September 11

September 11, 2001, in John's World

This morning I saw a top-grade action movie, the kind that you know will have a size-large star, likely with a central European accent and a nasty temperament. The plotline was limited, which isn't surprising in the genre, and the special effects were amazing.

Only the ending was wrong: no accented catchphrase from the main character, no last minute technological miracle that bypassed the best-laid plans of a suitably-disfigured evil genius. Instead, everything seemed to go off as planned.

It sounds surreal, but that was just what it felt like. Things like this don't happen, especially randomly, to people who have done nothing to warrant it. The kind of organization, timing, and fortuity to pull off something like this can't be put together outside Hollywood. The world isn't this surreal.

But apparently it is - even more surreal than I really could imagine at 8AM. By the time I got to school, I had already followed the collapse of the first tower, and was on automatic pilot more or less. I told somebody later in the day that at that point, if I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger with an M-16 coming up the hallway, with metal showing under half his face, it wouldn't have made me bat an eye. At school I saw the familiar, in situations like this: a vague sense of community that isn't there when something locally very nasty or globally even worse isn't going on. People largely unable to leave the talking heads repeating the same news over and over. People unable to fathom that this could happen, and unable to say much coherently to really express their outrage, their fear, their sense of loss.

But there's something worse this time, and I am left tonight feeling like this is really the end of an era. Maybe there's some melodrama there that I don't have the context to move above: if I had grown up in Belfast, Johannesburg, Jerusalem, Tehran, or in less contemporary times in Hanoi, or Hiroshima, or any of hundreds of other places and times, I wouldn't necessarily be reacting like this. But here and now, it feels like the world will never be the same. A world where innocent civilians can be slaughtered on a mass scale, with no warning, and no wartime context, is a world that until today was very hard to imagine. It's bad enough that it can be imagined in a wartime context or with warning too, I suppose. But this brings it to my door, makes it affect me in a way that most serious random crimes can't. It's a new mark that things will be measured by - and I don't like the fact that there doesn't seem to be an end to that ruler or anything to stop somebody else whose belief system dictates that their version of the truth is worth more than other randomly-selected people's lives.

Despite the fact that there's been an enormous amount of pain and destruction dealt out randomly in terms of the individuals involved, I can't help but focus on the random individuals on the airliners used as instruments in this crime. I don't know why the idea of knowing what's about to happen to you, as I think they would, would make the situation so much worse than simply being an individual in or around a building about to be destroyed in this manner, but it does. The idea of knowing your trajectory, maybe not precisely, but specifically enough, and not being able to do anything about it, seems so much worse. Maybe because of the analogy to knowing there are groups of individuals in the world who would contemplate doing something like this, and not being able to do anything in the short or medium term about it. Or maybe because sometimes ignorance really is bliss. I'm not sure.

I'm even more disturbed by the consequences of this. I'm afraid for other people: The hatred and racism that will no doubt spring upon innocent individuals blamed by virtue of their cultural or religious associations for this. The fact that outrage at something like this screams so much more quickly for revenge than to any real solution to the problem. The fact that two wrongs often lead to a third, and onward from there. I'm afraid for individuals: the families of people involved in this, and the families of people who will be dragged into it. I'm afraid for myself because I can be a randomly selected individual in all this too. I'm afraid for society as a whole, as the scars from this lead to cultural changes for the worse. It's so much easier to do harm than it is good. Even when you don't think you're trying.

I was sick of everything I'd seen and felt, so at the end of a long day, I went to my brother's, to see his kids before I went to bed. Kids are great, they remind us of what life is like if we can ever peel off these layers, like the thick one I grew today. His seven year old was watching television, trying to digest the days events as everyone else was. She was worried that she'd have nightmares about it. I didn't tell her what I felt - that I hoped the nightmares would always be the least of her worries, today or any other day. I didn't tell her that sometimes bad people could do things to people she loves and that she wouldn't be able to do anything about it. I told her what I thought was the most important thing to take away from this. That people do, and convince other people to do, things like this because they feel that whatever it is they believe is more important than anybody else, especially anybody that's different from them. And that the important thing wasn't just that she should always respect the beliefs of other people too, but that to make the world a better place you also had to convince other people to do this. She's a smart kid, maybe she'll be able to figure out a better way to do that than I've been able to, and be more secure in her convictions to stand up for it in the times when it's the most work to do that. And maybe a few other people will do the same thing.

I hope that this is the most evil day that I ever live to see. I feel for anybody who can tell me they've seen worse. I hope even more that it's the most evil day than any of our children ever live to see. I fear it won't be, but I still hope.