I was sitting in the kitchen of my soon-to-be fiance's house in California... strangely enough I was living there, but that's another story. (Eleven days later I would propose.) It was around 7am.
At the kitchen table on September 11, 2001, I was eating cereal (maybe with some toast), when Jonalyn's grandmother stepped in from next door. "You won't have heard about this yet, but the World Trade Center has been attacked." She elaborated on what happened.
Any dramatic moment in our lives makes time slow, puts our sense on alert, our imagination spinning, "What does this mean?" We didn't know. Two wars later, we may still not know.
We went to class. Jonalyn and I had the same class that morning on epistemology. How do you know what you know? Do you know what you know? What if we're deceived and think we know but we only grasp to something false and hence do not know what we thought we knew? That's the weird mind-bending stuff of epistemology. That was our first class that day. Fitting.
Our professor paused and asked the class what they thought of the events of the morning in NY. Many wanted to attack the perpetrators immediately (most of the students in the class were male, interestingly). Though the criminals were all dead and bound to no sovereign nation of origin, my fellow students were ready to shoot into the dark. I wasn't ready to attack. I didn't know what to do.
I had lunch with that same professor that day. Chinese food, I think. He took an interest in me. Normal guy behind all that brain. That's when I caught the first images of what happened in NY. The television at the entrance of the restaurant replayed footage of the towers disintegrating like sand.
Just 21 months after the new millennium was SUPPOSED to be defined by Y2K, the world was redefined by primitive sabotage.
The world fixed its attention in this new era on hostiles. We allowed ourselves to be defined, not by what we love, but by what we fear.
And perhaps that is what has changed the American landscape most dramatically. It wasn't being struck on native turf, but by how we responded and continue to respond as people who insist we have our fate in our hands and must manipulate to a predefined "American way" at all costs. All costs.
Most of history learns to live with such tragedy and are deepened by it. Nobody likes it, but then the better way to live is to not fear being afraid of it.
I'm reminded of this "American way" every time I air travel. Every time I go through security, wearing shoes to wear that slip on and off easily, pants that don't require a belt, the pack that slides a laptop in and out in a flash, the empty water bottle to fill up in the terminal, the to be without toiletries should a plane be delayed, the misfortune of packing a week of clothing into a carry-on.
Every security point, every TSA worker that looks like they've been on shift with grumpy people one hour too long, every report in the terminals that the security alert that day is "orange" (it is always ORANGE!... it is so typically orange that the meaning of orange has worn on... why not just tell people to be alert instead of watering down the coloring system, giving us evidence that even when we're under the scary color orange, life is normal?). All of this because we fear our enemies, all enforced by politicians who do not bear such inconveniences, making laws for the unsafe little people in our land, because we know our lawmakers are always safe, right?
And so the fear continues. Terrorists yesterday. Environment and health care today. We continue to be motivated, not by what we love, but by what we fear. We are afraid life will be dramatically altered if we don't cash in our clunkers (a 'rescue' with a very misleading name), not wanting to preserve the earth because we love it, but because we fear our lifestyle will be changed.
Nobody is talking about reducing urban centers that choke out nature and community. I continue to see fancy commercials about reducing waste and saving the earth, only to see images and messages for these campaigns coming from urban centers where the earth has been demolished and people lack knowledge of farming, forest, fresh air, where "conveniences" rule the day, and anonymity is an option. We crave the sophistication of the city, women in their vulnerable high heals, men in their ties, none of which is very suitable to actually living in nature, all the dress code of a location where we pretend we are safe, where our ties won't get caught on trees, where our heals will not require we know how to run. We've created a false world and now we want to preserve it.
The same can be said for the economy... for all we see in the media, we're willing to sell our souls to let the government bail us out so our economy can grow. We're willing to pick on minorities (our politicians appeal to the majority by using derogatory words for the minority, like "the rich" or "wealthy") to ease our lives--much like we did with the minority in the years of slavery. Is that all we are, economic animals, scroungers? We need the economy to grow because we fear our enemies will outpace us, grow stronger than us, demolish us. A legitimate fear? Perhaps. But does it steal our freedom to fight it?
And then health care, with a myriad of voices all wanting reform (yes, let's reform it! Let's stop suing doctors for not being shamans and not raising the dead so that their insurance premiums can go down so we can pay decent prices!)... but nobody can agree with what reform we want or need. One hundred years ago, nobody had health care. We had less a problem with death because we knew life was more than the body. Today's technology promises we can alleviate our fears of sickness so that we can.... wait, what exactly do we plan to do with all our health and life? Oh, yes, continue to live in fear over the environment, economy, and some rogues.
Or we can be free. As William Stuntz has pointed out, "Some might wish for an American future free of culture wars. I don't. I think these battles are worth fighting, but I do wish for good wars, the kind [Martin Luther] King fought, the kind in which we love our enemies and fight for the chance to embrace them." May the things we live for today be things worthy of our humanity, free of fear, reaching forward into what is hearty and good.
Edit 9/15: this article I think speaks into our present situation... allowing fear to rob of us freedom, wanting immediate "change" to overhaul our evils, surrendering our thoughtfulness to "experts," and our resources to a few at the top.