The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

11 September 2011

Ten Years On

I have been staying away from the television news this week, knowing as we approached the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that to watch TV would be to subject myself to repeated images of that airliner flying into the World Trade Center. Even as I write this, that horrifying vision revives itself and brings me back to that crystalline Tuesday morning in 2001. It had started so sweetly, taking my nine-year-old son to school, then turned suddenly bizarre when, just before 9, BBC radio reported an aircraft had hit one of the Twin Towers. This made me turn on the television, just in time to witness the second plane slice onto the screen and vanish in an orange fireball.

In the next ninety minutes, the first act of our decade-long tragedy unfolded: the Pentagon, the Pennsylvania field, the unimaginable collapse of the towers. The scale of the catastrophe was fathomless. The uncertainty of what was happening, dismaying. Around 9:30, I went to my newspaper job, where I was way past deadline with the lead feature for that Sunday's arts section.  One had to feed the beast, so as the world disintegrated around me (literally; I could see a television screen in every direction from my newsroom desk), I dutifully struggled to complete a story about the opening of the new wing of a local museum. The disconnect was prodigious.

I wonder, though, how much more fully present I would have been had I not been distracted by my suddenly superfluous task. It was a morning of numbing shock and awe for everyone, beyond processing.  And while I lived through it and paid attention, I'm not sure I've yet woken up from the nightmare of all that has followed, never fully demarcated the facts and their significance. I doubt that I or anyone of my generation will. The chain of events set in motion by the attacks carry meanings that will only reveal themselves over decades, perhaps even centuries. We who are still steadying ourselves in their wake cannot completely understand them, and it is this impossibility of comprehension that makes what occurred on September 11 so fraught with peril and potential.

Since we place significance on anniversaries of the same measure as our money (ten, fifty, one hundred, etc.), this year—this day—is our first opportunity for deep, collective reflection on the meaning of 9/11. Of necessity, that reflection must be elegiac. Not only is our memory of that day too fresh; the wound remains open. America still bleeds, in Afghanistan and Iraq, as do peoples of other nations in battle zones and drone attacks, Guantanamo cells and dark holes we know nothing of.

Since 9/11, we have done little to heal our nation or the world.  Ten years ago, after a pitifully brief period of collective mourning, the US set out to salve its grief with vengeance. Anger at such an attack is natural and appropriate, and the human mind is wired for retribution. Ideals of justice were devised long ago by men who understood the need for trial and punishment. America has from time to time attempted to emulate such ideals, but our bloody legacy of revenge and reprisal, from the burning of Atlanta to the firebombing of Dresden to the assassination of bin Laden, overpowers our better angels. Only in Nuremberg, when the US insisted on trying Nazi war criminals rather than summarily executing them (as the British wished), have we, in extremis, shown a prejudice toward law over wrath.

America is a country built as much on force and the will to power as tolerance and freedom. We are not, as our politicians occasionally warble at us, a peace-loving people. We groove on exerting strength. President Bush, in his address to the world on 9/11, was most himself when speaking of revenge. The Pentagon was still smoldering as Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, tasked aides to find a connection to Saddam Hussein that would justify military action in Iraq. The impulse to war was swift and sadly natural. As was, internally, the transition to lock-down and control. How quickly we accepted heightened surveillance and the intimidation of authority on our lives.

A vision of the US as a quasi-police state emerged in our language. At some point early in the aftermath of 9/11, the President began to refer to America as "the homeland," unconcerned that the term was rank with echoes of Nazi Germany and totalitarianism generally. The German word vaterland, which means much the same thing as "homeland," was used to stoke German nationalism during World War I, and adopted by Hitler's propaganda machine in the years preceding the Holocaust. It calls upon messianic patriotism über alles, over reason, over human rights, over liberty, over mercy. Fatherland, motherland, homeland—these are terms abhorrent to any notion of individual dignity or freedom, but ones perfectly fitted to a mentality of authoritarianism. We now live under the vigilant gaze of Homeland Security which, like the mythical Argus,  never sleeps. Indeed, the exponential use of security cameras in every realm of our existence makes the hundred-eyed Greek giant seem ill-equipped. When we pass through the airport, surveillance is conducted by the hardened agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; to paraphrase Robert Frost, some say freedom will end in fire, some say in ICE. We can't board an airplane without being X-rayed or patted down, and to get into the US, friends from other countries must agree to being treated like criminal suspects and submit to fingerprinting and retinal scans.

