Remembering 9/11

I am not a patriot. I don’t believe in the inherent value of identifying with one nation over another. A nation, to me, is simply a collective noun to describe a group of people living in a particular place at a particular time, with their own more-or-less consensual geographical identity.

That said, I grew up in the suburbs of New York. And I’m a lot like other people who also grew up there. And when terrible things happen to your neighbours, the news hurts you deeply. The news of horrible things happening to people all over the world hurts too — but this is different. I didn’t feel more deeply for the people caught in the attacks in New York (and elsewhere in the US) on 9/11, but I felt differently for them. It was so close to home; they were my neighbours.

I don’t think 9/11 is necessarily the worst thing that’s happened in recent history — but it’s the worst thing that’s happened to my neighbours. It offends me when ordinarily kind, sympathetic people talk about 9/11 like it’s not worthy of their tears, because the US is such a global bastard. I’m not offended as an American, but as a New Yorker.

I think the worst part about 9/11 was the innocent people who were killed because of the ideology of strangers. It’s always a tragedy when people are killed because of the ideology of strangers. Desperation and narrow-mindedness are a lethal combination — a truth history keeps trying to teach us, which human beings seem unwilling to learn.

But what is almost as bad is what some of the living did to the world in the aftermath. What’s almost as bad is the effect 9/11 has had on the global human conversation: the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the extraordinary renditions, detention and torture — the whole shebang, and more. It has shifted international dialogue even more into a kind of bald, brute, bullshitting.

I’m not interested in politics; I don’t think many people are. I’m interested only inasmuch as it helps people get on with their lives — left, right, whatever. I think most people, at heart, feel the same way. I am interested in culture, though. Culture, to me, is the glue that binds people together. There are as many cultures as there are situations in the world that demand human togetherness — and that is the most beautiful thing about being human. It’s the height of creativity. I don’t believe in culture clashes.

I believe that culture not only keeps the human world together in a way that politics never can, but that culture is the very spark of humanity, pouring out of us no matter how dumb we act, or how refined, or how crazy, or how compassionate. Culture precedes understanding; culture is the method by which humans make sense of themselves and the world around them. Culture is creative and spontaneous, and inspires us to be better than we thought we could be. Ideology, on the other hand, is a narrowly-defined statement of what we’re not, and turns people into worse than things — it turns them into not-things.

September 11th and its aftermath is a tragedy against people. The criminals weren’t just al-Qaida, and the victims weren’t just American. The test of our shared culture is how we deal with this. I believe that people will create beautiful ways to deal with ugly situations, even when they’re hurting very badly. And that’s the stuff that keeps us together, the thing that keeps us all going.

*

I wrote this poem about 9/11 in 2003. It’s since become the lyric to a song called “Auto Da Fé”, which will feature on the next Herons! record, Some Things Run Wild. It’s completely unpolitical.

I've been bathing in fire
Since the towers came down;
The crowd came to see me burning.
And your daylight put the whole act on a stage of gold--
Wronger than right,
Newer than old,é
Daylight coming down 'til dusk returning.

I'm going to burn!

Holden Caulfield and I,
At the end of the day,
Came stumbling drunk into the ugly scene.
When all the world exploded 
Into broken hearts and smouldering ash,
The willingest woke
From the smoke of the past
To find the whole pretty world all covered in green!

You only know what you know
Because the fire told you so.
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