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I should have been grading papers yesterday. In fact, I missed my own assignments, watching coverage that I know nearly as well as the digits on my hands and feet; ten years ago, I woke up on that Tuesday morning—a teaching day most of my career—and, contrary to hundreds of days exactly like it, did not turn over in the early morning and reach for the on button of my Bose radio at bedside to catch a bit of “Democracy Now,” nor switch on CNN to find out if the world was still with us and we with it. Instead, I hit the floor running to get ready for my classes at Cornell.
I now think of my behavior that morning as a kind of civic and professional idiocy, insofar as I went about my duties, intensely focused, picking up clues, while walking over to my classroom from the university parking lot, that I would put together only later in the day as signals of a national disaster in the making. Come hell or high water, I was going to teach Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, of all the novels one might have been talking about that day, just as if nothing had changed! And to my mind at that moment, when I had no earthly idea what had happened, nothing had! In my anxiety to get to class on time, though, I did have the presence of mind to look up, to take notice that Tuesday morning, 11 September 2001, was one of the most glorious weather days on record; to say that there was not a cloud in the sky, as far as thousands of Americans could tell, is nothing short of understatement! A full decade later, when my oldest undergraduates today were about eleven years old then, the nation not only remembers, but some people are even calling for an annual memorial to 9/11 as a federal holiday. Given the import of those collective events, there’s a good chance that the anniversary, by legislative act, will be converted into a holiday, but in having it so, what are we remembering and to what ends?
We can say the following with some urgency: the years following 9/11 have been some of the most momentous in the nation’s history, if we think of it as the mark of the turn of the century and with it radical shifts on our political landscape. It is simply remarkable that ten months before 9/11, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a presidential election for the first time in American history. There is no connection between these two far-flung occasions, except to say that the high court’s decision turned us in the direction of events that we could do nothing about—or so it has seemed—and moreover, got us used to the idea that fear could motivate us more formidably than anything else in the citizen’s arsenal of feelings. We ought to remember that the Court stopped the vote count in Miami-Dade County, Florida, actually brought it to a halt, and declared that to continue it would jeopardize the winner of the election, which the final vote count would have decided! That decision demarcated, for thousands of us, a genuine turning point in the nation’s history so much so that I participated in my first big political demonstration in three decades, and that is to say, the Bush counter-inaugural, conducted outside the Supreme Court that harshly cold dreary January of the beginning of the Bush years. One demonstrator came garbed that miserable morning in mourning weeds in order to commemorate, her sign read, the “death” of American democracy. And if not its “death,” then a series of fatal blows to it, as the demonstrators certainly understood. That is why, after all, we had come.
With the introduction of the Patriot Act in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision and the attacks of 9/11, we were fed a diet of fear. In fact, it is accurate to say that fear has become our daily bread in distinct opposition to FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” No one seems to recall that the Bush years, among other things, brought us a brand new federal bureaucracy called the Department of Homeland Security, complete with a cabinet secretariat and intelligence apparatus, and this, in the very teeth of a Republican Party that declares itself hell-bent on reducing the size of the federal government to that of an entity you could drown in your bathtub, as the wisdom goes! How ridiculous we feel and must look pulling off our shoes in airports, walking on cold concrete through contraptions taking pictures of God only knows what, or holding our hands high and obediently in the air as somebody pats our behind, and yells at us like children to move it along, separate that computer from the rest of your junk that is thrown around like a sack of potatoes, belts and buckles, and coins and things in different containers, and a surly hurry up, not even “please,” all in the name of our “safety” and “security,” and for the privilege of boarding an airliner for which single seat we’ve just doled out hundreds of dollars. It is difficult to believe that we really imagine we’ve been steeled against harm in such humiliating, wasteful, and to my mind, inefficient ways.
Then there is the enormous lie that brings the episode of 9/11 to its “logical” conclusion, and that is to say, the “weapons of mass destruction” that Iraqi leadership was supposed to have at its disposal. On the basis of this enormous lie, the country was taken to war, the American economy wrecked as a consequence, and its people’s political witness rendered moot. In other words, it didn’t matter at all that thousands of people in the country and around the world were against the war in Iraq, brought on by the same Supreme Court appointed president and his minions. But little did we know that this was only the beginning of an ignoring the voters which processes should send chills up the collective back.
Can millions of people be blamed because they yearned for change and sincerely thought that they were going to get it with the Obama administration and that at long last, we thought, someone would have to answer for the crimes committed against others in our name? Wouldn’t someone have to tell us why regimes of torture are still in place, why Guantanamo and other sites of rendition have not been dismantled, and perhaps even how and why such considerable disparities between wealth and impoverishment have come about in the last decade, as such disparities are propped up by off-shore criminality and misrule? We should remember 9/11, but more than remember, we are compelled to pick up its legacy and walk. In other words, what is our response to our massive loss of rights, of the commonwealth, and of government’s obligation to be accountable to its people? If that’s the kind of holiday we’re talking about, then I’m down with the program.