reflections of a pragmatic optimist, lover of freedom

Month: September 2009 (Page 1 of 2)

9/11 Quotes

Following are quotes from some of the best writing I have seen over the past eight years, on the subject of the 9/11 attacks and their legacy. (I’ve also posted my own 9/11 recollections this year — my first time telling this story.)

Debra Burlingame, sister of the pilot of American Flight 77 that was crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11, cautioned us last year not to “misremember”

There is a disturbing phenomenon creeping into the public debate about all things 9/11. Increasingly, Sept. 11 is compared to hurricanes, bridge collapses and other mechanical disasters or criminal acts that result in loss of life, with “body count” being the primary factor that keeps it in the top spot of “worst in the nation’s history.”

Misremembering is as dangerous as forgetting. If we must know one thing, it is that the Sept. 11 attacks were neither a natural disaster, nor the unfortunate result of human error. 9/11 wasn’t the catastrophic equivalent of a 3,000-car pileup.

The attacks were not a random act of violence or insanity. They were a deliberate and brutal act of war committed by religious fanatics engaged in Islamic jihad against the United States, all non-Muslim people and any Muslim who wishes to live in a secular society. Worse, the people who perpetrated the attacks have explicitly told us that they are not done.

Commenting on this year’s designation of September 11th as a “National Day of Service and Remembrance”, Debra responded (hat tip: neo-neocon):

When I first heard about it, I was concerned. I fear, I greatly fear, at some point we’ll transition to turning it into Earth Day where we go and plant trees and the remembrance part will become smaller and smaller and smaller.

Robert Spencer wrote at at Jihad Watch in 2008:

[T]here has still never been a full and comprehensive discussion of the jihad threat in the American public square.

So seven years after the Towers went down and the Pentagon was wounded, the jihadists have every reason to smell victory — not in Iraq, where they are indeed on the run, but in their efforts to cow and intimidate the West into giving up all resistance to Islamization. It’s happening, but no one notices or cares, because it is happening in small steps.

Neo-neocon re-posted an apropos piece from 2006 last year — one that touches, among other matters, on the foresight we wish we’d had in anticipating and guarding against the attacks:

But the clearest foreshadowing of the event that would henceforth be known only by those numbers, “9/11” — as though words were somehow inadequate to describe it — was its most direct predecessor, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. That earlier attack distinguished itself in audaciousness by being the only large-scale Islamist totalitarian terrorist attack within the boundaries of the United States prior to 9/11.

And it was every bit as serious in intent. The only reason it wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have been was the seemingly Keystone Cops-like incompetence of its perpetrators. They would learn from their errors, and quickly. It would take us longer to learn what we needed to know.

Meghan Cox Gurdon:

The cruelty and implacability of the Islamic terrorists has made ordinary life seem fragile not in such a way that you appreciate each passing golden moment, but in a way that jolts you awake at night with strangled thoughts of whether everything you know and love will be taken away. But worse is finding that in this situation where, like our grandparents, we do face an obvious, common, and determined enemy, there is such self-loathing amongst our countrymen. When I hear people phoning C-SPAN to explain that 9/11 was an “inside job” by the Bush administration, or that the United States is to blame for “stirring up a hornet’s nest,” when the swarm was already upon us, it seems to me that national unity is impossible. Of all September 11th’s grim legacies, this seems to me the saddest.

Mark Steyn:

In theory, if you’d wanted to construct an enemy least likely to appeal to the progressive Left, wife-beating gay-bashing theocrats would surely be it. But Islamism turned out to be the ne plus ultra of multiculti diversity-celebration — for what more demonstrates the boundlessness of one’s “tolerance” than by tolerating the intolerant.

James Lileks, in 2006:

If 9/11 had really changed us, there’d be a 150-story building on the site of the World Trade Center today. It would have a classical memorial in the plaza with allegorical figures representing Sorrow and Resolve, and a fountain watched over by stern stone eagles. Instead there’s a pit, and arguments over the usual muted dolorous abstraction approved by the National Association of Grief Counselors. The Empire State Building took 18 months to build. During the Depression. We could do that again, but we don’t. And we don’t seem interested in asking why.

