Today’s post is a follow-up on a post I wrote in 2012, 11 years after the terrorist attacks in America. You’re welcome to read the original here, but it is mostly captured again in the words below, leading up to the 2015 extension at the end.
This post is not about conspiracy theories, or blame, or the war on terror. Any comments regarding those things will be deleted.
This post is about three experiences on this day in history:
a) September 11th, 2001
b) September 11th, 2012
c) September 11th, 2015
If you remember the post from 2012 quite well, feel free to skip to 2015 and read that. Otherwise, I hope you’ll consider re-reading the earlier portions to understand the progression and conclusion.
2012, September 11.
I don’t watch TV on 9/11. Partly, it’s because I can’t take another replay that rips open grief, fear, and love for people I didn’t know. Partly, it’s because I don’t want the barrage of footage to detract from my own memories of that day. News ruins memory. We layer, unknowingly, images and video played over countless hours and years, onto our own original track, until we “remember” seeing, watching, hearing the entirety of those horrors.
2001, September 11.
I worked in an office building called Twin Towers—a four-story structure in a Pittsburgh suburb. We bought and sold raw materials for the chemical and steel industries. I was the Customer Service Manager. Nothing heroic. I remember hating that our office building was called Twin Towers. What was once a cliché name for any paired buildings like ours became taboo, became a way to thieve drama from someone else’s reality.
Calls came to the office urging us to get to a television. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center, we were told. We thought it was an accident. Everyone crowded into the conference room and we watched on our clunky analog TV.
We watch the plane fly into the second tower.
I have replayed it in my mind more often than they ever can on television. I don’t need to watch the news to remember. I will never forget.
That morning, we also heard about a plane somewhere over Pennsylvania.
We learned that a plane flew into the Pentagon. I thought—as we watched the television, heard about the Pentagon plane, heard about the plane over Pennsylvania, over our heads—I thought about the people, the hijackers, and we talked about our air force jets, rushing to shoot it down.
Was this a thought brought to us by television, or did we come to that conclusion on our own?
I remember wondering if it took off from Pittsburgh, because somehow it mattered. Is it because there might have been locals on the plane? Is it because it meant our airport isn’t secure? We heard about a plane somewhere over Pennsylvania and I thought about how some young boy would have to shoot civilians from the sky. Would he wonder if he knows anyone on board?
In this office, where I played a management role, I tried not to overreact. I thought I must not overreact. I cried at commercials and movies, but this…I… must force stoicism, distance. I was in a movie, playing the part of manager, of employee, of level-headed woman. This was not real.
2012, September 11.
I actively avoided the news about 9/11 for the past 11 years. I watched it so obsessively in 2001 that I had become re-terrorized by information, by visuals that burn into my mind in a dirty and violent way. I was like a child memorizing a new layer of existence and understanding.
The images embedded themselves, replaying like first time I saw an animal hit by a car—a kitten I had called to me across the street, like the first time I saw a woman spread-eagle on a Hustler calendar, like the first time I saw a dead body, like the memory of holding my mother’s hand and watching her die.
Now I was expected to watch thousands die and have those images analyzed, hear the grief and terror and empty voices of survivors, spouses, witnesses.
No. I wouldn’t watch or hear or read about it anymore, although getting my daily news means being forced to see headlines and occasional images. I know I’m not “normal” in this regard. I keep my eyes straight ahead when I pass an accident. Seeing someone else’s suffering, grief, despair feels invasive and violating; a boundary I wouldn’t want crossed in my own struggle to allow only my happiness to be external.
It doesn’t mean I don’t remember, because nobody who was alive in America that day can ever forget. I am a Patriot, in the way that I believe in Patriotism. I don’t believe patriotism requires watching and re-watching a scene in which we know someone’s father, mother, sister, brother, aunt, child is falling or jumping to their death.
Not watching lets me grieve in private. It allows me to think about it humbly and cloistered, without the pomp of politicians or the agenda of any one organization, without the clamoring of citizens who weren’t there, had no affiliation, trying to show they are a better Patriot than most.
