I remember September 11. I also remember September 12. Columbia made a decision that day not to cancel classes. I had three on my schedule, one on Reconstruction and 18th Century Comedies, one on the Arts of China, and one on Native American Literatures. Each of my professors opened by saying that we were not in any way required to be there that day. The Arts of China professor said that that day might be well spent studying another culture.
I don’t remember feeling any real mourning. I did not know anyone personally affected by the tragedy. I knew enough to know that more people die on American highways every month than died on September 11. But I did understand the numbness, the sense of insecurity, the idea that the mailbox I used, the used bookstore around my block, the Chinese Restaurant I went to late at nights and the office where I was interning could be gone tomorrow in another attack, which everyone was expecting. I remember liking Giuliani, I remember supporting the war in Afghanistan and I also remember thinking, dear god, Bush is our president.
I also remember enjoying the fellow feeling of community that descended on New York throughout those months, the people who volunteered at Ground Zero. Perhaps, it’s just the faded memories, but I do remember a kinder city. My fondest memory is from the night in November when George Harrison died. I went to the Strawberry Fields section of Central Park, where a crowd had gathered to sing Beatles songs. It was a happy night.
I also remember the jingoism. Quite a few people got flags. I didn’t, but I was a nationalist in my own way. I all but snarled at the peace activists on campus.
9/11 brought out the best and the worst. It brought out a love for our neighbors many people want but are unable to feel. It also brought out hatred for people we don’t recognize as our own. Members of my hyper-educated circle voiced savage beliefs. The island of Manhattan was populated with cavemen developing the rudiments of human civilization via cooperation, while planning on attacking another tribe that threatened its stability.
It’s been 14 years, and that communal fellow feeling has long since died. The government has failed to provide for the health care costs of that day’s greatest heroes. The general populace doesn’t seem to treat that fact with much outrage. The seven percent who opposed the war in Afghanistan has grown to take up the great majority of Americans. Almost no one believes the war was a good war, either for Americans or for Afghanis. (Most of us are more upset about how badly it turned out for the Americans.) The US and Europe are faced with victims of a far greater catastrophe than 9/11 and are only just barely rising to the moral challenge. Giuliani outted himself as a Stormfront-level bigot. Bush and Cheney became war criminals. Our national conversation on the origins of fascism and the logic of empire building in the late capitalist era is no more mature now than it was then. My 20-year-old students have never heard of Abu Ghraib.
I am spending today as I do most days now, studying other cultures.