“Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!”
-William Shakespeare, The Tempest
For the past twenty years, I’ve tried to get over it. I’ve tried to make sense of it.
Twenty years ago this morning, I was asleep. I played in a band with my friends, and we used to get high, set up, and record in a room converted into a mini-studio. We would play and record for hours. Once there was enough material, I would edit and mix it into an album on my computer. Then I’d design the packaging- one of my favorite things to do, ever- so I could print and burn copies of the album to sell and give away. I had this thing (still do, probably) called a CD Stomper, that would line up the label perfectly and permanently apply it to the top of the disc. Our stuff looked professional as fuck, even though it was cobbled together on my rinky-dink old Gateway.
Twenty years ago, in addition to music production, I’d been a lead actor on stage in para-professional theatre. I learned Macromedia Flash, and had created several animated shorts that were getting a ton of views. I had begun courting a young lady whom I would glom onto for nearly the remainder of the decade. At heart, all of this was designed to impress my father, and prove to him that his undying support of my choices in life was not in vain.
After all, my father bought me the computer.
Twenty years ago, for more than a day, I had no idea whether my father was alive or dead. There was no way to contact my father or my nine-year-old sister. There was no way to know whether the attacks would end or continue.
Maybe you weren’t around twenty years ago. If so, please do your best to understand how this felt.
Twenty years ago, this morning, I was awakened by a call from a friendgirl and drinking buddy whom I previously worked with at Creative Loafing. She had moved north to a major newspaper, and was calling from their headquarters. She didn’t sound panicked, but it was instantly apparent that something was very, very wrong. She told me to turn on the TV. What channel? Any of them.
The second plane hit the towers.
My friend told me they’d been getting updates all morning. The planes had been hijacked by Islamic terrorists. The female flight attendants had been tied up, their throats cut. I lost the ability to process what I was hearing.
All this was happening ten miles from where I knew my family to be, and we didn’t know when and if it would end.
I guess in some ways, it never really did, did it?
Among the dead at ground zero was a man with five daughters, all five of whom attended grade school with my sister. Can you even imagine that? How do you learn something like that, or the countless other stories of loss on that day, and not fall dead inside, forever? How can you expect anyone to forget that?
I was lucky. My father and little sister were elsewhere and unharmed. I found this out some time later. Telephone contact with the region was impossible for a seemingly indefinite period. It’s all a blur of nausea and terror.
Nothing was funny or fun anymore. Local public transit had a recorded message that urged everyone “not to linger on the disturbing images”. People walked around like their necks were broken, heads hung. Now when I played Quake III Arena online, it was against kids in a faraway country who would text things like “USA DESERVED 9/11 KEKEKEKEKEKE”. Late night talk show hosts stopped making jokes and just wept. Every time I used the internet, there were gifs of the towers falling, people desperately trying to meme it just to kill the fucking pain of the tragedy.
That’s why there are Holocaust jokes. That’s why there are jokes about the Challenger disaster. The horror is so genuine, so unavoidable, the reflex is either to weaken it through laughter, or submit to it and die in a curled fetal position. That’s why we make jokes about the most terrible things. To take away their power over us. That’s why we can never, ever allow anyone to take away our right to make those jokes.
Americans older than 25 can tell you emphatically that life here was better before September 11, 2001. Only a fool would look at the world around us now and claim that we haven’t been defeated. Every facet of our lives has been corrupted by the ideology of an ancient death cult and their virulent by-products and abettors. It’s so insidious that regular Americans lie to themselves that they haven’t yielded to it, permanently. World travel changed forever. Everything did. To accommodate something that human beings can easily live ten lifetimes without.
I’ve taken one plane trip in the past twenty years, because if I see someone with a fucking burka in the airport, my involuntarily reaction will land me in federal prison. When something truly abhorrent is inflicted upon your homeland and its people, you tend to take the human death toll to heart, regardless of number. What can I say? The Holocaust took the lives of millions, and how often have you seen or heard “Nazi” casually tossed around in the past few years? Should all the people affected by the actual Third Reich just “get over it”? “Let it go”? Is that what I’m supposed to do?
Twenty years later, am I supposed to simply forget all about it? Convince myself somehow that Mohammed Atta and Al-Qaeda weren’t responsible, and it’s America’s fault and not Islam’s?
Were we, as Americans, “asking for it”? Is that how things work in the world?
It is, isn’t it? That seems to be where the proof lies. America was just so hot ‘n sexy, it was only a matter of time before she got gang-raped. You can’t just wave your stuff in front of Islam and not expect bad things to happen. Is that it? America should’ve been more modest and timid? Maybe not wear that tight star-spangled dress for once?
After all, the meek shall inherit the earth, right? Granted, that was said over 2,000 years ago, when people used their imaginations to justify mass murder a lot differently.
Isn’t the chief grievance we hear as Americans that we’re fat obnoxious capitalists who stick their nose in everyone else’s business? So if we’re hated for allegedly butting in to foreign polities and imposing our own agendas and customs… how should I feel when they do that to us?
How should I feel when I see women in America wearing hijabs? I don’t see priests, rabbis, or evidence of any other religion in the course of a day, let alone a week. I wonder if it has something to do with the indisputable fact that in 2021, you’re allowed to goof on literally any religion except one.
Why is that? Could it be because one particular religion has a long history of violent retaliation for even the slightest insult? Why would modern society, with its supposedly humanist leanings, allow such a religion to go on unmodified? Why would any society allow that?
Myself and practically every single person I’ve ever met was raised in a religion that was modified from an earlier, more antique form, in order to assimilate better into American culture. My mother left Catholicism for this reason, choosing my dad’s native Protestantism instead. How well do you think her old-country folks handled that?
