Tuesday, August 24, 2010
I think it was the summer before I graduated high school, which makes it 1975. My mom and I drove southward from where we lived in Connecticut to visit a dizzying chain of historical sites and memorials. I was big into history, and we, like many at the time, had a distracting light case of bicentennial fever as we tried not to look too hard at the utter idiot then occupying the White House. We went to all sorts of Revolutionary War and Civil War sites: battlefields, museums, you name it. I think this snapshot was taken at Gettysburg. I haven't been back there in the 35 years since, but I remember an endless expanse of fields, hot and humid and buzzing with insects, punctuated with stone walls and corn. There was a huge indoor mural and a scale model of the battlefield, and cannons were set up at various spots, as though the soldiers manning them had just that moment wandered away from their posts.
It really brought Gettysburg home to me; to picture the humanity rushing at each other with lethal intent; the bullets and cannonballs and limbs and blood flying, and on such a vast scale. They don't fight wars like that anymore. As much as I hate war, and hate the culture that excuses it as some kind of ugly necessity, I have to say of all the murderous exercises in wasting life that I have studied, the American Civil War comes closest to being the exception to prove the rule. How lucky we are to live in an America where the side that won were the ones who wore blue and not gray.
I'm glad Gettysburg is still there. It's important to remember what was defended there. It's not the unity of this country that resonates emotionally to me, but the destruction of that confederate nation built on the backs of slaves. Now that was a worthy cause, and I hope they keep Gettysburg like it is as testament to the thousands and thousands of men who died fighting for that victory.
I lived in New York City in 2001. I saw what happened on that beautiful September morning. I didn't see planes crash or bodies falling, but I saw smoke and flames, and witnessed the world we live in change forever. I went downtown to peer at the smoking ruins once a week or two later when they started letting people go back down there. For weeks and weeks you could see the plume of smoke from my bathroom window where previously you could see the towers, but this was while actual standing ruins were still there and I wanted to get closer. There were barricades and fences and black-clad soldiers or police or something with machine guns everywhere...I'm not sure who the guns were meant for; I didn't see any terrorists about. My friend had brought along a coworker in from out of state. "I'm so proud of Our Military and Our President," she pronounced. I wanted to vomit. And having just spent a week crying I realized I didn't actually want to look at the ruins too closely. I felt like I was looking at something I shouldn't be seeing.
When I went back to that neighborhood for other reasons in the months and years that followed, I would avert my eyes from the pit and the fence around it. I didn't want to see what wasn't there. To my disgust I would see tourists posing for snapshots in front of the pit. A young couple, smiling, posing. Families. And you could buy bizarre souvenirs, ranging from full color atrocity porn to little snowglobes with tiny firetrucks surrounding little model burning towers, with sprinkles like ash floating around in the water inside the glass domes. And eventually I listened and watched as Bush used the occasion...to attack a country that had nothing to do with that place and the tragedy there, emotionally manipulating an entire nation and profaning that spot forever.
While this is a big city, it's not so big that we can rope it all off leave it like Gettysburg. Life goes on here. There's a really comfy movie theater a half block from the pit and the discount department store right across the street from it still has great cheap shoes. We New Yorkers we just walk by, doing what we have to do to live our lives here, averting our eyes when necessary. The subway line I take to work runs right by the site, and for years now there have always been clusters of tourists heading there on my train. To see nothing, no more smoking ruin, no crumpled bodies or piles of ash, just a big hole in the ground. They would puzzle over the subway maps and ask stupid questions like "Does this train go to 911?" I guess I'm immune to them now but for years I wanted to shout at them. "It's not there any more!" I wanted to shake each one of them and demand to know if they had voted for Bush. Go away! This is not the place for you.
I haven't been by it in some months but I understand that there are now, nine years later, visible structures rising from the pit. While I sure wouldn't ever want to work in the new World Trade Center building, I guess I'm happy that something's being done. There should be a memorial there, there was a terrible tragedy and the friends and relatives of 2,700 or so people deserve a place to mourn. And I'm glad they've dispensed with the abomination of a name "freedom tower" for the new building. The greedy real estate developers are all still trying to figure out how that pit's going to keep them rich: for them it's a money pit, not hallowed ground.
And now so many years later so many other people have died. So much about our way of life has changed and gone. I still see black clad uniformed men with machine guns in the subways. Seven stupid years of war in Iraq, and nine stupid years of war in Afghanistan; millions of innocent Iraqis and Afghans mourning just like millions of New Yorkers and just as psychically damaged; millions of Iraqis and Afghans associating "terrorist bombing" with the United States and its callously murdering contractor hordes and silent inhuman predator drones and its shock and awe and manipulative self-righteousness. And a whole lot more than 2,700 lives cut short. If you listen you can hear them shout: "Go away! This is not the place for you!"
This past Sunday, in a rain storm, the site was again profaned. Not by Muslims who want to go ahead with their lives and build a community center at the abandoned storefront a couple blocks away that they've been using for years, but by monstrous bigots protesting that center. I heard a radio report: the woman interviewed was described as waving an Israeli flag. She was, and I am careful to rarely use this word, hysterical. Practically weeping she was ranting about how horrible it was that the Muslims were coming to bring Shariah law and a terrorist recruiting center to lower Manhattan and such a hallowed place. She was so filled with hatred and fear you could hear her body shaking at the terrible lies that filled her head. I saw a video of the event: a dark-skinned Puerto Rican man wearing an apparently un-American looking hat is threatened and bullied out of the rally by a lot of menacing white people. Three women in sunglasses make sure to stay in camera shot with signs saying the Mosque Supports Hamas. These are the people who voted for Bush. These are the ones who are prostituting the memory of a tragedy for a corrupt political cause. These are the hate-filled ignorant bigots, brothers under the skin with a bunch of terrorists who flew planes into buildings.
Again, I'm remembering it all. I want to rush up to these people and say, Go Away. This place is not for you.