20 Years Later for Some Reason

Like most people my age, I have a lot of complex feelings about 9/11.

I was a freshman in college when it happened, living away from home for the first time. My grandfather was dying, I was thrown off kilter by the huge changes in my life already, and then the entire world changed completely, and pretty much everyone my age has been completely off ever since. Watching 3000 people die live on national television while your prefrontal cortex is still developing does that to a person.

And I don’t really want to go into those feelings as they stand right now because pretty much everyone everywhere is going to be talking about that today. Instead, I want to talk about a few pieces of media I’ve been diving into as kind of a memorial to the whole thing. Some of these, I watch and read every year, and some of them, I’ve only just discovered, so without further adieu:

Loose Canon: 9/11 – Part 1 || Part 2

Lindsay Ellis is a leftist video essayist and author that I’ve been following for… oh, probably around a decade now. She did a series about five years ago called “Loose Canon” that explored how certain characters are portrayed in different pieces of media (for example, looking at different portrayals of Santa Claus through the years). As part of that series, she wanted to look at a particular historical event, and 9/11 won the poll among her supporters on Patreon. And it’s a lot. 

(note that if you’re clicking those links and aren’t familiar with her: she is very liberal and does not have any nice things to say about a lot of the right wing politicians involved in that day or its aftermath. Also some of it is funny. If either of those things will upset you, do not click those links)

In summary, as with everything else, 9/11 rocked the media we’ve produced and consumed in the 20 years since. Some of my favorite points:

  • Before 9/11 we had a lot of films where we were really into seeing stuff get destroyed. I think we had about five years in the mid- to late- 90s where destroying stuff on film was basically the best way for a film to become a blockbuster. Shoot, when Independence Day had a bunch of trailers showing the destruction of the White House, THAT was what got everyone talking. And now… well, we’re not so into that. We all sit with the uncomfortable knowledge of no, that’s not what that sort of wholesale destruction looks like or sounds like. And we’re understandably not super interested in watching it unfold on the big screen.
  • Films directly made about 9/11 don’t really do well, critically or with audiences. We watched it happen in real time; seeing the events dramatized feels weird. Maybe it’s a “too soon” sort of thing, but it just has never resonated with Americans as a whole (which is not to say that nobody enjoyed those films, or that there’s anything wrong with you if you did, just that in general, people weren’t really into them).
  • Similarly, films that come too close to 9/11 in their imagery and color palette tend to go over like a bowl of lead. If you can separate the imagery a bit and the events a bit, we tend to be more comfortable with that as a whole.
  • Unrelated to Americans, India uses 9/11 a lot in their movies, mostly as a way of coping with their own terrorist attack in 2008. I’m not sure how these movies go over in India; they’re unintentionally hilarious in a very dark way here in the States.

And from that film, we get the book I’m slowly working my way through…

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature back in its day, and while it’s not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination (I can only manage a chapter or two a night because it’s heavy stuff and makes you really need to chew on it), it’s really good. The book serves as a biography of the major figures who contributed to the creation of al-Qaeda and dives into their motivations and psychology. It acknowledges the mistakes made by western countries leading up to 9/11 while simultaneously not blaming those countries (e.g., the British occupation of Egypt was beyond shitty and definitely contributed to the radicalization of several figures in al-Qaeda, but Great Britain isn’t to blame for the attacks).

One thing that’s been a hard swallow for me with this book is learning that before he was fully radicalized, Osama bin Laden was a really loving and involved father. One particular passage talks about how his second son was born with hydrocephalus and though he survived, he was left mentally disabled and prone to violence and emotional outbursts. And despite this, bin Laden insisted on making sure that son was involved whenever he spent time with his children. He was a monster by every definition, but monsters are made from men, which I think is the ultimate lesson of the book: not that terrorists are just like you and me, but rather that radicalization is not something that just happens to That Guy Over There. It’s something that we can all be vulnerable to, given the right political climate and circumstances.