Every single American has or had a personal lifelong relationship with religion; if they don’t tell you about it, that shows you how personal it is. All of us struggle with it to some degree. None of us want to be pushed around when it comes to our own idea of God. Want to know how I can be so sure of this?
What does it say on our money, motherfucker?
Got a problem with it? You can make a bid to change it, and no one will blow up your family home (NOT A GUARANTEE). Or you can move to a country with some blueblood or a bird on their currency, and act like you know everything. Pick a place in the world that more people migrate to than America, I’m sure you can find at least one. I’ll wait.
The news media used 9/11 to commoditize tragedy and feign actual humanity. We no longer have journalists; journalistic integrity is the stuff of fairy tales. Now we have phone cameras and screaming witnesses. I’ve seen with my own eyes the rapid decline of media into overt propaganda; I’ve worked for print periodicals since 1998. Think about the current never-ending “pandemic”, and how your livelihood can be destroyed for even insinuating who’s responsible. For even asking.
Even if you are under twenty years old, you most likely have memories of shows like South Park and Family Guy that poked fun at Communist China, or Middle Eastern peoples. Do you think you’ll always be permitted to watch those shows? What makes you so sure?
Apu on The Simpsons offended one person. That’s all it took to erase Apu forever. When did Americans adopt the ethos of Mark David Chapman? If you don’t succeed, destroy, because you’ll still become famous, and that’s all that really matters?
If you can’t be beloved, kill the beloved? Didn’t we useta discourage that sort of shit, rather than meekly tolerate it?
How can you live alongside those who’ve transgressed against your people to the tune of multitudes? How can you ever trust them? What if you not only cannot forgive, but you can’t stop being angry? What if nothing ever stops it? What if nothing can?
What if the world never gets better? What if this is it? What if these hateful thoughts never go away, not with meditation, not with stimulants or pills, but never?
What kind of life is this anyway? Why are there people who want me to be unhappy? Why am I wrong, and they’re right? By what right do they take away our women, our lives?
Why do I have to “get over it”? What could my people have done in their lifetimes to deserve this, the open desecration and destruction of everything that’s ever mattered to me? Why am I not permitted to be angry about it, to destroy public property over it and subsequently be forgiven by authority and citizen alike?
Why do I do this, or anything, anymore? What is the point?
What could conceivably be the endgame; I would create something truly and observably brilliant, only for it to be despoiled and eradicated over political nonsense by brainwashed zealots? Do you honestly think, in your heart of hearts, that if any fine artist of antiquity could see the present-day treatment of their great works, they would bother creating them? Why? Might as well let the king behead you, for all it’s worth.
Why make music? No one will listen. Why draw cartoons or write books? No one will read them. Why make movies? Unless you’re magically vaccinated against the mysterious virus with a 99% survival rate, they won’t let you in the theater. And no one will watch your movie on the internet, because they only use it to stay in a state of constant terror, or to turn in other Americans for questioning the magical vaccine.
You can see front-page tweets in Arabic on Twitter, but you won’t see Donald Trump. I’m sure that’s not suspicious, or unethical, or anything.
Funny how you can easily translate just about any non-English language on social media other than Arabic. Again; I’m sure that’s totally normal, we don’t live in a world where people freak out about coded messages, right? Nah. That’d be like freaking out over electrician’s marks on pavement, thinking they were swastikas. That’s just silly, isn’t it?
How much can you fuck with someone’s life before they’re allowed to strike back? When’s the cue for us to take up arms and put a stop to all this? It came and went, didn’t it? I thought so. Oh well.
This is the best I can do. I expect nothing but rancor and grief in return. But this is what it takes to keep my spirit from finally breaking. The light that is my love for mankind is guttering. Eventually it will be clear that I have no place or home anymore, and I will make my exit. If you’re too young to understand this, give it two more decades. You will.
If this is too much for you, leave and don’t come back. I assure you, you won’t be alone. You are conditioned to lie to me. To despise me. To angrily reject my opinions and ideas, even with unwarranted violence.
I tried to warn you. It’s too late.
I have no more earthly obligation to be civil with Muslims than Jews do with Germans. The Islamic ideology contradicts my own. End of story. My initial impulses will always be negative. The grudges that endure are the ones that are earned. There’s never going to be a point in my life where I extend a hand to Islam and say “all is forgiven, we’re cool”. It’s just not going to happen. What’s done is done, and frankly, I’m aware that the other side couldn’t care less. They make that more than abundantly clear. Ironically, the sole moment of empathy I’ve experienced on the matter in the past two decades came from Osama bin Laden’s niece on Twitter, who sincerely and beautifully stated that we had a right to be angry about 9/11. It was justified, and had no expiration date, because it was true grief that affected every American.
I burst into confused tears. I couldn’t handle it. All it took was someone telling me that my feelings were legitimate. No exhortations to “man up”, no recitation of statistics or history for comparison, no suspicious attitude or inference of blame.
Just human empathy. The kind of empathy I’ve tried and failed to develop since September of 2001. Someone I’ll never meet face-to-face, providing an honest shoulder to cry on.
People will be hurting today. People you know, people you don’t know. If you decide to salt these still-gaping wounds, know that you will only receive that hurt and more in return. You can make jokes, but be aware that others won’t appreciate that particular method of dealing with the pain. When they don’t, learn to make better jokes.
If you insult or criticize Americans for their pain on this day, or claim we have no right to feel that pain, you deserve everything you get.
That’s the best I can offer you right now. Maybe the future will be different, if there happens to be one.