Thanks to television, several generations of Americans have grown up with violence coming straight into their homes in vivid color — but whereas people my parents’ age might have sat through footage of the Vietnam War, people in my age bracket got to see the action up close and personal, in real time, on the home front.
I’m of a peculiar age. I was home sick for both the Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine school shooting. My grandmother kept the television running at all times, so I watched live in color as people carried other people out of the remains of what had once been an office building — and then again, several years later, as people not much older than I was ran for their lives out of a school complex that looked not unlike a prison.
I can still remember the fear about what was happening and the uncertainty about what would come next. There was a sense that we were negotiating a brand-new reality, a brand-new reality wherein someone’s regular ordinary day could suddenly come crashing down with the detonation of a car bomb or the hail of semiautomatic ammunition.
So I can’t really say I was surprised when my high-school teacher wheeled a television into our classroom ten years ago to wordlessly show us footage of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center. I flinched in shock and froze in horror as I watched the second plane collide with the second tower, but what surprised me most is that no one else in the room was even watching.
Ten years ago, I wasn’t much of a radical. I’d decided years earlier that I wanted to become and remain an iconoclast, because the other option (being just like everyone else) was both unthinkable and literally impossible — but my small-town, rural-working-class, internet-less world was rather sheltered and I was sort of a libertarian. I had no idea how iconoclastic I really was until I looked around and saw that everyone else was checking their emails, playing games, and complaining that the teacher had on “a shitty action movie.”
While everyone else continued to complain throughout the day that we still had to watch this shit (a complaint I wouldn’t lodge until the end of the second day of continuous broadcast), I wrote in my notebook:
“This is going to really fuck up our civil liberties and totally change our sense of freedom.”
When Osama bin Laden took credit for the incident, I wrote,
“Fuck that lying liar! This was totally a white guy’s plot. Now life is going to suck hard for every other brown people and we are definitely going to war, just because of this dude’s ego. THANKS, ASSHOLE.”
I am still not entirely convinced that this was not in fact a white guy’s plot, albeit enacted by brown guys, but the degree of government involvement in the whole debacle is still up for debate. The rest of what I wrote, however, was more or less spot on. And so it remains to this day.
Writes Rick Salutin,
“There were many possibilities 10 years ago after the attacks. Americans might have learned enough from the slaughter of their own innocents in the name of abstract causes to empathize with people elsewhere who’ve also experienced such carnage, either through powerful nations like the U.S. or Soviet Union, or by their own tyrants. Other peoples could have used the event to acquire a more sympathetic view of Americans. The terrorists could have been marginalized and hunted down instead of being inflated into symbols in a clash of civilizations requiring massive invasions and ‘regime change.'”
But none of that happened. Instead, Americans are still smugly hanging onto a bizarre jingoistic patriotism, deluded by media, decidedly lacking in empathy for anyone, and seemingly numb to everything but the most crass and disgusting displays of carnage and atrocity.
We went to war. We’re still at war. We’ve lost most of an entire city to a hurricane, and six years later it has yet to completely rebuild. We’ve seen many more large-scale shootings, at workplaces, schools, and government functions. Our economy crashed, and if economists were honest they’d admit we’re probably in an actual depression. Our party politics more and more resemble a professional wrestling match, growing ever more absurd every day.
And we’re all just kind of over it. As am I. While I do still care, and have empathy, and find the whole public circus disgusting, I’m jaded. I’m certainly a radical now, and I want something better than this — but it will take more than the efforts of myself and the small handfuls of other individuals to enact widespread change.
So in the meantime, I want my indie rock and my funky clothes and my Twitter and my solo bar tours — the way other people want their late-night movie matinees or monster truck rallies or online dating or skydiving. Something to make me forget, just for a little while, and to make me feel like I’m a part of something, even in a social landscape where nothing means anything. Perhaps especially in a social landscape where nothing means anything.
I don’t know what this country will look like in another ten years. I admit that I’m excited to find out. I can’t imagine what it will be like for people who were children at home sick from school on the day of ‘9/11’, and children who were born on or since that day: people who’ve grown up in this reality and don’t remember any different. I wouldn’t blame them if they stayed numb and deadened — but I hope they will not. Maybe they’ll be what it takes to end this strange dream, the snap of fingers to wake us all up. Maybe they won’t take this all for granted. Maybe.
While we wait, and work, and do what we can: listen to this song by Elvis Perkins, whose mother was aboard the plane that hit the first World Trade Center tower ten years ago today.