Will We Remember?

I was a quiet observer, trekking uptown through swarms of people who smoked in the streets of a midtown packed, like it was a street festival. We looked up and the day tingled with a feeling of something different, new, no school today.

And the pictures of the towers started to go up on Facebook last night. And as we are counseled not to forget, I wonder what it is that makes us hold on so strongly.  I understand that this was important, that the towers were not only physical structures that held the flesh and blood of so many people who lived and loved, were fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, but perhaps more. Perhaps they were the force field that was supposed to signify the divide between us and them and that what shocked us all so much, myself absolutely included, was that the divide was so easily conquered. They  broke in with a fiery hellish fury – into our country, and into our consciousness. To some, into our conscience. 9/11 was the day that a war began. To some, it is much more personal than that. And to many, it will never end.

There’s a part in us all that likes to take ownership of tragedy.  To say, “I was there,” to stake a claim that we feel more than the guy next to us, or across the country from us.  It’s a cousin to that original feeling, the one that held us separate, that divided us.  I don’t know what you feel. Though I was in Manhattan that day, my ears were turned off to the screams of sirens, my heart to the fall.  I was a quiet observer, trekking uptown through swarms of people who smoked in the streets of a midtown packed, like it was a street festival.  We looked up and the day tingled with a feeling of something different, new, no school today.

No, it wasn’t until my train peaked through the tunnel eastbound and my exodus was complete that the sound came rushing back into my ears. In the safety of my bathroom that night, in a shower that washed the smell of soot from my hair, I felt.  I felt terrified.  And I felt that the world of foreign policy and boring pages in front of the style section of the New York Times were coming to get me, to shake me into wakefulness, so that I knew that it was all real – that people in pictures or who moved across the screen from me in the blue light of the television were actual. That speeches made from the pulpits of politicians held meaning. That legislation was connected to something that could affect even me.

Lines were drawn that day. Divisions that had been invisible then are now etched in permanent marker. Divides crept into our country dressed in red and blue, invading our neighborhoods, and working their way into our hearts and minds, disguised as truth.

And I think that maybe the towers didn’t signify divisions between us. Maybe they were buildings full of people. Maybe projecting symbols on them does a disservice to the people who loved – and lost – them. Especially as we’ve seen near endless death ever since.

Of course we won’t forget.

But will we remember what we learned?9/11

9/11 x 10

If these words are abrasive, then perhaps you are still asleep, immune to the truth that there are those who have capitalized upon America’s grief by plunging our youth into two unforgivable wars and plundering our coffers with misguided economic policies that fattened the wallets of a pitiful few at the expense of the trusting many.

The “Baby Boomer” generation was coming of age when President John F. Kennedy was gunned down on Nov. 22, 1963. It was the first defining moment of a generation that would bear witness to a series of culture-shifting events over the next decade; events that included the Vietnam War and the assassinations of other iconic figures such as Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Beginning with that fateful moment in Dallas until the final withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam 10 years later, America would never be the same.

Today, as we reflect upon the decade that transpired since the seminal moment of the new millennium, those of us who belong to the generations that followed the Baby Boomers find ourselves in a state of malaise and slow-moving transformation, unsure of our place in history. The  Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks should have been our awakening. Instead, it is as though we were collectively numbed and placed in suspended animation. Our grief is still palpable but our actions have been muted and confused—our hopeful innocence resting silently beneath the rubble.

This week we will be inundated with remembrances of that horrible day with many waxing poetic about America coming together and paying homage to our unity. This is not one of those essays. For me, 9/11 is when it all fell apart. The sight of it, the smell of it… It’s all right there. The sick feeling in my gut never left—didn’t even dissipate. Tragically, the ensuing decade haunts me now as much as the day itself.

Hopefully, Sept. 12, 2011 we can begin putting the pieces back together again. Recall, however, how tumultuous the healing process can be as the decade that followed the end of the Vietnam War was rife with unrest and discontent; an unfortunate harbinger for the decade ahead.

From JFK’s assassination until the withdrawal from Vietnam, the “Hippies” of the Sixties and Seventies were on the right side of liberty. They were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. They protested the war and railed against greed and corruption. They challenged conventional wisdom and raged against the machine. They had no children, no responsibilities—only outrage and determination. In defining themselves they redefined America and over time naturally found themselves in charge.

