I wasn’t going to blog the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but then it came and the news coverage was sort of unavoidable, so I got to thinking about it. I thought it’d be pretty easy to make sense of, but it turns out I have a lot of mixed feelings.
In 2001, 9/11 was pretty abstract. I woke up that morning to my roommate watching it on his computer. His mom had either already called him and freaked out and encouraged him to stay away from target-like buildings or she was about to. I don’t think I talked to my mom at all that day, which should not be taken as an indictment of either of our care for each other.
And then, like any other Tuesday that semester, I went to work. The only thing different was that my boss grumbled about our corporate overlords being soulless (which was usual enough) because they didn’t close the store (that part was different). Then I went to class, and I think maybe my professor said something before lecturing on some facet of 20th century American literature, but maybe she didn’t.
All of this is to say that 9/11, the first time around, didn’t impact me personally all that much. I was on the West Coast, far from the site of the attacks, and I didn’t even know anybody on the East Coast. Maybe I’m giving the 18-year-old me too much credit, but I don’t remember being scared and I feel like my first thought was “Oh God, what is that cowboy in the White House going to be able to justify doing?” That part is fairly likely a false memory, but the rest I think is right.
Maybe I’ve gotten soft in my old age, but with the 10th anniversary coverage I teared up a little. I was thinking about the human toll, about people who went to work or got on a plane one day and just. never. came. home. I was pondering what it must have been like to flee that horror, for those who were able to. I shied away from considering what it was like for those who couldn’t escape. Children lost parents that day. Parents lost children. When I think of it that way, it’s real and it’s weighty.
Reading the news stories about each of those lives that either ended or was dramatically changed that day leaves me with a feeling of sadness I wasn’t anticipating in revisiting this event.
Then there were those people who ran against the tide of fleeing people to help, some of whom died trying. There were people, I’ll swear, giving away water to survivors and rescue personnel out of their stores, though the Internet has no record of it now. There were forty people aboard Flight 93 who knew they were probably going to die either way, who fought back against the hijackers on their plane and kept it from being crashed into another building. People all across the country donated blood.
And there’s something incredibly moving about that. That moment, that response of standing together and giving to one another and caring for one another was one of the few times in my adult life so far that I have been really proud to be an American.
When I think about the individual people like this, I feel like my general response to September 11th is in or near the mainstream. I get the grief and the memorials and the ceremonial quality of it all on that level.
The trouble is, I can’t see only on that level for very long.
I start to think about the fact that we don’t have the same response to the 3,000 people who die every day from car accidents. Aren’t they as “innocent”? What about the 3,000 Nigerians dying daily of hunger? Or the 3,000 African children dying each day of Malaria? And those are just the daily deaths that ballpark the number in the World Trade Center attacks—there are lots of other things that kill fewer people, or more. I think we need to look a lot harder at whose lives we do or don’t grieve.
I also can’t help thinking about the fact that U.S. neoimperial policy had everything to do with 9/11. The U.S. has, as a matter of foreign policy, gone around stomping all over other countries ever since it became a superpower. Ward Churchill‘s characterization of 9/11 as exemplifying Malcolm X’s statement about “chickens coming home to roost” is relatively accurate in that sense.
Here is where things get tricky: the U.S. had it coming, but the U.S. is amorphous and indeterminate and ultimately comprised of individual people. And those individual people did not have it coming.
That is, I don’t agree with Churchill’s assertion that the 9/11 dead were “little Eichmanns.” In fact, for someone who has such a good grasp of the extenuating effects of U.S. intervention in Iraq and the role of those effects in causing September 11th, he seems to not understand systems all that well.
There’s a difference between:
a) bombing the bejeezus out of Iraq to try to damage Sadaam Hussein’s rule and resources with (admittedly wanton) disregard for the way this will entail suffering for people who didn’t necessarily even support him and
b) genocide, which is a deliberate and systematic effort to kill a group of people just for being members of that group. Genocide requires intent.
This is a difference Churchill’s polemic doesn’t recognize, and it should. There is much the same difference between:
a) the fact that yes, the people who died in the 9/11 attacks benefited from and supported the U.S. neoimperialist activity even, in the vast majority of cases, without meaning to, and
b) the fact that they themselves didn’t actively engage in imperialist activity. They didn’t kill any Iraqi children.
There is, of course, no such thing as complete innocence, but there are matters of degree, and most of those people were on the mid- to high-innocence side.
And that’s where I end up, vacillating between the big picture of U.S. imperialist crime and callous disregard for human life and the individuals who had no idea why they died, had no chance to try to rectify the situation for which they were (unfairly) held responsible. And then I don’t know what to think about 9/11.