This year’s follow-up:

On the Hewitt show tonight I started talking about 9/11, and my mouth overran my head, because somewhere down there is a core of anger that hasn’t diminished a joule. This doesn’t mean anything, by itself — anger is an emotion that believes its justification is self-evident by its very existence. Passion is not an argument; rage is not a plan. But as the years go by I find myself as furious now as I was furious then — and no less unmanned by the sight of the planes and the plumes. Once a year I watch the thing I cobbled together from the footage I Tivo’d, and the day is bright and real and true again.

Or not. It’s all so far in the past, isn’t it? The ten-year-old you had to sit down and console and reassure is off to college. The President is retired — seems like he left two years ago. The wars grind on, but as far as the front pages are concerned, they’re like TV shows that lost their popularity but pull enough viewers to avoid cancellation. (The video store doesn’t even carry the DVD of the first two seasons anymore.) We’re used to the hole in the ground where the towers used to be, and if they announced they won’t rebuild, but will pave it over and use it for parking, people would shrug. We haven’t forgotten that the towers fell, but no one remembers what they planned to replace them with. The towers they planned looked empty in the pictures — shiny, contorted, as if twisting away to avoid a blow.

Right after the towers fell, people who’d never liked them as architecture wanted them back just as they were. Get back up in the sky! But it hasn’t happened. Even if they build the replacement towers, there’s still a space in the sky where no one will ever stand again. We could stand there once. That we couldn’t stand there eight years ago was their fault. That we cannot stand there today is ours.


Some additional quotes that have struck me as relevant (many of them repeated from my Memorial Day 2009 post):

“When I see the city … I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.” — Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead”

“Our responsibility is to continue the search for beauty and humanity. That is what survives.” — violinist Isaac Stern, shortly after 9/11

“We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down.” — Sir Winston Churchill

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” — John F. Kennedy

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” — General George S. Patton, Jr.

“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” — Sir Winston Churchill / George Orwell †

“We fight wars not to have peace, but to have a peace worth having. Slavery is peace. Tyranny is peace. For that matter, genocide is peace when you get right down to it. The historical consequences of a philosophy predicated on the notion of no war at any cost are families flying to the Super Bowl accompanied by three or four trusted slaves and a Europe devoid of a single living Jew.” — Bill Whittle, “History”

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
— Edmund Burke

“We can’t share the earth with pure evil anymore than we can share the earth with smallpox.” — David Gelernter

“Evil must be confronted in its womb and, if it can’t be done otherwise, then it has to be dealt with by the use of force.” — Vaclav Havel

“The front line now, at this critical time, is in the hearts and minds of our own people. That’s where the real battle is now. That is our weakest point, our breach, our point of failure. We have not made the case to enough people and time is running out.

So maybe now, at this absurd point in this new kind of war, we’re the crack troops, we old and useless pajama patriots reduced to printing up pamphlets to sell war bonds to the weary, to make the case for holding on to an unglamorous, uninspiring, relentless grind because that — not Normandy and Midway — is the face of war in this gilded age of luxury and safety and plenty.” — Bill Whittle, “Deterrence”

† The “rough men stand ready” quote is frequently attributed to both Winston Churchill and George Orwell in various forms. It is a beautifully focused statement, whatever its true origin.

Previous post: My Experience of September 11, 2001

My Experience of September 11, 2001

In September 2001, I was living in Upstate New York (meaning, as the obligatory joke roughly goes, somewhere north of 186th Street). A little over a year earlier, I had heeded the call of wanderlust and left my rewarding but insufficiently purposeful and fulfilling videogame programming job in San Francisco to pursue my own entrepreneurial endeavor — the realization of ideas that had been gnawing at my restless mind for some time. The largely solitary research I then pursued being eminently portable, I was in the perfect position to relocate when my then-girlfriend, now wife decided to return to school for a graduate degree. New York state turned out to be the place, and the dramatically lower cost of living in the small town by the Hudson that we were headed for suited my purposes just fine. Lower expenses vs. living in Bay Area California meant a slower burn rate for the hard-earned, socked-away cash and investments I would be using to self-finance my project, and that was a very good thing — for what I needed most was time to think. We sold our furniture and non-essentials, and hit the road East for a new adventure. That was the summer of 2000.

