At the end of a summer that retrospection has given the marmoreal glow of a Georgian sonnet recited on Dorset hillsides, I growled at having to teach an 8 a.m. section of college composition to freshmen. I liked rising early, loved teaching, and hadn’t figured out how to get these two phenomena to shake hands. At 9:30 I drove east to Lion Video to drop off an overdue VHS copy of Midnight. Traffic was light. Behind the counter the only employee was glued to the TV suspended in the left corner. I browsed for a few minutes until he caught my eye.
“What movie is that?”
He stared. “That’s not a movie, man. The World Trade Center towers went down. Planes. Terrorism.”
I thanked him and left. The calls started a few minutes into my drive west. “You better get home,” Mom said. On the local NPR affiliate I had just heard that the public schools were closing. I stopped for gas at a Chevron, where inside a man bought three copies of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Otherside” cassingle on clearance, no one will know why. Comfort? My next stop was, after all, Best Buy, for Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” was on the shelves. Thanks to downloading, I was familiar with “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” and “Mississippi,” which didn’t stop me from playing them instead of listening to NPR or my continually ringing cellphone.
I suspected we were in for some foul shit. I was wrong: no one could know to what depths the United States would sink in the ensuing years, symbolized by that moment in 2008 when an Iraqi hurled a shoe at George W. Bush crying, “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog.” In 2014 Charles Pierce wrote:
What happened in New York 13 years ago deranged a nation that was almost begging to be deranged. The Soviet Union was gone. Grenada, Panama, the First Gulf War, the Balkans, in all these places where we made war, we had what were essentially walkover victories. We had no geopolitical enemies, no country strangling our trade, or impressing our seamen, or bombing our Pacific fleet, or pointing nuclear missiles at our cities any more. Then the planes hit the towers, and the towers came down, and we had an enemy again. We declared war on a tactic. We declared war on “terror.” The concept was so patently absurd that dozens of other absurdities naturally flowed from it, the most glaring of which was the preposterous and mendacious case made for our invasion and occupation of Iraq. We jumped at shadows, heard voices in our heads, ducked and covered and lost our minds, and there were people in positions of power who were happy to oblige us for their own political and economic benefit. Then, we elected a new president, and the new president extricated us from the occupation of Iraq, and from whatever the hell we were doing in Afghanistan, which primarily seemed to be keeping the people who live there from slaughtering each other. But the war on the tactic never ended because it cannot end. You cannot defeat “terror,” because it has too many allies, some of them in your own government.
Some of those allies are out of government like the Bush gang; others want any seat in a Trump administration, like Rudolph Giuliani, an advocate of endless war and a man who revels in rancor and dismisses swathes of his citizens as illegitimate. Never forget? Never forget that America’s Mayor had insisted on opening an emergency command center at 7 World Trace Center.
Fifteen years later we remain no more united than balsamic vinegar and olive oil in a bowl. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and drone rocket warfare — the consequences of vengeance and civilizing becoming presumptions for seeking monsters to destroy abroad. To have predicted in 2001, however, that many more thousands of Americans would die for the sake of vengeance and civilizing a region that we had done much to uncivilize since Mossadegh would have been a symptom of curdled empathy and an impoverished imagination. If “national unity” has a righteous purpose, it is to gather close the survivors and steady our grip on them as we turn from mourning the dead to collectively asking leaders why we Americans must give our lives for the sake of popinjays, mountebanks, and frauds,