September 11, 2004

Three Years Ago Today

I was working for the Salvation Army, heading a program that provided substance abuse assessments for homeless residents in St. Louis County. It was promising to be an uneventful Tuesday - paperwork, then sponsor a training on substance abuse, followed by attending a history of pop culture in St. Louis sponsored by the (now defunct) Metropolis Forum. Nothing to suggest anything other than another ordinary day.

At about 9:45 am, it all changed. Our administrative assistant announced that she had heard over the radio that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Thinking that it was (most likely) a Buddy Holly special crashing into the roof, I went onto my work.

Soon afterward, the assistant returned, informing me that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. That grabbed my attention - my cousin Rick and his (then) 4 year old daughter lived shortly outside Washington, DC. Immediately, I went to our administrator's office - partly to make copies, but mostly to hear the news over the radio.

It had a sense of unreality about it - passenger planes used to crash the World Trade Center? A crash near the Pentagon? Another crash nowhere near civilization, due to heroic efforts on the part of the passengers? I didn't want to hear the news, didn't want to believe what was happening...but it did happen. Our country was attacked in the worst, ugliest possible way. The Forum event was canceled, no one attended the training, I went home at 3:00 pm and called my family. My aunt had died two months earlier, and we were already sharing grief; this was our way to begin building anew, in the light of further tragedy.

In the days that followed, it was almost impossible to avoid the coverage on television, so I stopped watching television. Thankfully, the newspaper was my way of gathering details - a nice, digestible version of trauma that allowed me to process while proceeding. In the days that followed, the one image that sticks in my mind is Paul Simon singing "Bridge Over Troubled Waters", his voice cracking, trying to find strength in what happened to his city, his home, reminding everyone that the only real strength we have is in our common struggle. After that special, I consistently played "Peace, Love, and Understanding" by Elvis Costello. Although slightly pessimistic in tone, this verse somehow struck a chord:

And as I walked on,
Through troubled times,
My spirit gets so downhearted, sometimes,
So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony, sweet harmony?
As time progressed, it seemed like we, as a country, were coming together with a renewed promise, the same promise that brought my ancestors to this country, a promise of inclusion, warmth, and hope. (I had lived in Springfield, OR during a series of school shootings, so I wasn't a stranger to such things). Regardless of the struggle, we would prevail, and become a stronger nation as a result. Naive, perhaps, but hopeful.

Smash cut to the present: we are now in the midst of a presidential campaign that is venomous, destructive, and vindictive on both sides. Gradually, we have had our freedoms eroded in the name of "security". Everything from banning smoking in restaurants to pop culture have become life-and-death struggles - it's not enough to disagree, somebody has to win. Hate of a specific religion - and region - have asserted themselves in insidious ways. Instead of living up to the promise, America is degenerating into its own worst nightmare. That verse seems even more, not less despondent.

In these times of fragmentation and despair, of divisivness and bitterness, there is only one frightening conclusion I have, and I desperately hope that I am wrong:

"Maybe, just maybe, the terrorists have won after all..."

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