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September 11, 2006


My friend C. woke me up around 6:30 or 7 that morning with a phone call.

"Oh my god!" she said. I've heard her upset before, but she prides herself on her crisis coping skills. I'd never heard her on the edge of hysteria like this.

"Oh my god, someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center and it collapsed! They've also attacked the Pentagon and they're not sure about the White House! It's all over tv, but don't watch it! You shouldn't watch it!"

My first response to this was annoyance: "What are you talking about? Of course I'm going to watch it."

I didn't really believe her. I just thought, insofar as I could think before coffee, that she was responding to first reports, which are always inflated and, well, hysterical. I spent the rest of the day in my jammies on my couch, except when I got up to get food, and when I accosted my roommate in the hallway, myself by that time somewhat wild-eyed, with an injunction not to go to her office, which was across the street from the TransAm building in downtown San Francisco. (Most major cities were going through their moment of hubris, thinking they were important enough to be attacked by terrorists. SFans got over ours within 48 hours, although the city of SF and Homeland Security continue to be hysterical about the Bay Bridge.)

It was a strange day. My roommate had a tv in her own room so we sat, separate, watching the same show over and over again---the towers collapsing, the tiny plane disappearing into the side of the pentagon, the clouds of dust and ash shooting out sideways and through the canyons of New York. Just like I did with my roommate, so I did with my family and friends: we sat separated, each in our own individual or coupled units, watching the same show replicated on millions of small screens, repeated dozens of times over the course of the day.

It was a national sick day. So many of us, especially on the west coast, where the news reached us before we dressed for work, sat in our pajamas all day on the couch, eating comfort food and staving off that indoors-too-long headache. Staving off that feeling of unreality and monstrousness you get as a child when, through an emergency of the body, the order of the day is disturbed and you are thrown out of your routine. Somewhere, the world was continuing, having lunch, going to fifth period study hall, and you were home watching "Get Smart" reruns. Though you would never admit it to anyone, deep down, you hated such days. Such days in childhood were worse, in their way, than those long dark nights are now, those nights when you realize something about yourself and, no matter how many DVDs you slide into the player, you can't look away from that realization and there's nothing you can do but sit in a buzzingly empty room and study it, study yourself, your lacks. It was a headache day, and everyone spent it alone.

And no amount of hindsight can change the fact that we all knew, we all felt on the day, as we sat there watching the towers fall down, that something big had happened, something more horrifying than jet-fuel bombs, than people jumping out of 80th story windows, than flight attendants with throats cut by box cutters. The pundits will have it that we sold our rights out of fear of further terrorist attacks, but that's simply not true. We sat home all day, all year, suspecting that school was out forever. We sold our rights so that Mommy would come home, feel our foreheads, and tell us that we were going back to school tomorrow, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Why do you think the first chicken-soup tagline was "America, open for business?"

The problem is ... well, no, there's more than one problem. The first problem is that, once you've seen a horrifying truth, you can't unsee it. The second problem is that the truth we saw five years ago today was vast, complex, and vague. In fact, that's exactly what was so horrifying about it: that it wasn't a truth that can be contained in a few weighty sentences, but rather that it is the sort of truth that demands that you go out and find it and shape it. It's a horrible-monster-truth that is so big that you have to walk towards its multiple, fanged, snapping maws just to see to the edge of it. Another problem is that it's a truth too large to encompass that demands heroic action. But what heroic action? Against what? Who is the enemy? What is the transgression that must be righted? Do I need a sword? A pen? A ploughshare?

You can try to get big and general, but once you get big and general enough to encompass it, it loses all meaning. "America's arrogance" doesn't mean any more than "oil imperialism" or "the wages of capitalism". I suppose the only real thing to do is to break it down into its component tentacles and pick one to hack away at. Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" is really the first 9/11 emollient on offer. Because, to make the unreality go away, it has to be big, and it has to be real enough. Pick one: the Bush regime, neoconservatism, global warming, stop the addiction, religious racism, geographical ignorance, cultural ignorance, etc.

It would be nice if we, as a nation---just as we did on 9/11/01 when we all sat alone together and saw a big ugly truth---could as a nation all look up and realize that action and empowerment are the cures of inaction and disempowerment. It would be nice if we each picked a tentacle of 9/11 to hack away at, all the while seeing and recognizing the amorphous shape of the larger beast. I don't think it's going to happen, not enough to turn this around. It's impossible not to suspect that George W. Bush will be the American republic's Julius Caesar (without the intellect or the military prowess, natch.) Maybe that means that we have another century or so of open empire, under a dictatorship. But looking at China, looking at the EU ... I don't think that's going to happen, either. The problem with Julius Caesar comparisons is that you need the intellect and military prowess to have that kind of unquestionable power. We're a sad sloppy second, at best.

Maybe today is simply the anniversary of the death of our republic, a sadly misshapen creature, even in its youth and strength, and now something dying of terminal obsolescence. Republics are small things, and we are too big. Maybe that's the heart of the Big, Ugly Truth. I don't know, I still don't know. But I'm observing something today. And maybe it's just appropriate that I don't know what.


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