And then it happened.

Over the next few decades the revolutionaries came to embody the status quo. The generation that fought racism, unjust wars and corruption began suffering from selective amnesia. After years of excess and living high on the hog, the Baby Boomers now control the world’s purse strings, and they’ll do anything not to let go.

When 9/11 overwhelmed our nation, we looked to them. Instead of offering guidance they led us to war. Twice. They assuaged their own guilt over the mistreatment of soldiers returning from Vietnam by teaching us to revere service during wartime. Yet they were too cowardly to allow photographs of those who returned home in pine boxes. They called those who spoke out against war “unpatriotic” even though it was this freedom that defined their youth. They famously told us to spend, not save, even though the “Greatest Generation” saved enough to support them after World War II. All we had to do was stay vigilant. Say something if we saw something. Shut our mouths and fall in line.

And since Wall Street was attacked it too became sacrosanct. Only it wasn’t Wall Street that died that day. It was people—people who deserve more than the resurgence of unrestrained capitalism and who are worthy of being remembered for all that liberty truly stands for. Like helping our fellow citizens in their time of need—not vilifying the poor while lining the pockets of the rich; or establishing just and equitable laws that protect every American—not just those who can afford to be protected.

If these words are abrasive, then perhaps you are still asleep, immune to the truth that there are those who have capitalized upon America’s grief by plunging our youth into two unforgivable wars and plundering our coffers with misguided economic policies that fattened the wallets of a pitiful few at the expense of the trusting many. Their triumphant legacy? Our food is unrecognizable, the air is poisonous, and our jobs are overseas. America is fat, polluted and broke. After a solemn decade of reflection upon the chicanery of those who promised to defend our freedom it is time to speak out on behalf of those who are asleep but desirous of truth and those who are awake but unsure of how to speak it.

To be clear, I am not defending the inaction of my generation—the so-called Gen Xers—merely proffering a reasoned explanation of our latent response. When the Baby Boomer generation was jolted from the post-WWII cocoon in 1963, they were young and restless. Their enemies were clear, defined and from within. Racism was overt and ugly. The draft was omnipresent. The Vietnam War was televised, and someone you knew was either there or going. When 9/11 came, our enemies were nebulous and far away. They attacked innocent people and our way of life, instilled fear in our hearts.

Because the enemy wasn’t from within, we had no choice but to heed the call of our leaders who assured us our path was righteous. Only it wasn’t. We began on the right foot by giving chase to our enemy, sealing them off and punishing their leaders. Then, with the wind of public sentiment at their backs, our leaders pulled off an imperialist coup in a blood-for-oil campaign, squandering trillions of dollars and sacrificing thousands of American lives and tens of thousands more Iraqis and Afghanis.

Today, the charlatans in government who call themselves leaders are turning Americans against one another. They have ratcheted up the partisan dialogue to such an extreme many Americans believe that unemployment benefits, infrastructure spending and a health care bill that doesn’t take effect until 2014 are to blame for the failing economy instead of two decade-long wars, historic tax breaks for wealthy Americans and the destruction of oversight in the financial markets. All of this after George W. Bush decided to liquidate the nation’s entire surplus upon taking office.

The same Baby Boomers who fought against this type of irresponsible government have borrowed and refined the playbook in order to protect themselves. Their fear of growing old and losing what they have accumulated, ill-gotten or otherwise, is so acute they are actually trying to tell us that poor people and funding for Sesame Street are the reasons Social Security and Medicare might not exist for us.

So, why have subsequent generations been unable to coalesce as Boomers did when revolution beckoned them? The answer to this is far simpler than the remedy. Those in my generation lost the chance to capture the spirit of revolution by looking the other way for a decade. We bought homes, started families and tried to return to ordinary lives during otherwise extraordinary times. We slept.

Younger generations have substituted Haight-Ashbury with Facebook and protests with Twitter. In their frenetically hyper-connected lives they are ironically disconnected digital beings living a purgatorial existence that knows neither revolution nor responsibility. In fairness, how exactly would one protest genetically modified foods, the derivatives market or the carried interest tax loophole?