And related to the videos above…

Protest Music of the Bush Era

This is another Lindsay Ellis video, and while it’s not about 9/11 directly, I think it does a good job of sorting through a lot of the emotions and public mentalities of the years that followed. It’s wild to remember that after 9/11, we were all so traumatized and hurt/angry/afraid that we wanted to lash out at anyone and anything that might have been slightly a threat to us and our way of life. Which is not to say that al-Qaeda shouldn’t have been rooted out and destroyed (the above book, while helping to explain a lot of the psychology at work, has very solidly confirmed for me that something had to be done about them) but rather that we went at it kind of the way a toddler does when throwing a tantrum. We were sloppy, a lot of innocent lives were pointlessly lost, and we really didn’t know what we were doing.

Despite this, both the Afghanistan war and the Iraq war were really popular in their time, and even when their popularity dipped, people didn’t tend to be as ragingly against them as they were against Vietnam for whatever reason. Like people were against both wars, but the scenes of protest that we recognize from the 60s and 70s just weren’t there as much, and neither was the protest music. And that’s pretty interesting to me–I think that probably because of 9/11, it was hard to find a way to say, “I really can’t stand the military-industrial complex, and I think both of these wars are terrible ideas,” without someone calling you unpatriotic. Shoot, it’s STILL hard to say that without a handful of people popping up to “well actually…” at you.

Anyway, this video doesn’t get into the nuances of that discussion so much as it explores the little protest music there was and how the themes in that music are still kind of around today and how we probably won’t ever escape them. 

So. That’s my 9/11 media dump for you. This was going to just be a Facebook post, but then it got absurdly long, so now it’s here. Enjoy.

Life goes on.

How has it only been 2021 for a week?

Because the wild thing was that before Wednesday, I was feeling really optimistic about this year; and I still am, mind you, but with the caveat that the first chunk is going to be a B I T C H, and the rest might follow suit, unless some serious changes start happening seriously soon. 

I mean, things were really going well! Sam was having a very smooth first week back to school–we’d done all his times tables up to 9, we’d finished out a unit on description and attributes and were moving on to the senses, both ABA and Sam’s therapy had started back up and were going well, and even my therapy started with a really good session that left me feeling excited and motivated for whatever comes next!

And then Wednesday.

I don’t talk a lot about my politics, at least partly because I don’t know how to politically define myself. Words don’t mean the same thing now as they used to; a lot of the terrorists on Wednesday were thrilled to call anyone who disagreed with them a Communist, which is not at all what the word means. I can’t define my stance on economic issues with a single word; I can’t define my stance on social issues with a single word. 

Whenever I take the (imperfect) political compass test, I end up solidly in the green square, but as anyone else in the green square can tell you, that tells you the barest of minimums of what I believe and think; so much liberal and leftist political theory is so nuanced that I feel like I need a serious polisci degree to actually be able to answer the question.

But here’s what I believe, without definitions.

I believe that, if we are to have a government that we pay money into (and we should), that government’s job should be to look after the people, all of the people, so that nobody goes hungry, goes without a home, goes without healthcare. If the government can do something to prevent any of those things, I believe the government should do something to prevent those things; otherwise, what’s the point?

I don’t believe the United States is the greatest country to ever have countried. I couldn’t tell you what country is the greatest country to ever have countried, because it’s a rare country nowadays that doesn’t have blood on their hands in one way or another, skeletons in their closet, that sort of thing. Putting countries on pedestals is such a dangerous thing, because it’s not realistic. It can make you think that a country is infallible; it can blind you to the things other countries do right because they aren’t your personal favorite. 

I believe that we have work to do, and will always have work to do; that’s the nature of humanity. We work to care for each other now, just as we did tens of thousands of years ago while painting pictures on the walls of caves. Society as a whole is at its strongest when we care for our weakest members; conversely, refusing to care for our weakest members is a pretty good sign that we’re heading into “fall of Roman Empire” territory, and that we should probably be on the lookout for marauding Goths.

