9/11 Special: Ryan Adams, "My Blue Manhattan" (2004)

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by Tom Johnson

I find myself torn today between commemorating the anniversary of a horrific attack and giving in to my cynical side. The cynical side is winning.

I can’t help but look at all the TV and Internet coverage and wonder if we aren’t missing the point, of if we aren’t simply giving ourselves over to grieving instead of moving on. This is not to say, of course, that this isn’t a horrible tragedy whose victims shouldn’t be mourned. I just don’t know if I feel comfortable or even honest in taking part in it because, truthfully, the immediate impacts of the events didn’t touch me at all.

I felt shock, horror, and disgust watching first the footage of the planes hitting the buildings, and then again when the two towers crumbled, just like every other normal human with feelings and emotions. It was emotional and frightening. But no one I knew was affected directly: No one I knew lost a life, and no one I knew lost someone they knew. Of course, the usual qualifiers apply: someone out there did lose their loved ones, and for them, this day should be something important. And it is important for all of us who were alive and aware on this day in 2001.

But the fact remains that we can’t keep focusing on this day or we’ll never move on.

I don’t like seeing an event like this turned into a media spectacle. Cynical me looks at the news stories and sees only the strings of hearts everywhere being plucked — there’s the footage of the second plane hitting the tower, again; there’s the first tower disappearing in a cloud of dust, again; there’s the other tower sinking from the New York skyline, again; and yes, they trotted out the very thing I hoped they wouldn’t: The children.

Just when you thought they couldn’t find something else to poke at bruised, tender memories, they bring out the children of those lost that day to read a list of the names of their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends. And it’s just cruel. It’s cruel to these children to force them through these memories again, in public, on TV, in front of the world, as if they don’t wake up every morning and go to sleep every night wishing their daddy or mommy were there to tuck them in.

No, they bring them down to the very site where their family members took their last breaths, or their desperate last leaps from the flaming buildings, and they parade them before the press and make them look at the giant hole where their loved ones died. They’re breathing the air filled with dust kicked up by their little feet, and some of them might even realize that in that dust are the ashes of their kin. All just to say their names out, as if to somehow make this tragedy mean just that much more to you than it did that day years ago.

So my cynical side has taken over, but I’m still having a hard time writing this without being a little choked up thinking about what we all lost as a nation that day. More importantly, I’m thinking about what these families lost and what they face every day knowing they have one less person to explain it all to them. And I’m thinking how exploited these endless ceremonies make them, and all of us, look.

When will this end? How will we move on from here? It’s certainly not by torturing the family members year after year. I can only think of the attack on Pearl Harbor and how, every year on December 7, the same scene plays out: Surviving vets hold their vigils at the gravesides of fallen comrades, and, to most younger than the war, it’s just a footnote on an otherwise ordinary news day. How long before September 11 is an ordinary news day and the events begin to slip further and further from the front page or the opening story on the news?

Because that date is when we as a nation have begun to move on, for better or worse.

NEW ADDENDUM FROM TOM: In the time between that terrible day and now, I’d have hoped the world had changed a lot. My own little, personal world changed an incredible amount. The little two-person unit formed by my wife and I grew first to three and then four, and our kids are the center of that world now. I look at September 11 a little different than I did ten years ago, or even eight years ago when I originally wrote the above piece. As they say, becoming a parent changes how you view things. I can’t help but see that day from the perspective of being a parent. The lump in throat feeling when seeing the seemingly never-ending footage replayed on newscasts isn’t just the awful feeling of knowing thousands of people are dying at that very moment but thinking of being a parent to one of those people, and the agonizing helplessness of being forced to watch it.

Our oldest daughter just turned six and she’s starting to encounter her own questions about this event. It’s not that we purposely kept her from it, we just never saw a need to deliberately throw something like this at her. But now she stumbles on news stories in her kids’ magazines and we answer as best we can. How can you explain to a child how a whole group of people hates your entire country just for living a certain way? “They don’t like that we like Juicy Juice and they don’t” isn’t the kind of thing that cuts it. But maybe it could get across the idea that it’s a rivalry between people with different ideas of how to live. Somehow, I don’t think so.

We’re still waiting to move on. I don’t think we’ll do it on our own. We’ve had the victories we’d hoped to have: We took care of Bin Laden, we got Saddam, and now we know how little that really means. Those things don’t prop us up as a nation. We’ve spent a decade being introspective and fearful, flinching at anything that moves and barking at each other for any detected slights. We’re going to need the children who didn’t experience this themselves to grow up and lead us away from all this. They only know September 11 as an event that happened in the past, as real to them as any event is to any of us, but as impactful as anything read in a history book. They will learn from it without having to feel it like we do.

Only they have the distance from these awful events to pick up the reins and move on. They’ll do it the best way, too: They won’t even know they’re doing it.

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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