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Wild Card Wednesday: Never Remember – The Oversimplification of 9/11

September 14, 2011

In recent months I had heard about any number of things that would allow the terrorists to win. Early on, I learned that if America plays fast and loose with the Bill of Rights, the terrorists will have won. I couldn’t agree more, but that was just the start. Later, I found out that if we stop working/shopping/eating out, the terrorists will have won. I took the message to heart. I’m not opposed to work; I don’t mind shopping; and, although I’m on a diet, I can still eat out and order light. But there was more. Finally, I ran into this headline: “If you don’t read this article, the terrorists will have won.”

~Steve Symanovich (humorist)

This past weekend, as I’m sure you all are aware, we honored the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. A whole decade. Like most people, I can remember exactly where I was when I found out. I was freshly 16, in my algebra class like every morning. I had started my Sophomore year of high school only a few weeks earlier, and I still didn’t quite have my feet under me in my new math class. I was chewing on my bagel and not quite listening to the teacher when the class clown (who had been at the bathroom for an awfully long time) came running back in out of breath. “Something’s happening in New York,” he said, “there’s been some kind of attack.” My teacher told him that wasn’t funny and that he needed to sit down, but there was something about the look on this kid’s face that put the hair up on the back of my neck. He was a jerk, but for once I didn’t think he was lying. He got angry. “I’m serious! One of those huge buildings just got hit.” He ran to the teacher’s desk, and flipped on the radio Mr. L kept for listening to baseball games. The AM channel was fuzzy, but we could distinctly hear them say that the World Trade Center was under attack. I felt like I was in a trance. Nobody moved, and the radio crackled, and finally I got up and walked out the door of the classroom. Mr. L didn’t even try to stop me. I needed to see what was happening; I needed to know.

In the hallway by the cafeteria there were two televisions mounted on the wall that played the news, so I went there. I arrived moments before the second plane hit, and it is an image that will forever be carved in my mind.

When they finally shooed us from the hallway because the crowd had grown too large I went to my mother’s classroom, and for a while we just hugged each other and cried. By that point we knew that  plane had gone down somewhere in Pennsylvania, where my sister and father were looking at colleges that week. No one could tell us where the plane had crashed and all the cell phone lines were jammed up with calls… those hours of waiting before they were finally able to call that night and tell us they were safe were the worst. Hearing my dad on the line made me cry. Thousands of people never got that call, and for them I feel the deepest of empathy.

Every American over a certain age has a story like mine. It is one of those moments that freezes time and forces you to focus. Certain things tend to happen in the days after events like 9/11– a welling up of all the feelings and behaviors that we know we are supposed to exhibit on a daily basis: compassion, kindness, understanding, the willingness to help. In her book “The Wordy Shipmates”, Sarah Vowell (one of my favorite authors and a die-hard New Yorker) describes how she showed up at the fire station with 14 tubes of Sensodyne because she heard they needed toothpaste and it was all she could find on the shelves. But she wanted to help.

We all wanted to help.

I don’t know anyone who didn’t realize that what had happened was a game changer, and we all wanted to know what WE could do. Surely, there must be something. And there was. We were told– don’t do anything. Live your life normally, or the terrorists win.

I’m sorry?

The worst thing that I can ever remember happening has just happened, and you want me to go shopping?

If you do/don’t do XYZ, the terrorists win.

What a tragedy that it may be the most permanent addition to the English language from such an event as this. The Cold War changed the way we speak more than 9/11 did. Wikipedia has devoted an entire page to this rhetorical phrase. A lot of their examples are from the early 00’s, but I have been noticing a disturbing uptick in the use of these words as we approach the next Presidential free-for-all election.

I hate this phrase, for one simple reason: It turns normal, every days activities into weapons.

By early winter of 2001 (so, almost immediately), lots of other people were sick of this phrase, too, but when something is easy to say and buzzy, it just latches on like a leech. Also like the leech, it drains us– as do all jingoistic phrases that release us from the responsibility of having thoughts of our own.

What kind of rebuttal could someone even begin to have to such a statement? It’s the kind of accusation that paints the rational into a corner and traps it there. Which perhaps is why the Tea Partiers favor it so?

More than anything, my problem with this phrase stems from the fact that it completely erases any feelings of friendship, love, or compassion that the terrible events of that day might have stirred in our hearts.

What better way to rip apart relationships than by telling someone that their behavior is somehow aiding the very people who sought to bring this country to its knees?

In the 10 years since that day, I have watched The United States turning into something that I don’t recognize– a place where debate is derided as treason, where idealism is a dirty word, where whoever shouts the loudest must be right. A place where fame is more important than integrity, and a cute little soundbite passes for intelligence.

It breaks my heart to think that all the potential lessons of that day might be lost because there are some who are unwilling to look deeper into their hearts. Past the fear, past the pain, beyond even the anger, to find the understanding and love and (dare I say it?) forgiveness that are the hallmarks of peace.

It seems to be the one lesson that Americans cannot seem to grasp– we experience great tragedies that have the potential to bring us together, and we squander those chances by placing blame and pointing fingers. We do more damage to ourselves than outsiders ever could, and by the time we are presented with a chance to learn from our past mistakes we have forgotten what it was that we were supposed to have gleaned from our pain. And so we try to distill cataclysmic events into simpler bits that are more easily retained, and in doing so lose the meaning of the whole.

The terrorists didn’t win because I decided not to go to the mall some sunny day back in September 2001. I wouldn’t say that they have won now, or will win because of a lack of a certain course of action. America has not won. What is winning when we gave them a boot in the ass instead of the other cheek?

This whole situation is too nebulous; far too complicated for simple words like winner or loser. It is an insult to the memory of those who died that day, and indeed to ourselves, to continue fracturing ourselves in this way.

I can only hope that we see the light sooner rather than later.

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