I can vividly remember what I was doing five years ago today. I was standing on the hill outside our home in the Santa Cruz mountains (above Silicon Valley) being surprised and secretly a bit pleased by the quiet due to all airplanes in the country being grounded. For the first time since we’d moved there, the skies above our mountain home were clear of the incessant buzz of planes flying back and forth to Hawaii, Japan, and points east.
But the price we paid, that was shocking. I didn’t believe it when I watched on TV the events that were unfolding, and while it’s easy to look back with a few years of hindsight and pick apart our national reaction, the fact was that we were all in a state of shock. Not so much ready to rip the throat of an unknown enemy out, but just… standing, mouths agape, wondering what the heck had just happened to our country and to our national complacency.
I was also angry at how our country responded with what sure seemed like cowardice, stopping all air travel and costing our nation billions in lost productivity and work as we all huddled around our media devices waiting for what Art Spiegelman so aptly has called “the other shoe to drop”. Countries where terrorism is a fact of life, like Spain and Israel, get on with things after a terrorist incident, they don’t freeze and stand, slack-jawed like deer in the headlights.
And yet. And yet when was the last time that foreign nationals had attacked us on our soil with such tremendous effect? At the cost of less than twenty of their own lives, they struck at our national core, threatened our identity and caused us to perhaps question, just for a moment, whether we really are suited to be the sole global superpower, and at what cost? Alas, the questions didn’t last, and our national braggadocio promptly asserted itself as we slowly began the terrible trudge towards what on some days I’m convinced is going to prove truly is the war to end all wars.
To contemplate the echos and ramifications of the 9/11 tragedy, I pulled out Art Spiegelman’s powerful illustrated book In The Shadow of No Towers and read slowly through it, amused and appalled, both caught up by his incisive and wry wit and turned off by his incessant cynicism. Spiegelman, you should recall, won the Pulitzer for Maus, an illustrated tale of life in the Nazi concentration camps. Powerful stuff.
I think Speigelman has captured much of my response to 9/11, so I’m going to share a few key images from the book here (thanks to Google Images search). The first is one of the best known images from this oversized art book, which I’ll entitle “Equally Terrorized”, which I find particularly apt given that I just moments ago had a talk with a colleague about the logistics of flying nowadays. Can we bring toothpaste on board? No. Can we bring lip balm? Probably not. Can we bring nail clippers? No. Water bottles? No. And this makes us safer how? At what point will we just knuckle under to the inevitable and don paper “flying” jumpsuits that are flash incinerated at the other end of our trip, when we’re begrudgingly allowed back into our clothes, all the while being assured that we’re “winning”?
I am particularly struck by the sequence on the right, and its commentary on racial profiling and the increased importance of physical appearance in the post-9/11 world we inhabit. In a strange way, people who can suddenly trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower are somehow safer, but then again, I wasn’t born in the United States, so maybe I’m suspect anyway.
One of the most striking images, however, is this from the front of the book:
This is perhaps the iconic image in my head subsequent to 9/11, thanks muchly to the fearmongering of the media. After having survived the ’89 Loma Prieta quake in California that wrought so much destruction, and then being totally disgusted by the ceaseless talking heads assuring us that “there’s a worse one just around the corner” and “please stay tuned, oh, and here’s a word from our sponsor” I expected that the media coverage of 9/11 and the post-9/11 world would be awful. I wasn’t disappointed, and how the media loved to explain how the next shoe really would drop any moment now. They’re still warning us five years later that horrible things were “just barely averted” hours before the plot would have otherwise unfolded.
The color coded
But there’s always been one thing we can rely on: the ultimate triumph of capitalism. Want to foil those darn terrorists? Go spend some money. Heck, don’t just spend, go into debt and show them just how we’ve been unaffected by such trivialities as the destruction of the Twin Towers and the loss of thousands of human lives. And don’t forget, half the people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 tragedy were apparently “enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much��?.
With all the zeal to identify heroes and lionize those people who dug through the rubble of that tragedy, I fear we’ve lost the ability to introspect, to really think and try to understand what happened, why, and what its implications are for the future of not just our nation, but our world.
Spiegelman has a wonderful illustration in the book that I can only find a tiny version of online (it’s the leftmost panel in the figure on the right), it’s of Art himself saying “I insist the sky is falling, they roll their eyes and tell me it’s only my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder…” while the American Eagle tied to his neck squawks “Go out and shop! *awk*”
And so, five years later, the planes are flying, the cash registers are ringing, we’ve succeeded at convincing ourselves that everyone involved was somehow a “hero”, and we’re in the midst of an unwinnable war to change the very fabric of the Middle East at gunpoint.
Is this progress? Is this our national identity?
Is this really the future of our planet?