Such coercive authority, like all forms of absolutism, grows out of self-deception and enlarges it. We as a nation have yet to collectively explore why we were attacked, as if the answer doesn't matter, or simply raising the query is an affront to decency. So much easier to label what happened on 9/11 evil—a malevolence beyond our ken or control to which the only response is counterattack. But our enemies are nothing so simple as mere "evil-doers"; they are zealous, cunning men with grievances and hatreds. To understand their motives is not to shift responsibility away from their crimes, but simply to exert wisdom. Sages have long taught us that our nemesis has much to teach us about ourself.  The mightier the foe, the greater the opportunity for enlightenment.

What does the past expect from us?

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the world came together in grief, mourning, hope. There were murmurs of a new beginning in the US, of the end of an era of cynicism and self-interest and the dawning of greater thoughtfulness and compassion. Seven years later, after that optimistic vision was dashed by hapless war and delusional wealth, it rose again with the election of Barack Obama. He has yet to prove he is equal to the dream, but the world remains weary for change. It is pent up with anguish and aspiration. There are those who believe humanity is in the midst of an evolutionary transformation as momentous as our shift from Neanderthal to homo sapiens; who sense, in everything from quantum physics to neuroscience to astrology, the emergence of a global awakening. This intimation of limitless change—not progress but metamorphosis—has been steadily increasing since the 1960s, and we are by now in the third or fourth generation of people who feel it imminent.

If I did not believe this myself, I would not have started the organization that supports this blog. I do not expect anything magical to happen tomorrow, don't think our fate is controlled by the Mayan calendar, am not waiting for the 2012 arrival of Quetzalcoatl, and have doubts that Next Age global "summits" will in themselves affect great change. And yet all such energy moves us toward an awakening around the world, one stirred as much by the awareness that we share a tiny planet with finite resources as by metaphysical epiphany. We must reform ourselves or perish. If indeed we are part of an evolution of consciousness, the fact that this notion has been around fifty years is not cause for cynicism or proof we're waiting for Godot. Quite the opposite. It means we stand at the beginning of something we may not achieve in our lifetime, just as the great grandfather who plants the tree never sees it in its mighty, shade-giving splendor.

What has this to do with the anniversary of 9/11? Everything, I insist. Because after the cruel destruction of that day and the bloodshed and devastation that followed, the one incontrovertible truth these events have demonstrated is that aggression never works. Not in the long run. It will not affect the change you imagine and cannot set you free. Aggression is slavery, and if we are not to destroy ourselves as a race we must, must, must reject it. We must rise above our baser instincts for viciousness and violence and accept our human capacity to cooperate, to collaborate, to experience empathy and feel compassion. Love—only love—is the hope at the bottom of Pandora's box.

So I will not subject myself to pictures of airplanes flying into buildings today, because that is a history we must purge ourselves of. I don't mean we should forget what happened ten years ago. But the past can gain no meaning when we simply replay it for dramatic effect. There is a residual light from the what-has-been that shines for our eyes. It illuminates a new narrative, which lies ahead.

Jean Alaux, Pandora Descending to Earth with Mercury, public domain
German WWI recruitment poster, public domain
Théodore Géricault, Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute 


Steve Resler said...

Excellently well said and on the mark, Tim. As always. I'm posting it as far and wide as I can.

Noreen said...

Well said. It brings a sigh of relief. Violence brings forth violence. Let's see how far we can go with peace, compassion and dialogue.

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