September 11


By Joe Campbell
March 25th, 2008

Excerpts from my Journal

 
[Undated; between entries for late December 2001 and mid-January 2002]

I didn’t cry until I came home in late December. I knew no one who died. I knew no one who had survived the tragedy. The towers had never been a part of my life.

I cried when I saw the newspapers from the days after the attack. When I read about how television had stopped in the face of the crisis When I remembered catching the last minutes of the TV concert and at an off-campus party on Cambridge Street. When I read the comics, when I read the sports pages about the Mets and the Yankees – especially the Mets and their desperate dash to make the play-offs. When I heard phone calls a person high in the tower made to a person further down, or the calls from people on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Reading The Onion, and watching God cry. When I see the Mayor – Rudy Giuliani, man of the year, mayor of America – when I realize the leadership it took for him to lead the city during and after the attacks. When I drive by the city and notice where the towers are not anymore, and I realize that the island over there is still Manhattan.

As all these memories come together, focused on the moment Isaac, my roommate, shouted at me to get out of bed – and I stood, sat, started transfixed by the smoke and fire – and that terrible footage of the plane headed straight for the building. Unreality had taken hold. I knew it wasn’t a dream, but still, it was not real as I had understood and still understand reality.

I know this terrible thing happened – and that firemen are still removing bodies from the rubble, but it is not real. There’s no way it could be.

So, in a year of Bush league politics, the country rallied around our President – no matter his failings. He is the Stars and Stripes. Disgustingly, this was abused.

But America will survive the abuses of power. After all, it survived September 11, World War II, the Great Depression, the Civil War, and the British invasion.

My country – may she always be right and stay true to her course.

There are two main emotional touchstones which those of us who lived through the Bush years will look back to:

  • September 11, and the days afterwards;
  • the period from September 2002 until March 2003, the build-up to and the opening days of, the Iraq war.

All these years on, it is hard to see the period after September 11 as anything but a missed opportunity – for a president who had won in a disputed election to become the president of all Americans by creating some form of national unity government in response to the crisis – or to call on all Americans to do their part to pro-actively make the world better – something, anything. Instead, he told us to go out and buy stuff, and to be very afraid, and that if we offered him enough leeway, he would be able to protect us. He used the crisis as a political wedge issue; he used it to seize more power for the presidency; he used it to win elections for his party and himself. He abused his office and this moment in history.

It is difficult to remember today that they held vigils in Tehran; that the Irananian moderates in charge of Iran at the time offered to (and did) help us take down the Taliban, and that they wanted to make peace with America1; that in France, Le Monde declared that all citizens of the world were New Yorkers now; that we, as Americans, realized what petty squabbles we had been having for the past decades; that we together honored those men and women who served as firefighters and policemen, as soldiers and spies, whose job it was to protect and serve.

That day – the horrendous attack of that day – reminded those around the world, and those in America, what we had in common, and what all of us admired about this great nation.

Which is why, nearly seven years later, what I feel most is regret – that the opportunity that presents itself with any tragedy was squandered, and then abused. I was amazed when reading the entry posted above that this squandered opportunity, this abuse of power, was already evident while the ruins at Ground Zero were still smoldering.

Members of the Bush administration are fond of saying that everything changed on September 11. They have been ridiculed for it – and rightly so, because for them, that concept has been used to justify the policies they were promoting beforehand. It was rather convenient for them that September 11 changed everything – and proved that what they had been promoting before September 11 was more needed now than ever before – expanded executive powers, an expansion of surveillance powers, war with Iraq, tax cuts, reduced financial regulation, and more Republicans in the Congress.

But what the mockers miss is that something fundamental did change on 9/11. The American people were forced to focus on the world again; many of us no longer felt safe – even if our fears were overstated, and outside of the major cities, almost entirely unfounded. The more fundamental change was emotional, a change of timbre. We were forced to reckon with the fact that some people in the world were so willing to kill us, indiscriminately, that they would kill themselves in order to do so; and we realized that our values and our ways of life have far more in common than in opposition. Despite the partisan attempts to take advantage of this crisis and the polarization that resulted, these emotional facts remain latent. We still remember – however dimly – that we are one people, with far more uniting us than dividing us; and we remember that in our moment of weakness, the world mourned our losses with us and stood with us; and we remember that there are those who wish us harm and who are willing to sacrifice themselves in their cause.

None of this is exceptional, but it sets the stage for the story to unfold.

  1. We didn’t respond. []

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