I remember wanting to participate last year in the 10-year memorial for Flight 93. Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) were planning to participate. I belong to D.A.R., where members trace our ancestry to one or more “Patriots”—someone who participated in securing the nation’s freedom in the Revolutionary War. It isn’t always a soldier, because there were many ways in which a person could be a Patriot.
I believe there are still many ways a person can be a Patriot, acts of service to others being one of the most fulfilling and humble ways. But I changed my mind about attending the memorial in 2010. I couldn’t bring myself to be part of what I still saw as mass spectacle instead of memorial.
But what I really learned was that I am simply not comfortable with public, or collective, grief.
And that is okay.
I would not have been a hero. Maybe this is part of why I don’t watch. Maybe it’s because I know that I would have cowered, would have begged for mercy, would have prayed for a spared life. I would never have been a person who said “Let’s roll.” Would I?
I remember another thing from the days after 9/11. I remember hearing people talking about how our attitude toward terrorists had changed. We would no longer obey the rules and be good hostages. We would rise up and challenge. I heard men and women talking about what they would have done, how they would prepare if it happened again.
This is another scene that runs through my mind when the images from 11 years ago return to my mind. I think we’ve all imagined ourselves on one of those planes, in one of those towers. It’s a natural response to create a life-and-death scenario and run it through with alternative reactions. These are the instincts which keep us prepared and alive. Maybe that is why people imagine themselves as heroes instead of cowards. Maybe that is what makes people heroes instead of cowards…mental preparation.
I wanted to be a different and better person after 9/11. I wanted to believe I would be the type of person who would be a hero.
I’m not. I’m still the type of person who would cower, beg, pray. It’s strange to imagine myself having come from any type of Patriot ancestor. I have six Patriots from the Revolutionary War. I have ancestors who fought in The War of 1812, in the Civil War, in World Wars I and II. My father was in the Cuban Blockade.
I am a coward.
I’d like to say analyzing these things about myself and coming to the revelation that I am spineless would change me. I’d like to believe that when the scene is laid bare and I am in a cornered position, some previously unknown strength might surface. What gives me hope, keeps me from feeling like a total failure of humanity is the “maybe.”
Maybe I would run toward instead of away. Maybe I would stand up instead of cowering. Maybe I would pray for strength or resolve instead of mercy. Because I actually don’t know what person I might be until faced with something beyond my known capacity.
And maybe that’s the good that comes from watching the memorials: “Hope” that we ourselves could be something stronger than we are; “Inspiration” from those heroes to be brave, be self-sacrificing, be beyond our perceived weakness; “Unity” that in collective grief, a shared memorial, we move beyond red and blue to just being a big dysfunctional family again.
So maybe it’s time to turn on the TV again, to start layering my freeze-frame with stories of character I can aspire to obtain.
I still don’t believe Patriotism requires the watching of 9/11 events every year, any more than it’s my duty to watch a train wreck or rubberneck at an accident. But I also realize that it’s because I’ve focused on the obligation, the sensationalism and the disgusting opportunism of celebrities and politicians to position themselves with 9/11 that I don’t want to watch.
But I do believe in the firemen, the policemen, the office workers, the plane travelers, and the volunteers who worked, fought, and died more heroically than my own character can conceive.
And for them I think I can turn on the TV again.
-September 11, 2012
2015, September 11.
I am NOT a coward.
I have seen more dead bodies in two years of living in South Africa than my four decades of life before moving here. (One drowning and two road accident scenes have sadly managed that.) I’ve also learned a lot more about myself and what it means to be so close in time to the end of Apartheid and the beginning of the new South Africa. I have learned more about privilege in living here than I understood growing up in America. In this nation only twenty+ years post equality, liberation is still in progress, and mental emancipation from its residual impact will take much longer.
South Africa country is rife with division, racism, elitism, self-centeredness, crime, and corruption. In other words, not so different from America, except that we have far less road carnage, and our corruption is more insidious than obvious.
