Left Bereft: September 11, 2001 and the Politics of the Moral Imagination

(9/11/11: the sixth in a series)

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

W.B. Yeats, Easter 1916

For some, the first image is that of the planes, stark apparitions of a cold reality in the instant before the strike. For others, it is the buildings’ linear collapse and retreat to the earth that bore them.

For me, it is hands.

The hands of our waiter at the outdoor café on Prague’s Old Town Square deliver our latté and Coke, then hover in front of him, nearly joining as if to begin an appeal. Where do we come from, he asks. We tell him. And he tells us. With his hands. One hand barrels down from the right, the other tears in from the left, two planes filled with people, descending from the sky at shuddering speeds like the lightning strikes of a fierce and terrible God. Then the hands make a sweep of the air.

“The World Trade Center,” says our waiter, “is no more.”

Our waiter’s hands. The hand that rose to my mouth as it never had before. The hands that held the wheels to steer. The hands that slit the throats. Hands that steer a true course, hands that steer you wrong. Hands that clutch at armrests, clutch at seats. Hands that cross and meet to pray, or hold another’s tight. The waiter’s hands. My hands. Their hands. Dialing numbers. Shielding eyes as unexpected buildings loomed. Hands wrestling wheels from hands. Hands that write. Human hands.

Homo habilis – dexterous man – lives on: Homo sapiens – man the wise – loiters still in the evolutionary brain.

Within hours of the attack, while Julia and I sat slumped in long distance despair before the television in our hotel apartment, emails were already reaching us – long and short notes of sorrow and fear, concern for our safety, wonder what it was like so far from home. Home. We sent our own emails, including one to my nephew in New York. Among the emails I later received were those from a teaching colleague and from a fellow writer. The colleague, an ex host on L.A.’s Pacifica Radio outlet KPFK,  had copied me on a submission to a Marxist discussion group, his email a bombastic rant and prediction of the barbarous and indiscriminate American retaliation certain to come within days. The writer offered up explicitly the very words that would quickly become the hallmark response to the attacks from a segment of the political left, and a first line of division within the left – the sentiment that the attack had been “chickens coming home to roost.” That suggestion was the source of much public shaming to come, shame that was never acknowledged as such, but which took the form (vice donning the cloak of virtue yet again) of de rigueur animadversions, in response to any criticism, that it went without saying (literally, as it was) that such attacks on “innocent civilians” were awful or horrendous or unacceptable or some such strongly worded thing. The – in truth – unashamed animadverters then returned to counting chickens and expanding upon the zoology of why they roost.

Old Town Square, Prague

Moments after our Czech waiter delivered the truly incredible news – I needed to see for myself to grant it credibility – I rushed off to another café on the square I had pressed our waiter to direct me to. There I joined one other American and some Germans in front of a large television. My credulity continued to be strained even as I saw the tape of the second tower’s collapse. Outside the huge storefront window, thousands busily touristed the square. The other American, an attractive, confident man of about forty, had already assumed the role of hometown expert for the Germans. He lived, he said, not far from the Pentagon. For some reason, his proximity to the developing drama – though he sat now so many thousands of miles away – the fact that he was from there, where the death and destruction had occurred, conferred upon him in his own mind and that of the Germans some special status. Indeed, he seemed to need it, to need to draw the horror closer to him, as if he were a kind of survivor, which in a way he was. The Germans seemed to want it, too. They stood beside a potential victim. None of them (but for the very bad luck of being a foreign worker or visitor at one of the Trade Center towers) might have been victims: they were not the targets. They were not Americans. He, however, was, and might have been killed for it; it was a part of his identity now – the locale of our habitation, sheer geographical contiguity, and conscious association all being parts of who we are – and he claimed it.

Similarly, more than a week later, in Verona, Italy, Julia mentioned to a saleswoman during our inevitable exchange that I am a native New Yorker. I think the fact that I was not then living there was lost between the languages. As the saleswoman walked us to the front of the store in friendly conversation, she shared with several coworkers the poignant fact of my nativity. The coworkers gazed at me with a mixture of horror and sorrow, as if my lungs, too, might now be choked with the dust of human flesh and buildings. Were they wrong? I’d been further from the disaster than they had been, yet I had walked those floors, eaten in those restaurants, gazed out at the world from the observation deck, worked, at times, in the shadows. My entire adult life had included in its skyline those two buildings, which before I left the Rockaway beaches to move to “the city,” I could see across Jamaica Bay and the New York harbors from twenty miles away. I do not now live in New York, but I have only to open my mouth for many Americans to know I am a New Yorker. In the service of what ideas might the constituents of a self be denied? In acknowledgement of what experiences might they be assented to?

