Unfolding the Map
Sometimes, when dates and stars align, one just doesn't question and one simply goes with it. If you read the quote below, you'll understand why I chose my topic for this post, and why I waited an extra day or so to post it to Littourati. On this day of remembrance, let us set aside differences for a little while and reflect on how events like those which occurred on September 11, 2001 affect so much in our world. The image at right is the flag of Brooklyn, found at Wikimedia Commons. The point I picked in Brooklyn, where I imagine, maybe, that William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) saw those now toppled "stumps in the yellow velvet sky" can be found at the map.
"....Things raced past like the jumpy images of a nickelodeon: abandoned and stripped cars on the shoulders, two hitchhiking females that nobody could stop to pick up, a billboard EAT SAUSAGE AND BE HAPPY, low-flying jumbos into Kennedy International, the racetrack at Ozone Park, bulldozed piles of dirt to fill the marsh at Jamaica Bay, long and straight Flatbush Avenue, Sheepshead Bay, Coney Island, the World Trade Center like stumps in the yellow velvet sky."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 7
Brooklyn, New York
You might wonder why LHM refers to the World Trade Center as being like "stumps in the yellow velvet sky." I remember once, while driving in Brooklyn back when the towers still stood, that in certain areas you could only see the tops of the towers in the distance, and that they did look like stumps, at least compared to how tall you knew they really were. Now, a new tower like a young sapling or, some might say, a slender headstone, rises above the urban gravesite where those towers once stood.
Every generation has its "Where were you when...?" moment. These are the moments that happen, usually tragic or devastating in nature, that have the potential to change lives and cause far-reaching effects that create and even transcend history.
For my parents' generation, December 7th, 1941, the day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, was one of those moments in history that changed everything. That day determined how many young men would spend the next four years of their lives, and it also sent many of those young men to their deaths. We will never know what contributions to society those men might have made had they not been compelled to go to war to defend their country, but that day and their actions following that day certainly helped reorder a world and even remake it.
For many, that day came on November 22nd, 1963. People around the United States, and even around the world, stood aghast, and even wept, as the incredible and almost unbelievable news reverberated around the world - the president of the United States had been gunned down in Dallas. We will never know what John F. Kennedy would have done in his fourth year of his presidency, nor if he would have won a second term. But his death ushered in Lyndon Johnson's presidency, which created a new era of civil rights and government responsibility, and an escalation of a war that sent many young men to their deaths and scarred many others.
I thought that my "Where were you when...?" moment was going to be November 10, 1989. I remember listening almost without comprehension as East Germany opened its checkpoints and thousands of East Berliners and West Berliners danced together on top of the Berlin Wall. This symbol of the Cold War, which had stood for almost 50 years during a conflict that I thought would never end in my lifetime, crumbled overnight. For a moment, in the new era that followed, many hoped that the threat of a nuclear war that lingered over everything and everyone had, if not dissipated, then at least taken a step back in favor of democracy and world cooperation.
However, the positive forces unleashed that day also set other forces in motion that reached an apex in the events of September 11, 2001. That date will stand as this generation's "Where were you when...?" moment. As a political scientist, I see the train of events that link November 10, 1989 and September 11, 2001, so for me it is almost as if my generational marker spanned the nearly 12 years in between. Nations that had been under the thumb of communist governments suddenly began to move toward democracy, which allowed simmering conflicts to rise to the surface, which fostered the rise of transnational groups bent on overthrowing the world order. Of these groups, one with a fundamentally radical pan-Islamic philosophy began planning what would be the most symbolically and literally destructive moment in United States history.
That moment, when the United States was spearheading a global market and trade regime that it planned to lead, and which was symbolized in the Twin Towers, once again altered history. At the time, I was working on my PhD and teaching classes at the University of New Orleans. I remember hearing on the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and thinking that it was a small plane. I then heard that another hit, and turned on the television to scenes of destruction caused by "low-flying jumbos" that are seared into the memory of, possibly, a majority of the earth's current inhabitants in one way or another. I remember having to calm a student who called me. She was afraid that, in the new and dangerous world that suddenly revealed itself to be lurking within America's post-Cold War confidence (and perhaps arrogance), she would become another victim of terrorists while driving to school.
I often wonder how my life changed after that horrific day. That was a day in which thousands of men and women calmly went to work or boarded an airplane, not realizing it would be their last commute, their last trip, their last moments on earth. American self-assurance was shattered, our confidence in its ability to protect ourselves was compromised, and worst of all, our hopefulness in the future was lost. While, as in any disaster, the best of our natures came forward and heroes and martyrs were and still are justifiably celebrated, the events of September 11th also brought forth the worst of our natures as well, including fear, racism and a tendency toward the reactionary. In the wake of the disaster, the sorrow and support of the whole world was evident in the thousands of gatherings and demonstrations, the most poignant example of which were the signs in many other countries proclaiming "We are all Americans."
I felt that we wasted the the opportunity, born out of tragedy, that was given to us. In individuals such as myself, as well as the larger population, a re-evaluation of what was important occurred. Some moved toward a focus on protection and security. Others focused on the actions of our country and how our foreign policies over the years and decades could have culminated in the disaster. Some held the United States blameless, and others held the US and its policies and practices around the world wholly to blame. The US became preemptive, and started two wars from which it is only beginning to disentangle itself. Even in death Osama bin Laden is still a political issue.
For me, I realized that the charade of a peaceful world was gone in the complexity of the forces surging within it. But, I also realized that the forces and motivations of people were also too complex to be generalized. I couldn't hold one person, movement or country responsible. I began to see, for example, that Islam was very complex and that it was too easy to brand it as a religion of terrorists and fanatics. Instead, I wondered how we had simultaneously ignored that aspect of Islam while taking for granted the more moderate forces that were quite willing to work with us and had even warned us.
But most of all, the loss of those Twin Towers reminded me that nothing - absolutely nothing - is certain. We get up in the morning and expect our day to go as usual. We head to work, we spend eight hours there, we head home. We do our evening activities and go to bed and expect much the same to happen the next day. Until an event that impacts our lives, like that on September 11th, 2001 or any other date where the continuing human drama surprises us with an act of tragedy, reminds us just how fragile and unpredictable our lives can be.
I was going to leave this space for a moment of silence. However, one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard is Terence Blanchard's Funeral Dirge, written for his post-Katrina album A Tale of God's Will. I left New Orleans a year before Katrina, and didn't experience that life- and history-altering event but I think that Blanchard's dirge captures so much about the loss, pain, hope and emotion brought about by tragedy.
If you want to know more about Brooklyn
There is so much to Brooklyn, I'm sorry I can't write more about it. But, visit Brooklyn! It's a wonderful place.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce
Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online (newspaper)
Eat It: The Brooklyn Food Blog
Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn
Wikipedia: List of Brooklyn Neighborhoods
Next up: Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, New York