The best way to describe South Africa is that “it is complicated.” It’s true, speaking as someone who comes from the land of coining that phrase. 150 years after our civil war and 46 years after civil rights we are not really that much closer to unity and what we hoped would be our post-racial identity. We are, more and more, the Divided States of America.
I have learned more about America by watching her from outside her borders than I ever understood inside our bubble. And I still love her, probably more than I ever did when I refused to see her flaws. Before, she was a statue of liberty, the White House, the red-white-and-blue. She was always inanimate, always whatever I wanted to project onto her, always an object on a pedestal. What is it about women that we only see them as “either/or?”
America is a woman.
I have never heard America referred to as anything but “she/her.” Why? Maybe it’s because we do the same thing to countries that we do to women in life: objectify. We either hold her up as a righteous angel, or want to destroy her as an immoral devil. I think it’s difficult for many Patriots to accept America as anything but righteous, angelic, a woman whose honor is in constant need of defending.
But she has cheated. She has lied. She has manipulated. She hasn’t meant to do it. She is voluptuous and naturally seductive, and has slipped in and out of bed with partners she wanted, and partners she didn’t. She infatuating and infuriating—a fucked up, crazy mess. America is the kind of woman who drives us crazy.
Some men would dump a woman like that. Other guys are so blinded by love that they would never believe their woman would, or could betray their loyalty that way. Then there are those (and these I believe, are the ones who understand unconditional love) who accept her past, love her for who she is (flaws included) and try to help her grow, to become the best version of herself.
Maybe the best way to love America is as a partner or a spouse, and we have to work hard at this marriage. It is unhealthy to put her on a pedestal, or treat her like a dirty whore, or run around like testosterone-driven meatheads, constantly looking for a fight to defend her honor instead of focusing on what she actually needs.
She needs a lot, right now, from Patriots. Because the world is still trying to break us. Not us—America, but us—humans.
“The personal is political.” –Carol Hanisch, Shulamith Firestone, and Anne Koedt
I read the news, along with the rest of the world, I hope, of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old toddler from Syria, drowned seeking refuge from scores of countries who, before the viral photo of his lifeless body washed up on the beach, seemed to pretend they didn’t need to involve themselves in the plight of those refugees, including mine. Including my America, my land of Patriots.
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore… unless they’re from Mexico, or Syria, or anywhere that truly needs us.
Maybe we should take our quote, instead, from that non-American now infused into our psyche: J. R. R. Tolkien. Let us now etch, into the copper of our Statue of Liberty:
The way is shut. It was made by those who are [now] Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.
“Fix the problems in their own countries! We’re overloaded in ours already!” Rallying cries by people who don’t give two cents, or two minutes, to fixing the problems in anybody else’s country, let alone our own.
Complaints without solutions. Fear without function. And why isn’t anybody stating the obvious, the simple but powerful beginning of any change: it all starts with me.
Each word from my mouth, each action from my body begins a wave, a momentum. Is the answer of why we don’t because it’s not so simple? Or because we refuse to see it as simple?; refuse to see that each “I” influences each other “I?” Each and every person on the planet is either a follower or a leader, in constant, rippling ways, every single day.
We’re a land of broken promises, reality-star dreams, and we’ve become massively, commercially self-centered.
I am still a Patriot. I am a loyalist of the America who once took in the tired, the poor, huddled masses, the wretched refuse. I am a lawn-mowing, tax-paying citizen of the country who survived the Great Depression and created a once-strong middle class, gave hope to all the descendants of one-time immigrants that we could build a home, buy a car, live the “American dream.”
I am not their kind of Patriot, but I am also not yours. I am me: the kind who chooses based on personal experience, not party affiliation. I own guns. I shoot guns. I enjoy it. I also think we have a problem controlling guns, and more of a problem controlling our impulses. I believe America has a massive mental health crisis and that our tax dollars should go toward mental health, child safety and education, infrastructure, environment. These are not things I see as charity. These are things I see as common structures for any healthy society to exist, and as such necessary to support by society as a whole.
I think education is broken. I see the willfully ignorant, under-educated refusing to read and come to the table with anything other than the experience of a homogenized, small-town American narrow-mindedness. I see the over-educated, pompous elite shoving vocabulary and credentials down the throats of those who would offer a different opinion.
