Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11, Ten Years Distant...

...Ten Years Near.

I've been quiet the past few weeks. An unfortunate admission, notwithstanding the matrix of other concerns and family ailments. And still the blog's been getting regular activity,  which convicts me all the more for my absence.

But I could not let today pass without comment. It would be unacceptable. If this blog stayed silent today of all days, I'd feel completely unworthy to write one word about nerd culture tomorrow. Because, for my generation and my slice of the global demographic, few images are so intensely recognizable, few memories so vibrant or jarring, and few concepts so divisive as those associated with the four terrorist attacks perpetrated against the United States people ten years ago.

When I was younger, I'd hear adults speak all the time about the vivid memories they had of where they were when some seminal event occurred. John F. Kennedy's assassination. Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. The Iran hostage crisis. The Challenger accident. When I would hear someone talk about these vivid life moments, I'd feel a strange mix of envious condescension. I was envious of feeling that intense recollection of one time, one event in history and my tenuous connection with it, but I also felt a patronizing impulse that said there was something--deep down--defective about that surpassing response.

"If this blog stayed silent today of all days, I'd feel completely unworthy to write one word about nerd culture tomorrow."

I was in high school on September 11, 2001. I was in the band room when it happened, warming up on my trumpet and talking to one of my good friends in the section. I felt nothing. No intuitive response, no dread feeling of foreboding, no tickle at the back of my awareness. I went through first period without a single piece of dramatic sensation. In passing period, though, I saw and heard a subtle shift in tone. I'd always transported myself between classes in a quiet solitary fashion, which seemed to make me remarkable amongst the raucous pedestrians around me. On that day, though, everyone seemed a little rushed and hurried.

In a strange way, I was disconcerted by the paradigm shift towards my own behavior. Even the teachers seemed... struck. I got to my math class, sat down, and let the influx of other kids bring in a trickle of more information.

We'd been attacked. New York? Yeah, the Twin Towers. Again? How? They blew it up? It feels stupid to recall the gossiping confusion that accompanied that moment, but that's how it began for me. My math teacher, a big guy named Mr. Arms who liked to smile with his chin when he stumped the class, came into the classroom. He explained what had happened. Two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, but they didn't really know much more than that. Right now we needed to continue with our curriculum: quadratics or something else essential like that.

I remember Adam--another trumpet player, a year older and a decade better than me--suggested that we should get the day off of school. He said it with that easy-going prom-king smirk of his. Adam and I were friends, even if I didn't merit much face time with the more popular guy. I told him to shut up. This was that moment I'd heard about, that moment I'd never forget, and he inserted a dumb request for a school holiday into it. And, if the dread I'd felt at the moment was at all indicative, we'd be at war the next day anyway.

School continued. It was almost pathetically mundane. Some teachers let us watch the news on the television, and I first saw the oft-repeated footage of those burning towers. Some of the teachers made us continue with our lessons; some didn't. Some kids cried; some didn't. No one really had a good explanation for what they were doing. The teachers who continued with lessons as usual made lame excuses. The teachers who let us watch the news gave us enlightened reasons that were completely irrelevant by lunchtime--we'd all seen the footage by that point, and the answers to our questions weren't forthcoming. The kids who cried really didn't have good reasons for their outbursts--'my mom knows someone who works in New York'--but the rest of us didn't either. I remember telling someone that this was our generation's Pearl Harbor. I used it as an accusation for them being flippant, but the real barb caught myself in the chest when I realized that I was living through my generation's Pearl Harbor and I wasn't even crying.

And that was it. A day without sense, or reason, or explanation, or any sort of natural narrative to it. I felt a tremendous push to go out and do something, but I didn't even have my learner's permit yet--it's not like I could drive from Lake County to New York on a whim. Everything passed, eventually the answers arose, the poor reasoning of the terrorists came to light, and we started to get a narrative of activity. With that narrative, eventually, came dissension. As time moved forward, everyone looked to a different response. Initial landslides of approval for swift response diminished, and by the end of that year, stupid high school students were debating in English class about the nature of the reactionary conflict. I know, I was one of them.

"And that was it. A day without sense, or reason, or explanation, or any sort of natural narrative to it."

Through the years, the motto we've gravitated towards using is "We will never forget". It's powerful. It's elegant. It's wrong. We know it's wrong, and that's why it became the motto of the attack. Like the phrase "The king is dead, long live the king," the saying is almost self-contradictory. Deep down, we all know that time is going to dull the affectation of that moment, to mute the replies, the hurt and the questions we all asked on that day. We use pictures and video and memoirs to fool ourselves that we aren't forgetting--that we won't forget--but we know it's an act. Today I can't tell you in whose class I was sitting when I first saw the footage of the burning towers, and I'm sure in ten years I'll be able to recall few details without referring to the news or an article. Or maybe even this post itself.

So what does "We will never forget" mean? If it's wrong, does it matter? Of course it does. There are some truths that transcend fact. The fact that I will one day forget the specifics of my own experience on September 11, 2001 doesn't change the fact that I will never be the same. Nor will America. Or the rest of the world, for that matter. "We will never forget" isn't a denial of that transient instant that died ten years ago: it's an affirmation that the lessons we learned on that day and the days following are ones that will shape our future. Forever.

Perhaps you might think it's crass to bring this back to nerd culture now, but you can read the heart of a people in their entertainment. And nerd culture is replete with profoundly affecting images and stories that either invoke or reflect the aftershocks of 9/11. Comic books like Spider-Man portrayed their principal characters dealing with the aftermath and devastation directly. Superman had to cope with 9/11 symbolically through a parallel disaster. Much of the later meta-plot of Star Trek: Enterprise was directly inspired by the attacks, almost irreverently so if you watch it with an over-sensitive eye. And new science fiction novels are being written with the attacks firmly ingrained into the authors' and audience's minds. The nature of the senseless, devastating attacks and a blind, determined response are featured as the pillars of Orphanage, by Robert Buettner.

"'We will never forget' isn't a denial of that transient instant that died ten years ago: it's an affirmation that the lessons we learned on that day and the days following are ones that will shape our future. Forever."

We might forget, but we'll never escape the impact of what happened, or our responses as individuals or as a group. It's a part of our culture today, and for my generation it will always be that one event that you tell yourself you'll never forget. Not because it's possible to live up to such a promise, but because it's unthinkable for us to allow ourselves to complacently let it happen again. So we've hard-coded it into our culture, into the language of the consumer. The lessons that there are people out there who are fueled by hate, that the determined annihilists* of the world have sudden and terrible power in their secrecy, and that the peacemakers have awesome and deadly power in their unity. That we can too easily become that which we behold for too long, and that we can also too easily make an image invoked too often vain and useless. That security is a relative, fragile state, and that love and life are fleeting things. We all know stories relating these renewed values, and thanks to the thorough ingratiation of our society into these themes, we have the guarantee that our children will grow up learning from these lessons without having to live through them.

We will never forget.

*Annihilists: those whose loathing for life dictates they waste it in violence.

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