Originally published by Eugene Daily News.
“Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.”
~ Billy Collins, “The Names”
Today is a good day for the industry of information. As it is the 11th anniversary of September 11, 2001, everyone wants to get in on the action. The talking heads, the politicians, the Facebook trolls, even t-shirt and bumper sticker and meme makers — political capital and quick money is on everyone’s mind. I don’t even know how many thousands of articles and essays begin with “as it is the 11th year anniversary,” or how many million product items mention 9/11 or “Never forget.” Which is funny — no one seems to be forgetting and no one seems to need a reminder. It’s on everyone’s mind and yet we all want to re-post articles, wear some anti-terrorist swag, or email each other inspirational messages just to prove to each other that we remember more than they do. That our electronic chain letters make us all that more patriotic. Or to take time to once again stir up controversy with our belief that it’s all a hoax.
Whatever our meanings or intentions, whatever side we took on September 12, 2001 and whatever side we take now — I think we’re all safely categorized as Americans and we all — despite what any conservative essayist might claim that a liberal anthropologist or sociologist might want to say — have some common values and basic human goodness. That’s not to say anything about a macro-ethical view of human beings or enter into a philosophy of ethics debate. I stand confidently on my experience of humanity with the idea that we can understand each other, relate to each other, and can communicate our thoughts and feelings to each other. And that, when we do so patiently and thoughtfully, we can find that we don’t stand that far apart.
This isn’t always the case. It wasn’t the case for whoever killed thousands of people in the Twin Towers eleven years ago. It wasn’t the case ever since when even more thousands of people in Iraq died on account of the Twin Towers attack. It’s never been the case. We have some basic human goodness and we have some basic animal selfishness at the same time. We twist each other’s words, we mock each other, we kill each other over territory, money, love interests, and ideas. I have little faith in my fellow human beings at the same time that I acknowledge that they themselves have the power to give me more faith in their humanity.
So while I grant and put in conversational brackets our failings and mass stupidity, I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we can do when we try to rise above our laziness, ignorance, and bigotry. To think of how many names were called, how much patriotism was called into question, and how easily we abused the concept of a “terrorist,” I mourn — first and foremost, of course, the lives lost and the lives forever altered by those lost.
But I also mourn the absence of a sense of civility and openness and willingness to dialogue with each other. I mourn that, in the days immediately following September 11, 2001, anyone who began an article with “I mourn x” (where x is anything but the lives of those in the Twin Towers) would be verbally beaten and sometimes physically threatened. I mourn that, increasingly and dangerously, Americans view their intellectuals with great distrust — choosing to listen to people based on political affiliations rather than how many decades’ worth of experience they obtained with the purpose of bettering our understanding of the world. I mourn that it is so difficult for us to accept that people can have multifaceted views and mourn for more than one thing at a time. That defending innocent Muslims makes one a traitor. Or that defending the invasion of Iraq makes one a stupid commoner.
We need to break free from the sound-bites. We need to rise above the bumper stickers. We need to reach across the political spectrum and ask each other the hard questions and be willing to sort through all the much harder answers. It both saddens and sickens me that (1) people who question everything are slandered as “trolls” and (2) most commonly, the people who question everything usually are trolls and don’t care about the actual truth.
I have a strange relationship with this 9/11 phenomenon because I was, when the planes struck, a Christian and a Republican. I did dislike George W. Bush, but that was because I preferred Gary Bauer’s advocacy for international human rights. But at the same time that I was a Christian and a Republican, I was an amateur expert in Middle Eastern affairs due to my involvement in academic speech and debate. So while I watched the TV all day, seeing the planes crash over and over in slow motion into the towers, my blood boiling in rage at whoever dared to strike such a low blow against my country, I felt distant from my fellow Christians and Republicans.
