On September 11, 2001 I was delivering a lecture in my first-year survey class in U.S. history. Since it was near the beginning of the semester I had only got up to the seventeenth century and the wars between the Puritan settlers of New England and the various indigenous peoples, wars that led to the elimination of the indigenous peoples from that region. A colleague poked her head in the door and informed me that someone had just flown an airplane into the World Trade Center. Uh huh, I said, and continued with my lecture. A few minutes later, someone came around and told me that the school was being closed. I ignored her: What better use could I make of my time, I asked myself, than to provide students with some history that might explain why someone would want to attack the World Trade Center? However, a few minutes later one of the senior administrators entered my classroom and ordered me to leave immediately. I bowed to authority and dismissed the class.
On my way home from work I found myself on the subway sitting across from two black women. They were discussing the morning’s events. “I knew when they walked out of that conference there would be trouble,” said one, referring to the UN Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, from which the U.S. and Israel walked out after the conference voted to condemn Zionism. “In this world,” she continued, “you better not mess with the minorities.”
Walking home from the subway I met a neighbor, also sent home early, wearing a brightly colored orange dress. I complimented her on how nice she looked. She smiled and thanked me.
Those are my memories of “nine-eleven.” I did not avail myself of the “grief-counselors” considerately supplied by my employer, at taxpayers’ expense. (‘Tis an ill wind that blows no good, I thought, having in mind the battalions of unemployed psychology graduates who would now be sucking on the public teat.)
Now, ten years later, the manipulate-the-public industry is operating at full power, the marine bands and color guards turning feelings of loss to imperialistic ends, the National Anthem performed over and over at the sports events millions are trying to watch, leaving scarcely a single tear unjerked or a single jaw unclenched. It is a perfect display of sentimentality, defined by James Baldwin as “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, the mark of dishonesty,… the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.” What would Baldwin have made of George W. Bush at the Ground Zero ceremony reading a letter from Abraham Lincoln to a Civil War mother?
The experience brings to my mind the days following the Kennedy assassination: I was at work in a factory in New York City when the first news came that the President had been shot. His condition was not yet known. One of my fellow workers, an Irish-American, sidled over and said, “Do you know how they can tell if he’s dead? Hold a glass of whiskey under his nose, and if he doesn’t reach for it, he’s dead.” Irish humor. Malcolm X spoke for me and millions of others. The tears came later, along with the spectacle, and initial feelings were repressed altogether and later denied.
I do not consider myself an unfeeling person. A few days after the World Trade Center attack I was on a bus riding through a black working-class area. Looking out the window I saw four young men with baseball bats beating a fifth lying on his back in the street. What to do? I was paralysed. I thought of getting off the bus and trying to intervene. But what if they turned on me? I did nothing. One of the other passengers told the bus driver, who called it in on his radio, I presume to the police.
That incident, far more than the attack on the World Trade Center, captured for me the horror of life in America. Here were five young black men, the hope of the country, killing each other over drugs, or a woman, or territory, or a verbal insult—in short, over the miserable totality of their lives. And as you read these words, such events are taking place by the thousands all over the country, a World-Trade-Center-a-day. And there are no bands playing, no flags flying.
The following text message just came from a friend:
Today’s forecast: sunny and clear, not a cloud in the sky. But don’t go outside without an umbrella, because a couple of hundred million red-white-and-blue boners are going to be going off all day long, spewing loads of patriotic goo into the atmosphere, where it could congeal into what meteorologists call “cum clouds.” These clouds, when they accumulate, create the atmospheric conditions for dangerous, disgusting jiz blizzards, which haven’t been seen in New England in over thirty years, since the one that covered Provincetown, Cape Cod, on July 4th, 1976, during the Bicentennial summer.
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