The Flag & The Forgetting
Claire Berlinski posted to her blog a sober, even grim, 9/11 reflection from one of her readers, who asked to remain anonymous. The reader writes, in part:
With the forgetting comes the loss of emotive content. It is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the falling-away of emotion means we lose the felt sense of the only silver lining of the whole blood-soaked affair: the flowering of patriotism in the immediate thereafter. Those of us who lived through the bright autumn of 2001 witnessed the last mass expression of a common American patriotism of the twenty-first century. No moment like it has come since, and it is unlikely to reappear. If in this vein we are the people we were two decades ago, the evidence has yet to present itself.
That said, we should not over-valorize the people we were two decades past, either. The best of us rushed into burning towers in September or descended upon Afghanistan in October. The rest of us watched in stupefaction or satisfaction, or perhaps both. That goes even for direct witnesses of the great massacre, including me. We spectated. It was not two years later that the phrase emerged, not from Afghanistan but Iraq, that in the post-9/11 era only the American military was at war: the American people were at the mall.
It’s not a long piece, but it’s a gut punch. Read the whole thing. Except for the Pakistan part, about which I have no idea, I find it hard to disagree with any of it.
As regular readers know, I was living in New York City on 9/11, and through the bright sadness of that autumn. I’ve told people since then that as unspeakably horrible as that season was, it was also beautiful in a way I find hard to adequately describe. You really did have to be there. The sense of solidarity was overwhelming. I’m not talking about in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. I’m talking about for months.
Like Berlinski’s reader, I can’t imagine that we’ll ever see that kind of thing again. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t trust it. Having seen what our government at the time did with that feeling — I’m talking about the catastrophically mistaken Iraq War, which like most Americans, I supported back then — I would not trust anything that the president during some future 9/11 had to say about it.
Then again, people forgot the lessons of Vietnam too, and off we went to the Middle East. As Berlinski’s reader says, we’re going to get out of Afghanistan soon, and the Taliban will once again rule that miserable country. We will be right back where we started.
I once wrote the following on this blog. It seems appropriate to revive it today, in the spirit of Claire Berlinski’s reader’s thoughts:
On the morning of September 11, 2002, I walked over to Ground Zero for the solemn observation of the anniversary. I stood on the north side of the hole, at the perimeter, waiting for the service to start. The crowd was behind a fence; none of us had access to the site itself, which was reserved for families and dignitaries. It was important, though, to be there.
Suddenly, at the time when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, a powerful wind descended from the same direction of that plane. It was from Hurricane Gustav, which had come ashore in the Carolinas, and was rolling up the East Coast. Still, I was there, and the timing was very, very weird. It blew a fairly steady 60 mph all morning. A friend who had been watching the services live on TV said that one of the commenters called the wind “Biblical.” If you were down there in that wind, as I was, it seemed apt.
The wind was still blowing later that morning when I went into Trinity Church Wall Street for a memorial service celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. At some point during the church service, we could hear a signal from adjacent Ground Zero, indicating that all the names of the dead had been read, and that the ceremony there was ending. Shortly after, the church liturgy ended, and I emerged outside to calm. The winds had stopped. I don’t know when the ceased to blow, but I can tell you it was in the relatively short time between the start and end of the church service.
If I had to bet money, I’d say that the winds stopped blowing when the last names were read at Ground Zero. It was that kind of morning.
Later in the day, I received a call from a friend I had run into at Ground Zero that morning. She was fairly freaked out, and asked me to come over at once. I made my way to her apartment. She led me into her tiny home office, and showed me a small American flag, so old and threadbare that you could see through it, framed and under glass, hanging on her wall. A tear ran through it, almost from top to bottom.
It wasn’t obvious to me what the issue was. Then she told me: she’s had that flag on the wall for years, and it was fine. It was position right across from her desk. She looked at it every day. But that morning — September 11, 2002 — while she was out in the crowd at Ground Zero, something happened to it. It had torn down the middle, even though it was sealed under glass, and nobody had come into her home.
This really did happen. I have lost contact with that friend, but I wonder what she thinks of it today. Both of us are believing Christians, and we could not help seeing it in light of the Biblical account of the tearing of the veil in the Temple when Jesus died on the Cross. That event has multiple meanings in Christian belief, and among them is a prophecy of the ultimate destruction of the Temple itself, which took place at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD. I left my friend’s apartment wondering if the tearing of the flag — assuming that there was symbolic meaning behind it — meant that there was a withdrawal of God’s favor on the US, and that 9/11 was the beginning of our end.
Granted, I have an apocalyptic mindset, and even if I didn’t, it was very easy to think in apocalyptic terms in those days, living so close to Ground Zero. On the other hand, I was also primed to think that 9/11 was going to summon up the strength of our great nation, and goad us to assert ourselves on the world stage. The United States was at that moment the sole hyperpower on the planet. We were at the peak of our strength. We would soon be going to war in the Middle East, that was clear by then. Now, finally, we would set the world to right. I was not eager to believe in portents that cast doubt on that project. I was in those days filled with patriotic righteousness — which is why the tearing of the flag was so eerie, and unwelcome to me.
That’s what I saw on 9/11/2002. Maybe it was just a fluke. Maybe that flag had come apart earlier, and my friend only noticed it on that morning. But: in light of everything that has happened since then — and that continues to happen — that torn flag seems to me like the omen I feared it was at the time.