Sunday, September 11, 2011

It Might Have Been Pearl Harbor

      “Hey, they took out the Pentagon!”

     Those were the first words I heard rubbing my bleary morning eyes the morning of September 11, 2001.  I was living in the worst situation I had ever been in in my life- a subsidized bedbug-ridden and flea-trap hotel in the heart of the Inner Mission in San Francisco.

     Curious, I turned on the television, only to see a jet airliner rushing toward one of the two World Trade Center towers- seen from street level, the plane smacked into the tower- one other was already on fire, and the next thing the television showed was dust roiling up the street and hundreds running for their lives. A live reporter ducking back inside a store to be out of the way of the dust cloud.

     It took a bit of time to realize exactly what had occurred. Apparently, groups of hijackers had set out to hijack several airplanes in US airspace and sent them in different directions- two had hit the WTC, one had just hit the Pentagon, where the news cameras showed a big chunk like a piece of pie bitten off a Pop Tart- and over Pennsylvania, another plane being piloted by the best friend of an old high school friend of mine was also now being driven into the ground…

     My father had lived for a decade or more on and off in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as a construction consultant to various socially beneficial projects of the Saudi monarchy. After his time spent with the San Francisco District of the Army Corps of Engineers, he had been hired on by a group called Parsons, and had spent his time flying back and forth, every year or two, to his home in Santa Rosa. He had become interested in the culture through the writings of T.E. Lawrence, and yet, had often written me letters complaining  “you really ought to see all the stupid laws they have here.” My two adoptive sisters accompanied him- they didn’t enjoy it much there either.

     But my father had remarried to a woman who thought the Saudi culture was just absolutely wonderful. Hiding inside her hijab, she could be escorted places on the arms of a man, and driven here and there like a princess. Our system of justice, she was fond of saying , was inferior to theirs, “because it’s swift.” Maybe heads getting lopped off, and hands getting stumped, appealed to a woman who didn’t hold to one particular country as a citizen- as a "dual citizen"- a subject of the United Kingdom and the United States, it was often impossible for me to tell whether she was a Patriot or a Tory. Obviously, the  Hitlerian type of justice available and administered to the average Saudi didn't offend her in the least.

     On September 11th at the time of the incident she was at her gynecologist, and so was my Dad, waiting outside. I was able to reach him within an hour or so, and he gave me his impression. Certainly both of us felt sick to our guts at the things unfolding on the television. As it came out that the hijackers were indeed, extremist pro-sharia jihadis, we got a little chance to smirk at the mindset that sent them off to meet Allah. Certainly having heard my stepmother’s ludicrous opinions years earlier, and putting up with her taunts about my own war-resistance, now I had something I could toss back in her face as needed…

     The next few days were interesting of themselves. I was working at an environmental lobbying group, where most of the colleagues were ten to twenty years my juniors. Their reactions ranged from “horrible and sickening” to outright laughter (on the part of one New Yorker) at the idea of thousands of other New Yorkers so disastrously deluged. As though it were little more than a disaster movie playing out in real life.

     “What is it about you New Yorkers, makes you 'don’t give a f about your fellow human beings'-?” I fumed.

     Another colleague mused it “was all our fault”, another felt "chickens were coming home to roost” and “oh, we’ll fall, alright.” I couldn’t believe it. The United States had not been attacked in such a fashion since the War of 1812 (Pancho Villa doesn’t really count, I had a grandfather who rode against him,  and he was small potatoes compared to the Bin Laden Gang). Others at the office, being chronic Bush-Haters, would find their own reasons to say things which were characteristically PC – in a situation where PC seemed damn irrelevant. Being human & Earthling seemed a lot more important than being American or any other kind of polity.

     I had not been a Bush-Hater. While those kids in the office just months before were beside themselves with laughter at the thought of the President choking on a pretzel, I was not amused. “You really want Dick Cheney for President?” I asked, “because that is just what you’d get.” I never hated George Bush, no. I did feel hella sorry for him, (although pity is a much better word for it). However, being as intellectually challenged as he was, as well as a mediocre personality,  surrounded as he was by puppet masters like Cheney, who obviously called most of the shots.
I even thought “Wanted: Dead or Alive” was a decent approach to the Bin Laden Problem. We didn’t yet know that Bush would wimp out on that promise to the American people, by letting Bin Laden go when they had him cornered in Tora Bora a year later.

    But I hoped they’d track the guy down, handcuffed and hogtied, put him on trial in New York City, and frog march him off to the Electric Chair, or, failing that, that he might get hauled up, stuffed into a black sack, by a crane hoisted over the Ground Zero spot and pilloried via megaphone with the taunting voices of Hilary Clinton, George Bush, Mayor Giuliani, and Governor Pataki. Then perhaps sent off to Sing Sing to rot without much but bread and   water, anonymous and forgotten. Martyr to nobody, reviled and discarded like the evil wretch he was.

     But neither of those things happened. Instead, a lot of other things did, and we got: two wars that have given the country a three trillion dollar deficit, a dozen imprecations to our civil liberties, from the way we travel about our own country, to the denial of even the most minimal legal representation within the Gitmo facility for the perps, and a lot of other things I don’t even care to mention, they all seem so ludicrous. But worst perhaps in my mind, the fact representatives of the United States government and military took part in torture... The lessons of Nuremburg have been lost on succeeding generations of American leaders, apparently. Patriotism being the first refuge of scoundrels, it’s easy to see them for who they are, for the faces they showed that day, and in the months and years that followed.

And in coming months, as America made the unprecedented move of firing on and invading a country that had not acted belligerently upon it (Iraq); at least one of my office colleagues also made a remark to the effect that the war in Afghanistan was- on some level, “a war for music” – something I wholly agreed with... Who would want to live back in the dark ages, in an age where joy is suspect, where women aren’t even allowed the opportunity to go to school to learn the simplest things? Where radios are as suspect as they were in Vichy France? The Taliban were truly evil, we concurred. And while it might have been a fight for “feminist ideals”, you sure didn’t see too many “feminists” signing up to go and fight it, even if it was their war to win. War being the stupidity of the human race that it is, at least people were learning from the lessons of Vietnam- that there might be a great many good things worth dying for, indeed a lot more worth fighting for, but- in the end, there’s nothing worth killing for.

     It (the September 11th attack) also spawned a lot of needless paranoia. Bob  Dylan once wrote a song called “Let Me Die In My Footsteps”- back at a time when everyone in the US was ready to run for a bomb shelter as soon as those Godless Soviets sent over their “nukular” missiles. I think the advice given there and then holds just as well and true today... Don’t be afraid to walk around in your own country. Chances are any terrorist cells here are mainly (primarily) composed of tenderfeet who couldn’t find their way around it as they could a paper bag. Don’t let them intimidate you- that, after all, is exactly what they want! Live your life, love your loves, make your day worth remembering. Even if (the odds are a lot less than the possibility of your being hit by an asteroid, or a Yellowstone mega-eruption) you did manage to become the victim of  a terrorist plot, at the least, in some way (and it is the most cynical fashion!) you could feel you had “died for your country.” (I’ve always hated that expression. Nobody “dies for their country, they get murdered for it!) You won’t lose your good karma, I guarantee it.

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