Ten years on

On December 7, 1951, the New York Times – then as now as close to a paper of record as you’ll find in America – devoted a relatively limited amount of space to the tenth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy, which drew the United States into the Second World War: an editorial noting the occasion, and an article noting that a ceremony would be held in Pearl Harbor to note the occasion.

Now, one could argue that Hawaii is not “as American” as lower Manhattan – indeed, it would have to wait until a Cold War reinforcement of America’s sovereignty on its Pacific flank in 1959 to become a state, while Manhattan has been firmly in American hands since shortly after Yorktown. But this, I think, is not enough to explain the relative silence of the commemoration of the day that will live in infamy, as compared to the unremitting assault of noise about All Things Nine Eleven, which I am happy I can blunt a bit by living several thousand miles away.

This will not be a rant about the screaming dysfunction that has replaced the once proud tradition of journalism in America, a noise machine that cranked out thousands of hours of “content” this week for a public seemingly eager to Never Forget. It will not be a screed about the utter idiocy of throwing essential liberties in front of the temporary security bus, nor even a lament for what, in time, will come to be known as the first of America’s lost decades. No, there will plenty of time to write those, should I feel I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said louder and better elsewhere. In any case, they have very little if anything to do with the anniversary at hand.

I would like, instead, to write about fear.

Ten years ago today, my mother dropped my wife of one week and me off at Memphis International Airport for a flight to Pittsburgh. When the US Airways desk agent told me we couldn’t fly that day due to a terrorist attack, I insisted that he take our bags anyway, refusing even to acknowledge his unfunny and frankly rather tasteless joke. Then I noticed the people clogging the terminal, people who’d been on their way from Louisville to Cancun or Houston to Cleveland when the airspace was closed and the pilots of their airplanes had been ordered to Land. Right. Now.

Confusion and fear passed over the terminal in waves, as each new piece of information from radios, televisions, or telephone calls got distorted in the telling and retelling. The Pentagon had been attacked. No, it was just on fire. Pittsburgh was attacked too, no, wait, it was a field outside Pittsburgh. I heard something about Dallas. Pittsburgh again. They were evacuating buildings in downtown Memphis. They were evacuating buildings in downtown everywhere.

It took us a half hour on line to get a payphone to call my mother to come pick us up at the airport, which she’d already decided to do anyway when she got to the office and heard the news. We bought a new car in Jonesboro – in large part because the new car dealerships were the only people who could handle financing in a world without FedEx – and drove home. Somewhere around Cincinnati, we saw our first airplane back in the sky. My original fear that things were going to get Very Bad on the domestic front more or less immediately – I’d been pessimistic about the thuggish, authoritarian bent of the administration ever since it had been “elected” five to four, and was pleasantly surprised to be able to cross the Ohio River without submitting to a military police inspection– turned out to be more than a bit overblown, and life got back to normal.

Okay, back to a new normal. Pretending that Nine Eleven Changed Nothing would be a little disingenuous. I got laid off from my third dot-com in a row a month later, more or less as a direct result of the disappearance of anything that even smelled like venture capital in Pittsburgh in the weeks after the attacks. My grandmother passed away. The family was, I think, successful in keeping the images of the towers off the television in her hospital room. A little over a year later, I participated in my first and last anti-war rally, a disappointingly muddled affair on Pittsburgh’s Northside that seemed to be more about Mumia Abu-Jamal and Mexican avocado pickers than the invasion of Iraq for dubious and inconsistent reasons. Relief that life went on became disbelief, disappointment, and disillusionment at the utter irrelevance and malicious incompetence of most of the American response.

It’s one thing when Rudolph Giuliani leverages a few moments of relative not-losing-it one morning in September to run for President of the United States of Nine Eleven. It’s another thing when these same few moments are repeated for a decade as the singular justification for the dismantling of a society.

This frightened me far more than the specter of scary men with giant kerosene-fueled suicide-cruise-missiles who prayed fervently to a slightly different and angrier god. I wrote in September 2001 that “[i]f we [do not resist the temptation to authoritarianism], terror wins, America becomes a third world tinpot totalitarian state, and you can reach me at my new forwarding address somewhere in Western Europe.” I didn’t really mean it at the time, at least not the bit about moving, though reading it ten years later from my flat in Switzerland, I suppose I mean it now.

So. Disbelief. Disappointment. Disillusionment. Exasperation, once we started taking off our shoes and throwing away our water bottles. But not fear. I suspect I couldn’t be afraid of terrorism if I tried. Maybe it’s overly rationalist, maybe it’s a little reckless, and I’m certain some of you will call it disrespectful to the 0.1 victims of terrorism in America per 100,000 per year, but I can’t be bothered to waste any real effort worrying about or preparing for something that, from a risk-evaluation point of view, never happens.

It’s more than that, though, and this is the part that makes me sad: Things happen, and you can’t change that they’ve happened; we call this “time”. But you can choose how you react, whether you will accept and adapt, or whether you will cower and twitch. In the last ten years, at the level of (American) society, I see very little acceptance, no adaptation, and a particularly violent attack of cowering twitchiness. We can, and should, remember the fallen, and grieve them, but we should not allow their deaths to be our own. Not playing along with this fear was the point at which I became an exile in my own land. Physically leaving a few years later was merely a technicality.

You can do a lot of living in ten years. You’d have to try hard not to. The wife of one week as of September 11, 2001, is now an ex-wife of three or four years, depending on how you count it. We don’t talk. The car we rode in that morning was totaled in an accident with a semi at I-240 and Perkins Road in 2004, which my mother thankfully walked away from, only to pass away last year after a short, sudden battle with leukemia. I have no idea what happened to the desk agent; I hope he’s well. I’ve had six homes, four jobs, two kayaks. I speak a little German now. I’m getting on with life; as I look back across the ocean at the Month Of All Nine Eleven All The Time, I am sad that I can’t say the same about my country.

To the families of the 2,523 men and women who lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Station, Hawaii Territory, on Sunday, December 7, 1941, I honor your loss, and their sacrifice on that day. May the decades of peace in the Pacific following the conclusion of the Second World War be a testament that their lives were not lost in vain.

Brian Trammell
Brian Trammell
Scientist, Synthesist, Cyclist, SRE