I am against the over-policing of the small freedoms. I believe in smaller government in some areas, but not most. I believe in women’s’ rights, regardless of my personal choice to life. I believe that organized religion is more self-serving than charitable, and that no religious organization should receive tax dollars. I believe if every American took the money she gave to a religious organization and actually gave it directly to where she sees need, she would do more good. I believe in hugging trees and in hugging lumberjacks, and that doing both in every area of conflict between man and nature is the only real way to progress.
I am not a conservative. I am also not a liberal. But I have many liberal friends who think I’m too conservative, and conservative friends who think I’m too liberal, and “everyone” thinks moderates are weak. I think we’re incredibly strong, because we are adaptable. Your fist explodes around that stick of dynamite you want to throw at the other side. Your rigidity against any opposition makes you brittle. My flexibility makes me strong.
I am a Patriot of the America who can own her mistakes, who can stand up for developing countries without stepping on human rights to do it. She protects human rights. She doesn’t look the other way or sacrifice human rights in the interest of greed.
That America exists. Don’t tell me she doesn’t, because people are politics, and I know, have seen, am that America who believes in leadership without bullying.
I am a loyalist of the nation who recognizes privilege, owns it, calls itself a racist and asks “What can we do to change? What can we do ensure our citizens are all cared for and to create a country of real integration?” I am a safeguard of the country who never forgets that she was founded on the near eradication of the original Americans. By violence, removal, and disease, our ancestors terra-formed and re-mapped America with its own DNA. I am a flag-waver of the America who never forgets that.
I stand proudly with the nation who always remembers she was built on the backs of slaves, and doesn’t say “that’s history, and we’re not going to do anything about it now, so moving on.” I am a Patriot of the America who exhibits more compassion than dismissal.
My America exists.
We just don’t always get it right in electing the right people to guide her.
I look back at how I thought of myself on 9/11, and ten years after 9/11, and eleven years, and fourteen years. I don’t watch replays of what I can still bring to my vision at a moment’s notice, what will still make me cry.
I am not a coward, even if I don’t know what I would do if a knife were at my throat, waiting to sever my head.
Do those words shock you? They shouldn’t, in 2015, should they? This is the world we live in, the world we ALL had a hand in shaping. Whether we run a country or whether we sit silent when we hear others mock or demoralize another human being, or ethnic group, religion, race. WE create the world around us, and it ripples from one person to the next.
I am not a coward. I may not know what I would do if one of the terrorists—those impotent cowards destroying temples and cities and women and childhood—held a knife to my throat, but I do know what kind of American Patriot I am. And I’m proud to be one.
I am a strong American Patriot who reads about the world outside my kin and ken. I am the citizen who tries to meet and know as many people who are not like me.
I wish Patriot Day in America could be a day we become the best part of ourselves. Instead of thinking how proud we are of our might, we could focus on humility and make it a day of service. I wish it were a day we took in refugees and immigrants as a nation, and built houses for neighbors as citizens. The best of America is still in her people, and we haven’t always gotten it right. We are still the great melting pot, an experiment in mass immigration and blended families. It’s the blender that gives me hope.
Those images will always be in the news, on television, and I may or may not watch, and it doesn’t mean a damn thing to my Patriotism whether or not I do. But I will read. I will remember. I will figure out tiny ways my life leaves more good than bad, more positive than negative.
The ripple effect of fear and ignorance, hatred and callous comments stop with me. The only wave I will participate in, and start where I can, is one of solution, of compassion, of empathy.
If your first instinct to this post is to argue, just stop.
If argument is your first reaction, then you (Liberal or Conservative, stubborn human) have missed my point. Bring me your listening, your compassion, your empathy, your solutions. If you need to argue, find your own platform, and shout your own message into the cyber-din.
This message is mine.
I am not a coward.
Maybe I am a shock absorber. Maybe I will create my own wave.
May your Patriot Day be blessed with remembrance, reflection, and compassion.