Our first year of adapting to this transition went well, considering what a change it was transplanting ourselves to a quiet small town and the even smaller, more isolated community of the graduate art program. We had rented the upstairs of an old but satisfactory white clapboard house, for a price that would be unheard of back in California. We learned about heating oil and boilers and changing tires for the winter. We crossed a bridge over the magnificent Hudson River to do our weekly shopping. We visited historic sites that had been beyond the easy reach of our mostly car-less Connecticut college experience. We sledded.

I pursued my research, at the college’s libraries or at home, and strove daily to keep focus in my imperfect and occasionally uncertain, wandering mind. I had been on my own like this before (I will likely write about that at another time), knew that it would take all the self-discipline I could muster, knew also that if I didn’t persevere and give it my best shot I’d be driven mad by the road not taken, by ideas that would not leave me alone.

That year was also an eye-opening continuation of my first encounters with the Contemporary (as distinct from Modern) art world and the cultural attitudes and ideologies that have tended to dominate it, and a foreshadowing of many such encounters that would continue to this day (another subject I hope to write about at greater length another time). I had then only the first and faintest inkling of the bleak perspectives and frequent obsession with cynical cultural criticism that I would often encounter in the work of contemporary artists.

As summer 2001 rolled around, it became clear that our remaining assets weren’t going to last us comfortably another year at our current rate. Our investments weren’t doing as well, and I had underestimated some of our expenditures. I did some job-hunting, seeking to put my software engineering skills to use to generate some income for us. The suitable opportunities in that part of the country were few, and the prospects I did find would have required me to move on my own to Boston or Albany or New York City — incurring among other more practical inconveniences an emotional cost of separation that we did not want to bear.

In anticipation of my need to depart, my girlfriend had made arrangements to share an apartment with two of her female classmates who we had begun to get to know during the program’s first year. When August arrived and it became clear that I would not settle my job hunt before the time came to move, I was graciously invited to be a fourth roommate on a temporary basis. It seemed like a good arrangement, and it was at the time. None of us could have forseen the world-upending historic event that silently approached, or what it would mean for us.

On the morning of September 11th, my girlfriend and I were awakened from an otherwise ordinary night’s sleep by the alarmed shouts of one of our roommates outside our door. My girlfriend’s parents had called from their home in Europe, and our roommate had answered the phone and was relaying the news to us as she received it herself. I don’t know whether she was repeating exactly what was said to her, but I will never forget the sound of her increasingly alarmed words as she exclaimed through the door, phone in hand: “There are bombs all over New York!”

After hearing something so unthinkable we got up with a sudden start of course, and, like so many others that morning, headed to the TV with a great sense of urgency to find out what was happening. As the picture tube warmed up, in faded the scroll-by newsbytes, the solemn news anchor (I don’t remember which), and the terrible, haunting image of the North Tower of the World Trade Center bleeding a long, slowly rising plume of dark smoke. Reports were that a plane had hit the tower. Nobody knew why. Could it have been a terrible, terrible accident? How could such a thing have possibly happened?

We sat stunned and spellbound, anxiously awaiting each fragment of new information — even just new speculation — as the news coverage repeated and ad libbed in that early time before anyone had the remotest idea what had just happened, much less grasped its immense historic significance — that this was the sudden and irrevocable end of one era and the beginning of another. Hauntingly, the then-unexplained southward turn of American Airlines Flight 11, which was soon identified as the plane that had hit the WTC, had brought its flight path through skies fairly close to where we lived. I got a terrible chill thinking of its passengers’ last minutes alive, soaring past us down along the Hudson on that perfectly beautiful, crisp, clear day — surely, I supposed, not knowing the terrible end that awaited them in Lower Manhattan.

Then something still more unthinkable happened that, impossibly enough, shocked us out of the shock we were already in, and into a daze of complete disbelief and confusion — killing instantly any hope that this had been some awful accident. Before our very eyes, United Airlines Flight 175 flew into the South Tower.