As everyone around me was screaming, “How could they? How dare they?” And most importantly, “Why? Why? Why?” I quietly thought to myself, ” Well, I know why, and let me give you at least ten reasons.” I could have quoted Howard Zinn or Gore Vidal and been labeled a terrorist myself. Or I could have cited Ron Paul or other true conservatives and been labeled a loony bin. Or I could have done both and cited news articles and Middle Eastern experts and been labeled unpatriotic.
But I don’t really care about any of that now. Though I still wonder why we always ask questions and then forget to follow them up with a dedication to find the answers; why we scream Why? Why? Why? and then just wait for the 9/11 Commission Report instead of actually making an effort ourselves.
Though I know why: we’re lazy.
Moreover, what I do care about is that both the Republicans and Christians I grew up with as well as the Democrats and liberals have equally gone this route of labeling. And what good does that accomplish? Now we know what we are? What category we fit into? And we don’t listen to people in certain categories?
We need to stop this incessant slandering and start conversing with one another. We need to encourage each other to research, not re-post Facebook statuses. We need to stop Tweeting and start thinking. Life cannot fit into a couple hundred words and neither can complicated international political issues. We cannot understand an issue via inflammatory blogs while thinking we are better experts on an issue than those who have spent a lifetime becoming an expert. Intellectuals need to speak softly to the uneducated and the uneducated need to be willing to listen. The uneducated need to educate themselves so that they can wisely, not spitingly, keep the intellectuals’ honesty in check.
Why is it anti-American to ask questions? Questioning authority is in the heart and blood of our country’s veins. We are a nation of rebel rousers, outsiders, and immigrants. We are a defiantly independent people. “Liberty and justice for all” — why must our nation be divided between these values? Why must justice for those who harmed us mean the end of the freedom to speak, to research, to ask, to challenge? Why must freedom mean we cannot want to justly seek out those who harmed us so that we can feel we can once again live our lives in peace and security?
When we rage and foam at the mouth when our justice system lets someone off the hook when we (having read a few blogs and Facebook statuses) think they were guilty and a jury of peers thoroughly listened to so much more evidence than we had access to and determined their innocence, I worry. I worried about Rick Perry’s execution record but less than I worried about how enthusiastically that execution record got lauded. I worried about how eager we were to see Bin Laden’s body after he was shot. I don’t worry because I dislike justice. I worry that we are becoming a mob. I worried equally that Casey Anthony might get shot by someone convinced of her guilt as I still worry that she will get a reality TV show. We are so transfixed by celebrity, popularity, name brands, political labels, pundit talking points, campaign slogans, and memes. We have no time or we choose not to take the time to listen, reflect, and be willing to let reality impose upon our formulaic and anachronistic mindsets rather than imposing our formulaic and anachronistic mindsets on reality.
This isn’t a game, people. When we bomb someone else’s country, that someone else is going to get mad and want to bomb our country. That’s not a matter of patriotism or terrorism or any sort of conceptual -ism. It’s a basic fact of life. And until we get it into our skulls that our actions have consequences, we are going to get ourselves deeper and deeper into danger. I say that as a patriot and an American. I want to be proud of my country, not ashamed of its bullying and fueling international conflicts. I want to be part of a world superpower that understands something so simple as a Spiderman quotation — that with great power comes great responsibility.
I want to be able to say that and I want you to be able to know that I am still, ten years after the fact, having nightmares of those planes crashing into those towers. That I don’t plan to move to Canada and that I don’t watch “Team America” every September 11. That when someone posts something liberal or conservative on Facebook, I will take the time to read as many articles as I can from as many different news outlets as I can. Because I don’t believe you because you are liberal or conservative, because you are a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist. I don’t believe you unless I did the work myself to determine the authenticity of your claim. And I believe that you should do so, too.
If you love America, if there’s one thing you can do to best remember those who died — those who still die, American, Iraqi, or whoever they may be, Muslim, Christian, or otherwise — you should make this country something that you can be proud of. That you find out how best to make this country something enviable rather than attackable. Whether that be guns, brains, balls, or purity of heart — put a little effort into it, please.