I believe that all humans deserve to be treated with kindness, dignity, and respect, no matter what they believe, the color of their skin, their ability or disability, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, the number in their bank account (or lack thereof), their nation of origin, their immigration status. At the same time, I understand the tolerance paradox: in order to promote true tolerance, the intolerant must not be tolerated. 

(I also want to throw things when someone is like “hburr dhurr so much for the tolerant left” because none of us ever said we were tolerant of Nazis; that’s on you being a dumbass)

When I talk about politics, I don’t exaggerate to make a point. I grew out of that about 20 years ago. When I look at a group and say, “Wow, they seem like Nazis,” it’s not just me saying, “I disagree with them, and I must exaggerate to make myself look more right.” I don’t care about looking right or trying to paint my opponents worse than they are. When I say that someone looks a lot like a Nazi, I mean that someone looks a lot like a Nazi.

(which is such a pet peeve of mine; just because you called Obama a Nazi because you disagreed with him doesn’t mean that I’m doing the same thing when I say, “this person who wants to murder everyone not like them, who embraces fascist ideology, and has a literal swastika tattooed on their bicep is probably a Nazi”)

I don’t know why I’m enumerating all of that, except maybe to say that I’ve seen this coming since 2016. I remember when the election results made it clear what was going to happen; I was listening to Disturbed’s cover of “The Sound of Silence,” and I knew that if things didn’t go completely fascist, very quickly, they were at least going to try. And they are still trying, and I hate being right. 

But the weirdest thing is how life goes on, you know? I was glued to the news all day and late into the night Wednesday, but Isaac still had ABA on Thursday, Sam still had therapy on Friday. I cleaned a lot of the playroom, breaking down Christmas boxes and putting away books. We had pizza delivered Friday night. I scheduled the twins’ preschool evaluation for this coming Friday.

Very weird.

You always expect that, during these Major Historical Events, everything just stops until things are resolved. Like whoa, hey, it’s Revolutionary War time, nothing is going on EXCEPT for battles with guns and ships and nobody is just living normal lives, but here we are. And shit, it’s the same all over the world. I remember reading one article recently where someone talked about how their camera roll had pictures of them out at a disco with their friends right after pictures of a building that was bombed just down the street from their house. The only thing that’s keeping life from moving forward more quickly is that there’s still a pandemic on, and even then, the vaccines should be widely available soon, so life will keep moving forward.

Are you supposed to keep working during a coup or can you take the day off?

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next ten days. I’m afraid of them. People will tell me that I’m overreacting, the same people who said I was overreacting in 2016, and I want to believe them. I’m not losing sleep over this, thankfully, because I’ve got good coping skills (we’re practicing “radical acceptance” and also “sleep meds” right now); I’m not even being fully disengaged from my daily life because of it, because what can I really do? 

If I’m losing sleep, will it stop more QAnon cultist terrorists from rushing government buildings like my almost three-year-olds when they want to get through the gate to the playroom?

If I’m constantly refreshing the news, will it stop the occupant of the White House from deciding that if he’s going down, we’re all going down with him, and starting a nuclear war?

If I’m NOT constantly refreshing the news, will it prevent a peaceful transition of power on January 20? Will it stop the FBI from arresting everyone involved in this disaster at all levels? 

What can I do? I donate, I protest, I speak up when I need to do so, I stay informed, I vote, I breathe. I want stability, for my kids, for their future–no child should grow up in a land torn apart by war–so I pray to whatever may be listening that things get better. I read a book and escape to another world for a little while. I have some ice cream after dinner and think that I should probably take up walking and running. I count down the hours until my appointment for my sciatica. I live.

Isn’t it weird? And yet, there it is. 

In your head

If I’m being completely honest, I don’t remember hearing about it. It wasn’t an event like 9/11, where the shock and growing horror you feel as you watch events unfold in real time burn everything about that moment into your memory: where you were, what you were doing, what happened before and after, how you felt.

