can say with authority that is not necessarily true. Californians might seem mellow while at rest in their homes or at various destinations such as a public event. However, when dealing with the public in a general or semi-competitive sense, they are just as selfish and rude as any other place in the country that has a reputation for its citizens being assholes.
As it happened on that dreadful day in 2001, there was no food at home so I absolutely had to go to the grocery store after leaving work. With the Inland Empire area of California under no apparent direct threat, most people stayed at work until at least 3 o’clock so the traffic going home was at its usual level. However, I immediately noticed a huge difference in how everybody was behaving. Nobody was running red lights. Everybody was taking their proper turn at stop signs. Nobody was cutting people off, passing to the right, or the many other idiotic things that Californians do when they decide that they are more important than anybody else on the road.
Perhaps even more shocking was what I experienced when I got to the grocery store, especially so at this particular one as it is relatively small with narrow aisles and caters to a lower-income crowd. Everybody was taking care to not block the aisles. Nobody was cutting people off with their carts. Mothers were quietly but firmly making sure their children were not being a nuisance. Most of all, everybody was saying “please,” “excuse me,” and “thank you” like they actually meant it (as this is often a place where one says “thank you” to a cashier and they react as if it was an inconvenience).
In those first 72 hours or so after 9/11, I had faith that this would be one of the good things to come out of this awful tragedy. After all, we had all just seen in graphic detail how fragile life can be but also, in the face of that, the mighty power of even just a few simple acts of kindness and self-sacrifice.
Yet, it was not to be. Having wanted to get home to my friends on 9/11, I did not buy a large amount of groceries on that day. On Friday after work, I had to return again. After three consecutive days of courteous people filling the roads and stores, it was as if somebody flipped a switch to make everybody forget what had just happened. People were back to their same old selfish behavior, the only difference being they were now doing it while bearing American flags on their vehicles and wearing t-shirts that read, “Let’s Roll.” I was totally deflated and even angry when I arrived home, then felt even worse as about half of my large group of friends were already expressing that they had 9/11 “burn-out” or even disdain for the fuss made in the media over the whole event. This was all while the debris in New York City was still smouldering and stunned me both as a student of history and somebody that considers himself to be a good American.
Yes, I can see a point where some might have found my view as “wallowing” in the disaster and there certainly were different levels of tolerance for the constant news coverage. Even I finally shut it off sometime later that weekend. Still, to me, this was a time to reflect, not to totally shut down.
Of course, people deal with tragedy in different ways. My hope was that there would still be a dulling of the sharp edges that American culture had begun taking on over the past two or three decades and that some of the leadership on that front would come from the government. After all, we had almost the entire world on our side, right? Even George W. Bush wouldn’t miss this opportunity to do some correct, moderate things while making sure to get Osama bin Laden and keep Afghanistan from being a harbor for his al Qaeda thugs…right?
Well, we have all seen what has happened. Pretty much every facet of America is now even more of an “us vs. them” than it has has been since the 1960’s. Politically, the blame goes equally on Republicans (who never asked for shared sacrifice) and Democrats (who never provided any real leadership). The major media outlets failed by either all too quickly falling back into their old habits of sensationalism, “light” news, and thinking that presenting each side of an argument is true journalism, or just simply becoming a tool for one selected political party.
All of that being said, the ultimate failure was of we the people, myself included. Many like me held out hope for too long that Bush and Cheney knew something we didn’t even though the evidence was piling up that Iraq had no nuclear or chemical weapons and was no direct threat to the United States (much less involved in 9/11) and thus not worth setting war upon it especially when Afghanistan was still unfinished business. We also held out hope for too long that our own “regime change” would make things better as we ended up electing a president and congress that almost completely wasted its super-majority to right the wrongs of our previous actions both at home and abroad. Most of all, far too many went quickly back to the circus of distractions, caring far more about voting for a contestant on American Idol than voting in the many crucial political elections we have had since 9/11.
No, we certainly can’t fret over 9/11, politics, and the media every minute of every single day nor should we deprive ourselves of our favorite forms of entertainment. On the other hand…well, while watching the documentaries tonight and remembering the awful sound of the hundreds of beeping locators in the pile of rubble that belonged to New York City firemen and women who would never be found, I just cannot in any way imagine they would be content to know the state of the country ten years later and, worse yet, how their sacrifice has been used by some to make things even worse.
It’s not enough to just pull out the flag one extra day a year and get a little pang of sadness as the NFL or NASCAR does an extra-long pre-event tribute on whatever weekend falls closest to 9/11. The only way to honor those in fire, police, and military units that have lost their lives along with the other heroes such as those on Flight 93 is to truly consider if we like what our country has done in the wake of their loss…and then, like those on Flight 93, do something about it.
As the often misquoted and mis-attributed line by Leonard H. Courtney goes, “The price of peace is eternal vigilance.” We’re probably doing OK on the vigilance front, maybe too good considering how much the government is now allowed to pry into our private lives without a warrant and keep that data eternally. However, what about the peace part? Are we promoting peace at home with our attitudes toward those that think and look differently? Are we promoting peace by allowing our government and government-sponsored big corporations to look out only for themselves when interacting overseas? Are we promoting peace by supporting a president in Afghanistan that is more corrupt than the gang at Tammany Hall ever dreamed about? Are we promoting peace by continuing to use torture as an interrogation method? Are we promoting peace by letting a communist nation hold most of our national debt (or, have such a huge debt in the first place)? Are we promoting peace by cutting programs and services that help the middle and lower classes while offering even more tax breaks to the wealthy? Are we promoting peace by continuing to ignore science? Are we promoting peace while we let our entire education system go straight into the toilet? Are we promoting peace when we elect people that promise “compassionate conservatism” or “hope and change” but still get the same old shit out of them?
I don’t mean to sound like a complete egghead. I realize it’s a rough-and-tumble world out there where not everybody is nice. Jeez, just one look at that prick Putin over in Russia should tell everybody that. Still, that doesn’t mean we should throw away so much of what the United States has attempted to be over its relatively brief history. If all we become is just the shell of bravado with none of the substance underneath, we will fall faster than Rome and deserve every painful moment of it…and all of those people we supposedly honor every September 11th will have died for nothing.