Thursday, September 12, 2013

Where were you...when the lights went out?

I am not politically correct when it comes to 911. In China, it is always the day after Teacher's Day, the major September 10 holiday that every schoolchild observes. People are aware of the American day of horror here in some part because the date matches our emergency services dialing digits, but it is no more memorialized here than May 12, 2008 or The Mukden Incident is in the West.

September Eleventh is, for sure, a day that changed everything for everybody everywhere, but outside of the extraordinarily beautiful new building that is arising in downtown New York, I am not really on board with its glorification as Patriot Day (we already have a Patriots' Day in Massachusetts on April 19, which honors another guerrilla action whose actual events were clouded with smoke from muskets, albeit not powdered buildings and airborne secured transactions or financial instruments of destruction). Nobody knows who fired the "shot heard round the world" just like nobody knows who dropped those buildings or quite how. Reasonable people--the type who think theories of evolution and anthropogenic climate change are highly likely--probably can agree that freedom-hating psychopaths--nineteen pathetic men, some of whom were likely prone to un-Islamic behavior*--played an instrumental role.

I have friends who were personally affected by the tragedies of 2001. The brother-in-law of one old friend was among those for whom the bells toll. Last month, I was still deeply moved, as anybody else would be, by the pieces of fire engine door that I saw on display at a one-engine fire hall in Manhattan. Still, I refuse to join the noise around this macabre "holiday"...except with this ornery post.

September Eleventh is really the day that America joined the rest of the world in realizing that organized acts of sedition and terror can happen anywhere, that you can never be safe from bat-shit crazy mofos or fundamentalists. If the stock exchange was in Oklahoma City, we might have collectively awoken to this reality at least a few years sooner.

It was eerie in 1999 to emerge on a beautiful day from a Parisian subway station to see gendarmes with serious firepower protecting the citizenry from who knows what, but this had already been a reality in much of Europe for decades. We were lucky to be late to the party. It was sad to see the same display of force outside (and inside) Penn Station on August 29, 2013. Twas just downright unnerving to ask a paramilitary policewoman with a semi-automatic rifle how to find the little boys' room.

As somebody whose foreign national girlfriend accidentally "smuggled" Cutter Sark Chardonnay onto a trans-continental flight, I am skeptical of how much TSA; the PATRIOT Act; and all the other expensive, freedom-robbing projects of our government have made the world a better place to live...or safer. My friend Roger snarked it best on Facebook today, "ABQ -> BWI -> MHT. Light-medium grope, no supervisor watching. I could have snuck a handgun through that screen at least three different ways. Feeling safer now?"

Selfishly, perhaps I just hate that five days after my birthday in the best weather month of the year has turned into our nation's new JFK assassination moment on steroids. (I also know where I was when I heard that Jerry Garcia died, man, and I bet I am not alone.)

Another rip in the azure canvas wins my nomination for a national day of remembrance. I prefer to focus on The Challenger explosion as the seminal event for my generation of Americans. Aside from most recently being from Concord, NH, which was home to Christa Macauliffe and now a primary school named in her honor, I see this 1986 disaster as equally symbolic of the fallibility of our military-industrial complex (and humans, generally), but also of some more powerful and positive aspects of our national demeanor that are in need of glorification: curiosity, pursuit of knowledge, and selfless service. Failure of the O-rings, while not universally accepted, is rather less disputable than why the buildings fell the way they did. With The Challenger event we avoid the falderal of whodunnit and how, which allows us to focus more precisely on the more important question: How do we make sure it does not happen again? Of course the answer is we cannot. My hyper-rational conclusion is that we cannot avoid tragic accidents or purposeful acts entirely so we ought to just love each other as best we know how and enjoy life.

I challenge you to join me on miserably cold January 28--"Challenger Day"--to honor the seven astronauts and remember the shattered dreams of millions of schoolchildren who watched that mesmerizing explosion again and again. If we need this kind of psychic holiday to memorialize tragedy that was, albeit, met by an "E. pluribus unum" coming together of fellow countrymen and women, this is the date I would set aside for a speech if I were the "Leader of the Free World." This is Obama's schedule today: President's Schedule. This was his schedule last January 28: President's Schedule. This is not a poor reflection on him or his schedulers, but on our warped national priorities and devolving national story. Let's take it back!



* A cottage industry has arisen around 911 myth busting (and rumor-mongering).

N.B. "Where Were You When the Lights Went Out" is a reference to the 1965 New York City blackout and was the name of a subsequent film starring Doris Day.