It was the spring of 1999, and I was a sophomore in high school, watching all of my friends who were born earlier in the year getting their learners’ permits and getting our first tastes of that irresponsible freedom that comes with being a teenager. I used to tell my mom that people called them “LPs” for short, but nobody called them that, learners’ permits, I mean. And anyway, I wasn’t really focused on world events at that point in time, except for when I had to be, like in AP U.S. History.

Most of my attention was focused all over the place, because I was a very busy high school sophomore, fifteen and not-quite-sixteen. I had a pretty big supporting role in the school musical that year (stepmother in Cinderella), I had a boyfriend who was in college (automatic cool points and elimination of dating as a distraction in anything ever), I sat state standardized tests (the MCAS exam, which is highly mockable and always has been), I was miserably failing Algebra II, life was busy overall.

I wasn’t thinking at all, of course, about school shootings.

They were on everyone’s radar, sort of, not like they really are today. We all knew about Paducah, we all knew vaguely that this was a Thing That Happened, but it wasn’t something that anyone thought about. School shootings seemed like flukes, like something you’d say “damn that was crazy!” about but then move on with your life, assuming that the perpetrator was bullied or had some sort of vendetta or something.

Somehow, Columbine changed that.

I don’t really remember hearing about it, but I remember the impacts. Not long after Columbine, we had something that was like 50% fire drill but really more of a school shooter drill. This was before you had lockdown practices, of course, because we thought it was a fluke. We all wandered aimlessly out of the buildings, accompanied by our teachers, and hung out on the front lawn until we got the all-clear. It may have been a real threat; I heard rumors that someone had left notes somewhere about shooting up the school, bombing the school, but nobody was really scared by it. Columbine was a fluke, after all.

I remember about six sprillion 20/20 esque programs dedicated to Why This Happened, and everyone had a different thought process. Violent video games! Bullying! The goth subculture! And therefore Satanism (Satanic Panic 2.0?)! Marilyn Manson! Trenchcoats (I’m not kidding)! My boyfriend at the time wore a trenchcoat like it was his job and played Resident Evil almost religiously, so I got a kick out of those theories. I think the newspeople eventually settled on bullying as The Reason, and after that, everything faded… but then later research revealed that the perpetrators were actually more often the bullies than the bullied, so that’s probably not it.

I remember the weird capitalization on certain victims’ lives and deaths. Cassie Bernall was the big one. The story went that she was asked, “Do you believe in God?” and said yes before being murdered. It was a great narrative from a Christian perspective; it turned her into a martyr of sorts, ostensibly killed because she said yes (which was the name of the book her parents wrote about her). Christian recording artists wrote songs about the incident, it was this great wonder and beautiful tragedy and… it didn’t even happen. Students who were with Cassie when she died reported that the shooter only said, “Peek-a-boo!” before murdering her.

But it was still some good music.

And it kind of… went away. Not completely, of course, and certainly not for the victims and their loved ones, but school shootings just anywhere near as common back then as they are now. Oh, they happened. Thirteen shootings happened between Columbine and my graduation from high school two years later. That seems like a lot, but then you realize that 2018 is so far 46 days old and there have already been 18 school shooting-style incidents, and suddenly, 13 over two years doesn’t seem as high of a number.

Next year, it will have been 20 years since Columbine. A lot has changed since then. The weirdest thing to me is that if you go to certain places on the internet, you’ll find pockets of people who are huge fans of the Columbine shooters. I don’t mean assholes who say, “Man, I wish I could shoot up a school!” I mean people who look at the shooters, say they were well within their rights to massacre people or that they did nothing wrong, coo over how attractive they were, and so on and so forth.

It’s… strange.

*

I always talk to Kyle about meta-fears I have for our kid(s). I call them meta-fears because the likelihood of them ever happening is statistically small, but as a parent, you still sometimes lie awake at night and wonder, “but what if…?” But they’re fears that you have to put on the back burner because if you let them, you’ll become irrational and incapable of functioning because they’re fears of such HUGE things that you have so little control over.

