Saturday, September 10, 2011

Memories

Every year around this time lots of 9/11 footage gets shown, and America remembers and mourns the people who died on September 11th, 2001, in New York, at the Pentagon, and on Flight 93.  As America's neighbour and ally we watch and mourn, too.

This event was likely one of the most pivotal events of our generation's lifetime as far as political and social events go, and has affected all of us on a deep level.  [And the pivotal political and social event of this generation by all rights should have been a black democrat being elected for President of the United States].  For those of us who work as firefighters, police officers, and paramedics, there is an added personal identification with what happened, and the many emergency personnel who died responding to the World Trade Center disaster.  We sign up as emergency responders to run towards danger in hopes of getting as close as humanly possible without getting burned up in the process, and sometimes we misjudge the distance.
Normal folks sign up for regular lives in the hopes of circulating through work, home, play, love, family, and life unassaulted and free, and sometimes airplanes flown by murderers crash into their lives and destroy them.  This is so wrong.  Any word for wrong doesn't do this violent act justice, in any way.

When the attacks of 9/11 happened, I was blissfully unaware.  I was visiting the Taj Mahal with my sister Megan and my friend Robin, in India, on the post University, pre work/marriage/family, personal pilgrimage, international trip of a lifetime.  We had no way of knowing what had just happened.  Our taxi driver and tour guide of sorts for the first three days of our trip was a Muslim man, and as he dropped us off at our final train destination on September 13th, he said, "When you get on the train, buy a newspaper.  There are big fires in America."  I'm grateful to him for safeguarding us for three days (in India, we learned, three young women traveling alone are kind of vulnerable to theft and swindling), and for alerting us that something big had happened and we should be aware of it.  I wonder, though, what went through his mind, knowing that our religions were at war; that the followers of his god had violently attacked a society around the world which we were neighbours of, allies to, and culturally intertwined.  That we were "good people, here to to do good for the poor people in my country," which is how he described us when he found out we were there to volunteer with Mother Theresa's ministry in Kolkata, but that we were the ideological opposite of fundamentalist proponents of Islam.  I don't know.

We boarded the train and borrowed a newspaper from a businessman which had a photo on the front of the two towers burning, before they fell.  We read the article in total shock, not realizing the extent of what had happened nor really how big it was.  This was in the first days after the attacks, when there was a chaos of information floating around, and we were in India.  Which, quite frankly, gave the news front page status for about three days, and then didn't really mention it much after that as far as we could tell.  The dearth of information was frustrating.  There were projected body counts upwards of twelve thousand, and no mention of the fact that the border was totally shut down and all, all flights had been grounded.  If we had booked our international flight two days later than we had, our flight would not have taken off and our trip would likely have been cancelled.  As it was, our entire families and circles of friends were in an absolute panic, having seen us off on airplanes two days prior to attacks involving airplanes on American soil and had not heard from us since, because we were in transit.  And then once we became aware of how urgently we needed to contact home to reassure people that we were okay, we were stuck on a train for 19 hours.

Yikes.

It wasn't until the first anniversary of 9/11 that I started to fully grasp the enormity and violence of what had happened, and this was because by then I was home and had access to the thousands upon thousands of photographic and video images that those who were home during the attacks saw.  Until then, I had seen only three photographs of what had happened, and it muted my understanding of it.  Ever since, each year I wrap myself up in televised memorials of 9/11 in an attempt to experience it like you guys did.  It's horrific.

Last night on an American channel there was this documentary thing on Bin Ladin's death.  There were interviews with President Obama, the head of the CIA, and several other people with important leadership positions or influential military positions, and an interview with a former Navy Seal rolled into this documentary describing how the American military managed to locate Bin Ladin, and ultimately enter the sovereign state of Pakistan without permission to launch an attack and kill Bin Ladin and several co conspirators, capture reams of data regarding contacts, plans for future attacks, and communication tools, destroy a black hawk helicopter which had unexpectedly crashed upon arrival, and retreat within 90 minutes without detection by nearby Pakistan military forces, the Air Force which had scramble capabilities within six minutes...This feat was amazing.  It was insightful to watch this documentary to see Obama conclude a nine year hunt for the master mind of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It was also an example of an extremely positive element of Obama's style of governance, whereby there is open disclosure of events and actions on behalf of the American people by its government and military after the fact.  I don't expect that all the information shown on that documentary piece was 100% full disclosure of the exact events or people involved, but Obama's willingness to discuss it openly in any fashion is in direct contrast to the previous government's Father Knows Best philosophy.  I deeply respect Obama's approach, and I quite like him in face to face interviews.  He seems very authentic and direct, and has a nonpolitical demeanor.

I'm glad that a leader of terrorism and violence has been silenced.  I remember writing when Bin Ladin was first reported killed that America had been 'sold a story,' and that this death solved nothing.  I still believe that, but what I meant when I wrote it was not that Bin Ladin was less influential than it seemed, but rather that he was a part of an enormous link of interconnected fundamentalist influences which operate in conjunction with his leadership to procure catastrophic violence upon the world.  It would be like sighing with relief that justice was served when Hitler died.  Thousands upon thousands of soldiers and SS workers were complicit in the violence that started in Germany and billowed out across Europe, and Hitler's death was only the beginning of the end.
The head of the CIA who was interviewed in this show said in conclusion,
"Bin Ladin's death was the end of a chapter.  A chapter in a very long book."
That is exactly what I meant, in May, when I posted about how this one death solves nothing.  And how people were 'sold a story.'  In reality the forces that work to act violently are much more complex and widespread than the one dimensional narrative that one man is responsible for 9/11 and that a war was the appropriate response.

I would like to offer that, although I am Canadian, the events of 9/11 are a deep part of my historical memory and political reality, and that there are a great number of Canadian military in Afghanistan fighting alongside our American allies.  So as a Canadian I have much wrapped up in these historical events, and the American response to them.

One of my favourite single pieces of art is the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  It was designed by a woman artist who received much criticism and created a ton of controversy when it was created, but it is absolutely beautiful, and more representative of the grief and honour involved in memorializing the war in Vietnam than any 'realistic' monument or statue could ever be.  Here is a picture;



No photo can do this piece justice, because it is cut into the earth on such a large scale that you really need to be next to it to experience its emotional impact.  I have rarely seen a war memorial that captures emotion so viscerally.  I studied this piece in Art History and it inspired me to want to visit DC, which we did in 2004 (the memorial was undergoing restoration on one half so I was disappointed not to get the full effect, but its impact was still powerful).

I was worried about the Ground Zero memorial, because it seemed like this tragedy just couldn't be memorialized properly, but in a style that is reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial, the memorial at the foot of the former World Trade Center captures an enormous, human grief and an indescribable sense of loss, gratitude, and hope.  It is beautiful, and I hope someday we can visit it to see its impact in person.  Well done.


1 comment:

lori said...

On my way to a 9/11 remembrance event this year (which was a Canadian/U.S. event at the Peace Gardens), I heard an interview on NPR with the creator of the memorial in DC. The things he said were so moving that I was crying by the time I got to the service. As one example, the creators had spent about a year in communication with the families of the deceased, specifically on the issue of adjacent name placards. In other words, how to arrange the names around the pools, placing people together who had connections. One woman, crazily enough, lost both her father and her best friend, one in a plane and another in a tower. So, those two names are adjacent at the memorial. See what I mean? Anyway, I so very much want to see the memorial too.

Thanks for writing about this, Melissa. It is sure nice having y'all as neighbors. ;)