This week I read what will surely be the first of many 10th anniversary retrospectives on the September 11th attacks. It was in Reason magazine, and the author tried to answer the question of why art failed us in finding meaning in the attacks. It was a good article with a bad conclusion — art failed us because we shouldn’t be forced to find sense in the senseless. This is a tempting conclusion to draw, partly because it is an easy one in that it suggests there is no intellectual task left to complete regarding 9/11. That feels like a cop-out to me.
Surely the avalanche of 9/11 retrospectives over the coming months will attempt to tie a bow around the event so that we can finally put it to bed. Most of them will try to do this in two ways. 1) By inundating us with the most heart-wrenching stories and nightmarish images of that day (the thought of watching those unwilling suicides unfolding in mid-air is awful to recall), and 2) by attempting to articulate a “meaning” for the event.
The article in Reason elected to suggest that 9/11 doesn’t have a meaning, which is ridiculous. Even senseless events have a density, a significance. In fact, especially senseless events have special meaning. My guess is that most of the retrospectives to come won’t take the Reason route — they will try to comfort us with a lesson, a theme, a cause, an effect. That too, is unfortunate.
I see 9/11 as one of the few truly world historical events of the last two centuries or so. There are only a few other events that can compete with its importance in the life of human beings on Earth: the dropping of the first atomic bomb on a populated city, man walks on the moon. The baby boomers habitually compare JFK’s assassination with 9/11. JFK’s murder is a footnote in comparison. 9/11 will have incomprehensible ramifications for geopolitics and occidental life for decades and decades. That is why we can’t YET assign 9/11 a “meaning” — not because there isn’t a meaning, not because it has many meanings, but because we don’t yet truly understand how it has changed us.
That recognition that history takes longer to unfold than we want it to is an idea that is familiar to many political conservatives. You can’t force the ends, even ones that we have a profound longing for. People of my generation will likely need to live their entire lives without understanding the meaning of 9/11, at least in the sense that the 10th anniversary enthusiasts want to understand it. There is a lesson here: there is a wisdom and ethics to being patient with history.
I woke up on 9/11 in Rochester NY. My girlfriend had just left me and I was very sad. The first plane hit while I was in my car driving to work. I remember my initially optimistic naivete — it must have been an accident. We worked the entire day that day, listening for the occasional fighter jet to fly overhead. We listened to the radio. I went home that night and got very drunk by myself in my apartment, watching the news, listening to OK Computer. I went to bed thinking about what it meant. That night I had one of the worst nightmares in my life:
It was a dark night and I was in an abandoned city. I knew that something bad was happening somewhere and I was trying to find it and stop it. I walked into an empty skyscraper and wandered for a while, looking through the halls and rooms. None of the lights worked — the moonlight shined in the windows. Finally, I heard something down the hall, some kind of cackle. I walked down, and streaming out of the door of one room was a line of patient, quiet bewildered children. The line was slowly filtering into the room. I cut through the line to enter the room. I saw what was going on as soon as I entered the room, but it took me many moments to process it: an evil looking laughing man with translucent skin by an open window, laughing as he tossed child after child out the window to their deaths below. I woke up in a sweat.