Meta-fears are things like “what if some random person grabs my kid off the street?” Statistically, this isn’t very likely to happen. The vast majority of kidnappings are perpetrated by members of the victim’s family, and while you have some pretty famous stories where that was not the case, they’re famous because they’re so rare. So you hold your kid’s hand and watch them when you’re out of the house, but you can’t let this fear consume you or else you’ll end up locking your kid in a tower, growing out their hair to about 70 feet, and only visiting them on weekends and bank holidays.

Things like “what if my kid gets cancer?” Statistically, this isn’t very likely to happen, even though we all know someone or know someone who knows someone whose kid got cancer. We’ve all contributed to fundraisers and all watched hashtags. One of the towns around here had a big rally for a kid that had one of the worst forms of childhood cancer, DIPG. Their hashtag was #whynotdevin, and it was HUGE around here. And it was heartbreaking, and of course, it made me wonder in my parental way, what if Sam contracted DIPG? 100% fatal, a disease that deteriorates who you are, and the only thing you can do is try and make your kid comfortable until they slip away in less than a year. It’s ridiculously rare (200 cases a year worldwide kind of rare), and you theoretically worry, but you have to put it on the back burner or you’re going to end up losing your mind because it’s not something you can predict or protect against.

Things like “what if this plane we’re on crashes?” Things like “what if there’s a drunk driver?” Things like “what if an asteroid crashes through our roof spontaneously?” Things like “what if nuclear war?”

Things like “what if my child’s school gets shot up?”

This wasn’t a worry when I was a kid. We had fire drills, of course, and those were usually pretty chill. One time, we had a fire drill while we were watching a video about volcanoes, and everybody thought that was hilarious. Another time, some kids brought a ouija board to recess and apparently, the ~spirits~ told them that the school would burn down that afternoon, and when we had a fire drill that afternoon, they all freaked out and that was also hilarious.

But it’s a worry now.

One of the things I’ve had the hardest time reading lately is the swath of accounts from teachers, telling the world who’s never experienced such a thing what it’s like to have a lockdown drill. They talk about kids not knowing it’s a drill, big and tough kids bursting into tears of absolute terror when the assistant principal rattles the doorknob to make sure it’s locked. They talk about teachers not knowing it’s a drill and screaming at their students in a panic, telling them to be quiet and stop talking and giggling, because if there is an active shooter, their silence could be their lifeline.

Fearing that your child’s school could be shot up should be a statistically rare meta-fear, like cancer or a plane crash or nuclear war. It should be something that you can just put in the back of your mind and worry about that bridge if you ever come to it, but it’s not.

Lockdown drills are pretty standard across the board nowadays. I don’t know if our town’s schools do them, or how early they start, but I imagine that they do and that they start very early. It adds a new layer to the meta-fear. It adds a thousand new layers to the meta-fear. I imagine, without wanting to, my sweet little boy with big hazel eyes and blonde hair having to hide in a closet behind locked doors. I imagine him being so terrified that he can’t fall asleep for weeks. Worse, I imagine him having a hard time comprehending what’s going on, being the loud and silly voice, and it not being a drill, and suddenly, I’m planning a funeral for my first baby.

I don’t want to imagine this. I don’t want this to be a fear that we have to take logical preventative measures about, like choking hazards and SIDS and batteries in smoke alarms and car seats.

But here we are.

*

Of course I have opinions about the whole thing. Anyone who’s known me for more than five minutes knows what those opinions are, but I’m not throwing them out here because I don’t want to attract That Crowd, if you know what I mean. I’m also not throwing them out here because I don’t want to sit around and debate and throw statistics back and forth and scream ceaselessly into the void at a group of people who just will. not. care.

I do want to scream into the void. But I’m tired.

So instead, I take a deep breath. I take comfort in the people I love. I hug Sam extra tight, even when he’s spent the entire day being a little shit (true story: this blog was initially going to be about the emotional weirdness of being angry with a toddler over something they don’t know any better, and it was going to be about poop). I listen to the Cranberries singing, “But you see, it’s not me, it’s not my family,” and wonder what happens to That Crowd when it is their family.

Sorry about the lack of entertaining or diverting gifs; they seemed inappropriate.