As the impossible reality of the day’s events sank in, it gradually became clear to me: Our country and its people had been attacked. And in the slow dawning of that terrible realization through the coming hours — hours that brought with them the crashing of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 and its heroic passengers in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and complete uncertainty about what else might still be in store — both a terrible fury and a somber determination welled up in me. Things were going to be different now. They had to be. I was sure that we would snap out of our useless, toxic gloom of cultural self-doubt, drop our idle infighting over comparatively trivial disagreements, identify those who sought to cause us all such terrible harm, and go after them with swift and united resolve — unequivocally removing their capacity to mount further attacks, and never again allowing such a thing to happen.

The terrible events of September 11th changed me, and seemed to mark what I was sure would be a watershed, a tectonic shift for our entire country, and for the world. I assumed 9/11 had had a similar effect on everyone I knew. I was soon to find out just how mistaken I was in that assumption.

It wasn’t long before the self-recrimination began to flow from those around me, first in a trickle, then more and more freely as the days went by. Didn’t you know, we had it coming? Probably deserved it, even. Of course, we’re going to jump the gun and blame The Arabs, while those responsible were probably homegrown fanatics of our own making. (Oklahoma City was still fairly fresh in everyone’s mind then.) People who looked Middle-Eastern were of course going to be targets of random mob violence on a massive scale, and/or rounded up and put in internment camps, because — don’t you know? — that’s just the kind of unsophisticated, “jingoistic”, racist simpleton bumpkins we Americans are.

“I can’t believe what I am hearing in this house,” I finally declared after perhaps two or three days of this. How could anyone begin to rationalize and justify such malicious horror — the deliberate, premeditated flying of aircraft full of people into buildings full of people — the vicious mass murder of so many?

At this, our roommate who had answered the phone on the morning of 9/11 shot back unhesitatingly in a dead-serious fury: “America mass-murders every day!”

I’m quite certain that my jaw dropped in dumbfounded astonishment. I was stunned — flummoxed beyond any ability to comprehend and respond to the concentrated vitriol that had just reached my ears, particularly in light of all that had just happened. The cognitive dissonance left me frozen in my tracks, speechless. I held no pretension that our nation’s history was flawless and unmarred, but surely this degree of venomous contempt was not deserved. (During my visit for the program’s graduation the following Spring, the same roommate quite casually announced — in much the same way that one might express delight in the discovery of a new favorite ice cream flavor — “I think I’m a Marxist.” Well, there you go. At least she’s not affiliating herself with mass murderers.)

I might have been able to dismiss such occurrences had they remained confined to our household. I soon learned, however, that the decay afflicting our culture’s self-image was (and still is) much more extensive and persistent than I had realized. All around me in this academic setting, the primary concern seemed to be not how we were going to win this one or what despicable monsters the attackers were, but what unjustifiably terrible things the United States was now likely to do. Mass e-mails expressing American resolve to stand up and fight back, of the kind that commonly circulated back then, were derided. The then-ubiquitous U.S. flags that flew from car antennas and windows were greeted with a disapproving roll of the eyes. The increasing prevalence of the same flags on commercial products was derided too, consistent with a worldview that holds commerce to be something outside of us that manipulates us, rather than an expression of and by us, an integral and vital part of our own culture that was simply reflecting the defiant, heartfelt pride and determination to go on that many authentically felt. In response to my despairing expression of incomprehension at such horrific and vicious attacks, another of my girlfriend’s classmates referred me to a website that he gently assured me explained it all. And that it did — through the grim and twisted lens of Chomsky-ite faith in America the Ugly and Brutal, and her innumerable (or perhaps enumerable) sins that made us deserving of the world’s contempt and such a hateful, murderous surprise attack.

