September 11

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks here in the United States. Many people will give pious speeches and talk about “never again.” Perhaps there will be a reading of the names of the 3,000 people who died in the attacks.

I wonder if anyone will talk about how little we learned from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong: I was profoundly affected by those attacks. I lived in Washington, DC, at the time. My sister and her family lived (and live) three blocks from where the World Trade Center used to be.

I spent a couple of hours trying to get in touch with my sister that morning before it finally dawned on me to call my parents in Texas. My sister and her family were fine and so was their building, though they weren’t allowed to go home for a month. And I explained to my parents that the Pentagon was actually in Virginia so that I was not at risk.

Though I worked about six blocks from the White House. I’ve always thought the plane that went down in Pennsylvania was headed for the White House.

Anyway, I walked home that day, all six miles, because I assumed that anyone attacking Washington, DC, would take advantage of the chaos in traffic and public transit to do even more damage. And then I stared at the TV for the next couple of days.

Like many people, I wanted to do something useful after the attacks. There was a lot of talk of organizing neighborhood groups that could help people in the event of emergencies. Those emergencies would include disasters and pandemics. (Cell phone use was not widespread in 2001.)

I wanted to volunteer to do something like that, but I could never find out any way to do it. As near as I can tell, the upsurge in interest in doing something for the community was completely squandered.

Instead the U.S. went to war. That seems to be all our country knows how to do. We’ve seen how that turned out.

And lately we’ve seen what happens in a country that has no community spirit. More than 650,000 people have died in the U.S. from Covid (and that number is an undercount), and yet people are still screaming about having to wear masks and refusing to get vaccinated.

We live in a world in which scientific research has made such progress that we can develop a vaccine in less than a year and people still won’t get it, many of them because they have no conception of taking any action in the public interest.

If our response to September 11 had included a great deal of community organizing, I wonder if things might have been better now. I wonder if we would have had a real public health response, a real community response, a real system for taking care of each other in difficult times.

And maybe if we had those things, we’d also be doing better with hurricanes and fires and heat waves, not to mention climate change.

I have individual desires and dreams. We all do. But we also live in this world together. It is way past time we started to act like it.

2 thoughts on “September 11

  1. Living in New York at the time, what I remember more than anything else was going to the market and seeing my fellow NYers hesitate between buying one package of toilet paper and two, or one case of bottled water or two: the urge to stock up at war with concern that others would need some too. In most cases the communitarian urge won.

    I hate that we squandered that impulse, and squandered the international goodwill that came after the attacks. I will admit that in the months following 9/11 I began to feel a little pissy about what felt to me like performative solidarity: “We are all New Yorkers.” No, no you’re not. I–100 blocks north of the Twin Towers on the morning of the attacks–still feel uncomfortable claiming that I was affected by the event. Other than worrying about the rest of my family (I decided to let my kids finish the school day, and my husband called in as soon as he got to a phone) the attacks themselves had little effect on me. Or so I thought: but when we moved to San Francisco, the first time the Blue Angels went tearing by overhead I found myself, with no thought at all, under the kitchen table. So maybe I was affected a little.

    1. I was profoundly affected, though of course it was different for those who ended up running uptown or for those who watched people jumping. I was so grateful that my sister and her family all left for work and school very early, so that they weren’t home. And while I lived in the DC that is much more than the federal government, there’s nothing like a crisis to remind you that it is, at heart, a company town. When I flew to Texas in late October — traveling through an airport crawling with armed members of the National Guard and standing in security lines that stretched forever — I found that people in the rest of the country were not all that affected. It wasn’t the first thing on their minds, even then. It was the first thing on mine for a long time.

      I, too, regret the squandering of all that good will and communitarian impulse. I think most of us wanted to do something useful, and in my case that’s pretty much always to help someone. But we had no systems in place for the kind of help we needed. (I find that I often rant about the lack of systems. At heart I am still the young lawyer who used to rant about the importance of developing bylaws or contracts that reflected the way a group actually made decisions. A system to work within.

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