The American Embassy in Prague

Back, still, inPrague, we attended a vigil atWenceslas Square, where before the statue of St. Wenceslas, crowds had been gathering to light candles, leave flowers, and hang banners opposing terrorism. While Julia worked the angles with her camera, I looked on with Isabella, a Czech friend who now lives in Los Angeles and whom we had, to our astonishment, run into on the street the morning of 9/11. Now, we talked about the depth of the feelings around us. A slightly disheveled and agitated Czech man suddenly appeared and interrupted our conversation. MyNew York instincts made me wary, but as Isabella translated, I learned that the man had heard our English and had wondered if I were American. I told him I was. He had been searching the streets for an American, he said. He was very emotional. He looked at me intently and told me, through Isabella, that on that day he, too, felt like an American. That was all. I thanked him. (Who was I to thank him? For what, that had anything to do with me?)  He walked on. But what, really, had he meant by that?

Back in time yet again, the night before, the night of the attack, after long hours of watching CNN, Julia and I finally surrendered to our hunger and sought food at nearly midnight. Prague is a late night town to make a New Yorker happy. Julia and I were somber and drained, but glad for the fresh air. We found a crowded restaurant with a jazz band. Old Town Square buzzed with activity. Beneath the music, conversation crackled at the tables. And I thought, suddenly, of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
its human position.

In Breughel’s Icarus, as Auden notes, the ploughman may have heard Icarus’s falling cry, but it was not important to him. The sun was still shining, and the ship that must have seen something “amazing” had somewhere to go:

how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster.

And elsewhere, no doubt, someone with knowledge of the boy’s soaring and careless ambition said it served him right for his hubris.

For the first few days, it was hard to figure how the month-long drive through Europe we had planned for a year could be anything but ruined. It was hard not to feel guilty for even thinking about that. Julia was glad not to be home; the hours we spent watching the coverage were overwhelming to her as it was. I did wish we were home – wished even that I were in New York. I wanted to be among my countrymen and women at a threatening time, for the comfort of solidarity, and because I thought us vulnerable in Europe, separated as we were from our fellow Americans, which was probably just another desire for solidarity since we were surely safer where we were than back in the States. It wasn’t that anyone had been unfriendly or threatening – not at all. But most of the people who had been killed had been targeted because they were Americans. Europeans and others were no doubt quite sensibly glad at the moment not to be Americans. Americans would feel the same relief were the circumstances reversed.

Now, though, my instincts were fundamental. I wanted to be among people who would “have my back,” as I would have theirs, simply because we came from the same place. The back I had the instinct to watch might not be one I liked – it might be a Republican, worse, some obnoxious fundamentalist; I could hope not some racist. I wouldn’t know, though, before coming to anyone’s aid, just as any fanatic who tried to kill me would not have bothered to ask my politics or even my religion – wouldn’t know whether I oppose American dependence on Mid-East oil and want to develop alternative energy sources (and thus want to stop doing business with Arab despots) or whether, indeed, I were a Muslim, instead of – ah, what a lucky strike – a Jew.

These are basic instincts. Are they always too basic? These days, for some – many – they are, but only when Americans and – ah, yes – Jews feel them.

It can be difficult to distinguish among simultaneous and general pains, but I soon realized that as much or more than the attacks, what had been digging into me were those two emails I had received. The pain of the loss of life, and of the horror, was real, but the horrors of the world are hardly a revelation. How can anyone who knows of the Holocaust and the countless other brutal and barbaric degradations humans have visited upon each other just in the past century feel shocked by what happened? Surprised, yes – we hope each new moment may deliver us to a higher plane – but shocked? All that easy, journalistic drivel that flowed for months about some American loss of innocence, the same innocence that was lost when Nixon resigned and Kennedy was shot and during the Second World War and which apparently managed to survive slavery and the near extermination of the American Indian. What educated person on this planet beyond the age of, say, twenty-two – college done – should ever be permitted to speak of innocence?

But to know, of course, is one thing, to experience another, and while I was not in the towers or the Pentagon, I did receive those emails. It seemed the pain that I and so many others felt –

so many people dead, and how they died –

was not felt by everyone, even other Americans. These people are not themselves monsters. They are not murderers. They slay no one and order no one’s death. And they do feel, just as any of us – though what they feel, in the realm of the political , is in the name of ideas only, and some bad ones at that.

As for their neighbors, how awful, such a shame – but you know, (sotto voce) they really had it coming.

For there were politics to consider. Ideological bones to be picked. Even beneath the rubble. Even among the ashes. Even as fires burned.


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