This kind of thing continued in various other forms, until I gradually got the message that I was very, very alone in my thoughts and views. Even my girlfriend didn’t know what to make of my behavior, and was disturbed by my words and my anger, and the uncomfortable living situation they created for us. As the gloom of that realization and of that climate of cultural self-recrimination encircled me, I withdrew, holed up, and learned to keep my thoughts largely to myself. I had not at that point gotten wind of the budding “blogosphere”, much less managed to find solace in writers who felt as I did. I felt utterly and completely alone. I had to save myself, I concluded — to get out of an environment where I felt trapped and poisoned — but my remaining resources were by then very limited, and I had made the mistake of letting myself become financially dependent on what had become a very deeply psychologically bad situation for me. Gathering my last reserves of embattled optimism, I redoubled my job-hunting efforts. An attractive offer came in from my previous employer in February. I came very close to taking it, but my own need for self-rescue was not the only factor in play. My girlfriend was paddling hard against the proverbial current to finish her graduate degree, and needed me there for moral support. I stayed a while longer, keeping my feelers out for other, possibly more local job opportunities. Eventually another offer came from California, and with our savings dwindling and only a little over a month now left to go in the graduate program, I took it.

The fresh start did me good — being wanted, needed enough to be moved across the country by my new employer certainly helped to pick up my spirits. But I was still under the weight of a terrible gloom, still reeling from what I had been through and could not stop thinking about. I have an indelible image in my mind of sitting outside at lunch, looking up at a company building against a clear blue California sky — feeling simultaneously grateful to have a handle on my life and surroundings again, and somber with the weight of memories and thoughts I couldn’t shake.

At the program’s graduation ceremony in May of 2002, which I returned to attend, the college’s president followed his expression of sympathy for the 9/11 victims and their families with an expression of his profound shame at being an American in these times — for which, to my astonishment and disgust, he was roundly applauded and cheered. It took all my self control and decorum not to hiss and boo at this display of insular, ungrateful, self-righteous pontification.

Those who’ve kept track of the post-9/11 timeline will recall: Our nation’s response was still confined to the war in Afghanistan, back then.

I held my tongue. This day belonged to the hard-fought achievements of those who were being awarded their degrees, my girlfriend among them, and I did not want my own self-indulgence to detract from that. If only the college president had felt the same. Apparently, either no one objected, or they were just as silent about it as I was.

Prior to the events of September 11th, 2001, I had developed an awareness of our gloomy climate of cultural self-doubt, idle self-recrimination, and intellectually fashionable college campus radicalism — first with startled dismay, then with grim resignation — and naïvely supposed that the appearance of some new, bona fide external threat would eventually wake us out of our idle funk. In hindsight, I could not have been more mistaken. The roots of our cultural self-distrust run far, far deeper than I had ever dared suppose, casting our future as a country, culture, and civilization into serious doubt. To this day, I find myself deeply troubled by the question of what, if anything, we can do to recover from the sad state we seem to be stuck in, and for all my usual optimism I find it hard to imagine a day when I won’t have cause for such worry.

Previous post: Tomorrow is 9/11
Next post: 9/11 Quotes

Tomorrow is 9/11

Tomorrow is the eighth anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States. I’ve finished writing a couple of posts detailing my own recollections of 9/11 — a project I’ve been meaning to get to for a while, and got a start on last year without quite finishing — and I’ll be publishing them later tonight or early tomorrow. After that, I’ll be keeping an eye out for new and noteworthy posts from blogs and sites that I follow (see the sidebar at right for links to many of my favorites), and posting links and quotes here and on Twitter (speaking of which, this will be my first year observing 9/11 in the virtual company of Twitter friends, which should make for an interesting supplement to my usual blog- and news-reading routine).

Meanwhile, following are links to my previous years’ 9/11 posts, going back to 2005, the year I started this blog. With the exception of my second 2006 post, which maybe sums up my own thoughts the best to date, most consist of links to and excerpts from superb articles by others that touch close to my thinking, and in most if not all cases express what I only wish I had the skill to say. Highly recommend reading.

Lower Manhattan Skyline, New York

September 11, 2001
I will never forget.

2006: 1, 2, 3
2008: 1, 2, 3, 4

My thoughts will be with those who lost their lives and loved ones on that terrible, hauntingly clear-skied day, and on the challenges facing us as we still struggle feebly as a civilization — some eight years later — to come to terms with the implications of 9/11’s horrific, era-defining events.

Next post: My Experience of September 11, 2001

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