Sept. 11: Kings of a Shattered Mountain

If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

There seem to be three schools of thought as to how to commemmorate the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11: a) swamp us with "I remember..." interviews for 24 hours; b) tell your story of Where You Were When It Happened; c) say nothing at all. A friend of mine posted that no one should say anything unless we have something new to say, and no one has anything new to say.

It was a crazy day for us in the news business, even as far removed from the crisis as St. Louis, and it wasn't until the special edition was on the street and things had calmed a little that we realized we were covering the biggest story we'd ever see.

Or so we devoutly hope.

Each year, I have tried to think of something to say on Sept. 11. Each year, I've considering writing about where I was, what I was doing. But how is my story any different? One of ten thousand reporters trying to make sense of it from nine states away. Each year, I try to think of something new, something to put it in perspective without propaganda, dogma or schmaltzy heartstrings.

But each time I try, I just remember that mid-afternoon moment when the special edition had moved out, and I realized what had happened. That night, I wrote a column for my now-defunct webzine, Scarlet Letters. And I've never been able to write about it since.

All the nonsense and the artificiality of a five-year anniversary aside, it is not a day that should ever go unmarked. It may be that we have nothing new to say. But to pretend it didn't happen... that allows us to repress it, to forget it, to blithely go about our business and leave the messy business of terrorism and the war to politicians and generals. It is that mindset that lets us ignore the fact that bin Laden is still at large.

It is history, and history should never go unmarked. I may not have anything new to say, but I will not let it pass unremembered.

SCARLET LETTERS: Kings of a Shattered Mountain

Sept. 11, 2001

I’ve often felt that only the deaths of thousands would jolt America out of its stupor.

I am heartsick to be right.

Actually, it’s not yet known if I’m right. Too many people are rushing to judgment in reaction to this morning’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with doubtless many other targets that failed. We’ve heard that it’s the culminating project of Osama bin Laden and his army of psychotics. We’ve heard it was the Palestinians, who at last report were celebrating in the West Bank.

Mostly, people are calling for us to turn whatever country did this into a sheet of glass.

Welcome to the Gaza Strip. Or Northern Ireland. Or any place you want to name that has been the target of constant terrorist attacks over the last fifty years. Note that we automatically assume whichever nation did this must be in a desert.

Oh, we’ve been so damn smug. We’re the only superpower left in the world. No one would dare mess with us because we’re king of the mountain.

What utter nonsense.

“Coddled No More” states a Washington Post column this morning. It perfectly sums up our attitude as we watched historic buildings crumble and the very symbols of our government go up in flames. When reports of a fire on the Washington Mall came out, I found myself thinking of the Smithsonian and the National Archives and weeping, thinking of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The White House, with its irreplacable history and artwork, evacuated like any ordinary federal building.

These things are more important than their walls and mortar. They are symbols of our country, of the truths we have held to be self-evident for hundreds of years. We have forgotten that once we were a hungry nation of upstarts, that we are not the masters of all we survey.

The Old World Order was simple. Everyone was either in the American camp or the Soviet camp. The U.S. and Soviet leaders growled at each other and rattled sabers, but no one made a move because - surprise! - such a move would inevitably kill everyone in the world. So you could make a lot of noise about how the other guy better toe the line, and you could pull out of treaties and conferences and thumb your nose at “little” countries.

No more.

The New World Order means there are no more superpowers. It’s not us vs. them anymore; it’s us and them and them and them and them and them, all living on this little ball of dirt together and we’re all stuck with each other. Playing bully-boy games doesn’t work when the other guy doesn’t play by the rules, and winning means something different to him than to you.

As much as I’d like to blame all of this on our president's brilliantly moronic foreign policy, I can’t. This has been coming for decades, and is too large a consequence to be laid on any one man’s shoulders. I thought he would stumble us into a war somehow, but it's too soon and too big - this has been planned for years, not months. The most I can hope is that he won't make it any worse.

It is often those outside our borders who have the better view of our own hubris. In Britain today, it is already tomorrow, and the London Independent included a brilliant column on this very issue by Mary Dejevsky, titled “All-American Nightmare.” She writes:

“Beyond the personal tragedies of the individuals and the families whose lives will be changed forever, the greatest and longest-lasting damage of all will be to the American psyche. America has always stood apart from other countries by its grand designs, its ingrained optimism and its sense of well-being. However beleaguered individuals, institutions and governments might be at any one time, America felt good about itself; that was the enduring quality of the nation.

“One response to this multiple act of destruction in the two centres of American power could be defiance and perhaps a feeling of national solidarity. But Americans, unlike Britons, are unused to comprehensive adversity. The spirit of the Blitz is not something Americans have experienced collectively, even in a previous generation. They are not used to collective insecurity, except personal insecurity on dangerous city streets. And as a people, they are not accustomed to having their authority - or their innate goodness or rightness - challenged.”

“Coddled No More” says that people are wandering around New York City today in a daze, some openly crying. Don’t worry, assured a visiting Israeli. Once the bombs start going off daily, it doesn’t upset you anymore.

We have all been given a cataclysmic push off our shattered mountain. We must seek out those who did this - and, for the record, my money’s on the Taliban - but our examinations must go beyond whodunit and a swift and terrible punishment. We must examine the entire worldview that states we are the sole owners of this little dustball, and realize it’s time to share with the other children and give them the respect they deserve.

Otherwise, they’ll push back.


  1. Thought-provoking... and beautifully written, as always, Elizabeth.

    (Came here via your LJ feed, which I subscribe to).


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