Friday, October 13, 2006


Forgetting 9/11

"And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed. But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt."
(Book of Genesis: 17, 26)

While driving back from a company we'll call Macrohard last month, on a sudden whim I called up an old friend we'll call Al. We were talking about the upcoming 9/11 ceremonies, speeches, and toxy-foxy docudrama, in the midst of which Al said something like "Much better to forget it." Or it could've been "Lunch better show in a minute," since Al speaks an ancient regional dialect of English, and tends to murmur sagacious asides through his druidic beard in much the same way Rohrschach gave psychological tests. Whatever it was he said, I immediately got hungry for hawaiian chicken wings and steered the Lord-Mobile for Whole Foods, all the while thinking about the wisdom of basing foreign policy and societal mythology on reflexive grief response. Or as the Slavs and Serbs liked to call it, "Revenge."

On the night of 9/11, I was stranded in New Jersey, unable to get back to my future wife in Motherless Brooklyn on the other side of the smoldering ruins. Sleeping on a couch at work was not an option because they had evacuated and closed my building by mid-afternoon. For security, we were told. Why terrorists would strike the grounds of a deer and game preserve where the research labs of two old monopolies (we'll dub them Oilplex and YoYoTel) went to hide, I'm not sure, but their paranoia was my gain, and I'd found a B&B by early afternoon. There were no new rooms to be had that night. By 5PM I had dialed the phone hundreds of times to track down friends and loved ones. My mom was flying through Pittsburgh that morning, and news of Flight 93 going down prompted me to bail out of a meeting my manager wished to keep running, as if he were trying to wax a car in a sandstorm.

Everyone I knew was ok except my ex-boss on the stock exchange, and his trusted lieutenants. They were dead. It was his tradition to have a breakfast meeting with them every Tuesday in Windows on the World. When I worked for him, I would sometimes sit on a 27th floor window ledge in an apartment building just south and west of the Twin Towers, probably the closest of any dwellings to them, and fly paper airplanes at those large targets. If the wind was just right, the planes would get caught and carried up by gyres, and I had managed to hit them twice.

Still restless, feeling useless and guilty with no prospect of helping in any way, I told myself, "Pull yourself together. What would Hunter S. Thompson do now?" I went to the classiest restaurant I could find amongst the investment-banker-bedroom communities to observe the wreckage and interview witnesses. The restaurant was a steak house almost on top of George Washington's winter quarters near Morristown, and I parked myself resolutely on a stool under a TV near the bartop's maraschino cherries, lemons, and limes. The place was almost full already. I didn't want to get plowed, but I didn't want to be entirely sober, either, for the occasion was sombre, shocked and bleak, and the bartender would soon be overwhelmed. A good re-run of Lassie would've set most of us, including me, into tears.

Financial types, mostly men in Brooks Brothers, were still commuting back from the City, plodding in to take refuge in dark wood paneling, scotch, and tobacco. Average salary and bonus package on the far side of two-fifty a year. Pretty soon it was standing room only, everybody glazed under a kind of patina, half-looking at the TV re-play the images of the day for the seven thousandth time, which would occasionally announce a hope for survivors to be dug out. The networks were already identifying the the terrorists and pinpointing the rock they'd crawled from. Mohammad Atta. Southeast Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda. At this point, a gentleman lawyer to my left, with whom I'd been conversing, said, "Nuke em! I say nuke those motherfuckers. Right? Drop the bomb on the bastards." The sentiment was widely shared.

At the time, I remember thinking, "It's just the grief talking." But in hindsight, I'm not sure if it would've been worse to nuke them, compared to the causes our wrath and grief were channeled into. We could've taken the mountains of Kandahar and turned them upside down and inside out. It would've immediately balanced the ledger, killing only the impoverished innocents who lived there, sating our need to revenge a great wrong and somehow set it right, and scaring the organic shit out of every terrorist and country planning or even vaguely hoping to beset the United States for decades to come. Yet our leaders had far grander retaliation plans already in place, and the circumstances of 9/11 were far more byzantine and dubious than we knew at the time. Still, simple vengeance on the lair of the former freedom fighters would've been a whole lot cheaper, and it would've forced us to come clean with ourselves.

It was Lot's wife, not given the honor of a name in scripture, who looked back upon the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and was frozen by the unexperienced spectacle. It's a moment she never forgot. The sculpture above is made of salt, the idea of a local artist named Michael Magrath, and is part of a 9/11 memorial near Pioneer Square. There are three sculptures there, each made from a picture of a grief-stricken Iraqi, and
the rains will wash them away, probably sometime after Thanksgiving.

The Iraqi people are the greatest victims of 9/11, yet as a culture we will have little problem forgetting their travails. We were never much aware of killing millions of them in the first place, and there was little enough we could do about it as individuals. How we were set up as a whole decided their lot, and thinking about it reminds us not to dwell too long lest we have to change too much. In our minds, at least, which we still can own and even control, it's time to put 9/11 behind us so we can start to free ourselves to prepare to build a new country, when the hollowing of this one is complete. If I were to change anything about those sculptures I would make them light brown, as real salt is, when it is taken from the Earth.

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