America’s youngest citizens have a long and troubled road ahead littered with greed, incompetence and willful ignorance. It is on them to connect beyond the invisible walls of social media and discover the revolutionary spirit that defined the Boomers, but eluded the Xers, and overcome the sordid legacy we jointly bequeath to them. In doing so, they will truly honor the memory of the people who perished on 9/11, rise above those who would do us harm and piece together what remains of our lost decade.

Life After bin Laden

A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination.

Osama bin Laden's compound in PakistanAs a resident of Manhattan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, both the enormity and the proximity of this tragedy rendered me almost childlike in my response. There was no precedent in my life against which I could benchmark my feelings, nor any reservoir of wisdom wrought from similar circumstances that could place the unthinkable events of that day in any useful emotional context. The initial shock gave way to overwhelming emptiness on a scale wholly unfamiliar to me—feelings that left me bizarrely searching for some sort of parental guidance from our government. In the days, weeks and years that followed, there was plenty on hand.

The Bush administration, unfit on so many levels to direct the social and economic aspects of governance, was somehow uniquely suited to administering a punishing response to al-Qaida, the Taliban and all those who would defy America in our pursuit of justice. Judgment Day would be leveled upon our enemies with a medieval ferocity married with modern precision. Of this we were sure. And not only were we kept abreast of our military response with clarity and immediacy, but we were told how to feel. It was OK to be angry, for ours was a shared tragedy. Our sadness was collective and our resolve singular. One nation, under God.

Now the object of our malevolence is gone. When my wife awoke me on Sunday night to watch as President Obama informed the nation that an elite American force had finally located and killed Osama bin Laden, I was bleary-eyed and confused. This wasn’t at all how I imagined this moment would be. Frankly, I had lost faith that it would ever come. Osama bin Laden had almost ceased to be real, becoming some sort of metaphoric touchstone for the War on Terror. His deeds would always be perpetuated by our inability to capture him and our shame would grow with each passing day. Catching or killing the man that embodied our terror and consumed a nation with fear for the better part of a decade seemed distant and implausible. In many ways, I wasn’t sure it even mattered any longer—because so much had transpired since Sept. 11, 2001 that any sudden manifestation of the man himself would be almost too complicated and painful to contemplate. Osama bin Laden had officially become the bogeyman. His re-emergence or death would inspire too many questions and bring forward too many painful memories buried deep within our subconscious selves.

Americans are hard-wired in such a way that having a villain allows us to compartmentalize our emotions, thereby narrowing our actions and behaviors to a series of Pavlovian responses. A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination. Figures such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Osama bin Laden were so absolute in their contrast to the American zeitgeist that their very existence allowed America to tacitly define itself as their theoretical opposite. The specter of bin Laden, more than the man, allowed the Bush administration to define itself as the antidote to terror, thereby becoming the natural incarnation of liberty and the ultimate arbiter of any global conflict that challenged our notion of freedom, a right characterized less by what we stood for than by what we fought against.

As we awake, hung over from our 10-year drunken binge of warfare and rage, what are we to make of bin Laden’s death? Our youth has been so inculcated by the steady drumbeat of anti-terrorism messaging that many took to the streets in celebration immediately following the pronouncement of bin Laden’s demise. Inchoate explanations of his whereabouts all these years and our inability to locate him even with the most sophisticated technology and intelligence has left many Americans somewhat wary of the information given to us so abruptly. I believe this is because for the first time in nearly a decade the message was delivered absent the hyperbole that has typically accompanied news of bin Laden and the War on Terror. And so we are left on our own to digest and make sense of not only the news of his death, but the world that he forever altered and has now thankfully left behind.  

The innocent victims of 9/11 are avenged, to be sure. If ever there was one seminal event that would resemble closure, this is the moment. But the hardship and grief stemming from the two wars that ensued and the lives that were lost or forever changed cannot be assuaged by any one action. The men and women sickened from working on the “piles” for days and weeks, sifting through the toxic debris, cannot be healed. Our trust in Pakistani leadership has been shattered. Our reason for waging war cannot be easily explained away.

The near-simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were proffered to the American people as a sort of Sophie’s Choice. Osama bin Laden placed us in unforgiving territory where carnage seemed guaranteed by both inaction and war. Now we are faced with the realization that these decisions were made in a world gone mad, ushered in by a true madman who now rests in disgrace somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. And we are left to pick up the pieces, haunted by our actions, unsure of how to feel and forever mourning the victims of 9/11.