Friday, September 11, 2015

9/11

What always comes to mind when I think about September 11, 2001 is the overpowering sense of disorientation I felt. Like many other office denizen, I experienced the events of that day via the Internet, particularly through the low- to medium-resolution video streams offered by the CNN and Washington Post websites at the time. (I seem to remember the Post stream being smoother, perhaps due to lower bandwidth congestion.)

What started out as a minor (but manageable) startle at the initial footage of what at first looked like a much smaller aircraft hitting one of the twin towers gave way to genuine shock when the other tower was hit. What originally seemed (to me) like an unfortunate and small-scale accident was now undeniably a coordinated effort, particularly as we learned about the Pentagon being hit and what was originally reported as a commercial airliner being shot down in Pennsylvania by fighter jets.

The peak of my anxiety came while I was on the phone with a friend who had the day off. On my end, the whole office was abuzz with the unbelievable tragedy unfolding on multiple fronts, which meant the company's business was effectively ground to a halt. From somewhere in the commotion all around me in the cubicle village, I heard a voice say that one of the towers had collapsed. (Say what?) Before I had a chance to fully process that information, I heard my friend's wife in the room at the other end of the phone conversation say that it was just announced on TV that the other tower had now collapsed, too.

At this precise moment I had the feeling of falling down a bottomless well as the historical enormity of the day's events settled in. I couldn't give words to what was happening inside of me at the time, other than to say I was 'freaked out', but with the luxury of hindsight I can now say it was as if the glue holding my sense of the world together was suddenly dissolving, allowing that mental structure to break apart and fall away.

I can't remember how the phone conversation ended, but not long after some local news came over someone's desktop radio that a suspicious package had been found behind Parliament Hill here in Ottawa, and that a bomb squad was already on the scene. At that point the employer told us all to take the rest of the day off.

I drove home in a haze of anger and fear, as well as a frustrating sense of not knowing which way was up in a world I thought I knew.

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All these years later, the uncertainty about the world I came to feel on 9/11 has long been shunted aside by a very cynical uncertainty about what actually transpired on that day. While I'm loathe to buy into conspiracy theories, the fact that the official story has always seemed like one of the less likely explanations only bolsters the 9/11 Was an Inside Job school of thought. And for all the dubious rhetoric at the time about the attacks having been provoked by Western rights and freedoms, it is now painfully obvious that the establishment powers never held those same rights and freedoms in high regard either.

Was it really terrorists with a hatred for America (and all it represents) who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks? For the sake of argument, let's say “yes” unconditionally. That understanding is, in and of itself, a tragedy beyond measure, if that's how it really went down. Just as troubling, however, is how the events of that day served to break the seal, as it were, on darker, more fascistic instincts in a part of the world that had long prided itself on being the official representative of humanity's best behavior.

We're now in a world where torture and undue mass surveillance are not only up for debate but largely accepted as a given by many as the price we pay for living in an Age of Terror. Forget that far fewer people per year are killed by terrorism than, say, automobiles. Or spoiled cheese. It's not that we're really that much more threatened by terrorism than we ever were, but that we live in a time where fear of terror (however remote) is the de rigeur state of mind.

On the other hand, the countless mass shootings that occur with sickening frequency in the U.S. pose much more of a “clear and present danger” to public safety, and yet the establishment mindset is that these admittedly unfortunate events should not serve to curtail gun ownership rights one iota. But then these shooters are never called “terrorists” by the authorities – unless they happen to be Muslims. (In this New McCarthyism, “terrorism” and “Islam” have replaced “communism” as the kneejerk scare words for the unthinking.)

Taking all of the above into consideration, I'm just not sure how I'm supposed to feel whenever another 9/11 anniversary rolls around. What I do know, however, is that the anger, fear and disorientation I felt that day as I drove home has never been the kind of emotional nor intellectual foundation upon which our society should rest, either in general or in how we respond to unexpected attacks.

I'd like to think we're better than that, but I'm often left with the feeling that for too many of my fellow citizens, anger, fear and disorientation constitute a preferred societal frame of reference, rather than a passing malaise.