Sunday, September 11, 2011

The "Thelma and Louise" of 9/11

Every time I watch a movie that shows the New York skyline before the attacks of September 11, 2001, I gasp a little.  Sometimes I tear up, other times I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach – again.  I don’t often consciously think about that day and its awful myriad of consequences.  But when I see an image of the old skyline, with what now look like magnificent giant rectangles (buildings that prior to 9/11 I frankly thought were an ugly, charmless, over-the-top eyesore), all the shock and sadness come rushing back.  I’m an American and a New Yorker and far from immune to the feeling and memory of that horror.

Much has happened in the ten years since.  In part, I feel as Dick Cavett described in his New York Times column on 9/9/11: “Have you, perchance, decided — as I have — not to spend the weekend re-wallowing in 9/11 with the media?”  Yet I also believe that 9/11 should not be forgotten, and that we still have much to learn and understand about that event.

So the bells and bagpipes ring hollow when I consider that “ground zero” remained a gaping hole in the ground for nearly a decade before a fitting memorial was constructed/landscaped, and an inexplicably taller, larger, monstrosity was erected in place of the original monoliths.  (Think what might have been a better use of that land – a new Museum of American History, or a new SUNY or CUNY school.  But that wouldn’t have been “commercially viable.”  That downtown land is too valuable to squander on education, beauty and fresh air!)

What I think of most these days when I do ponder 9/11 is the unconscionable treatment of the First Responders and clean-up volunteers.  In many instances, their courage and generosity have been rewarded with serious illness, but their right to financial compensation and the very best health care that they shouldn’t have to pay a nickel for is consistently questioned and frequently denied.

It’s the same mistreatment of those we also hail as heroes with the “We Support the Troops” crap: flags and parades and medals, but young men and women being routinely sent into harm’s way without proper/necessary equipment of many kinds; being subjected to numerous tours (three, four and more) instead of the traditional one or two; being paid so little that thousands of military families live in sub-standard housing and require Welfare and food stamps; and when they return, being subjected to poor or no health care and unwarranted scrutiny of the “cause” of their injuries!

Very few 9/11 First Responders and volunteers will be part of official tenth anniversary ceremonies today, an insult that speaks (screams) for itself.

I also think of that famous quote: “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither liberty nor security” (variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine).  So when I think of 9/11 now, ten years later, I think of the Patriot Act, a brutal attack on civil rights and legal procedure that citizens have accepted without question in the name of security, just as we accept the imposition of airport and other security measures that appear to do little more than continually close the proverbial barn door.  Perhaps our two most traumatic responses have been our loss of innocence and sense of safety, and, the terror of being violated in a way that the mainland of America has never been violated before.

The 1991 film Thelma and Louise came to mind within the last couple of weeks in regard to another matter.  Then the film “just happened” to be on TV last night and I began thinking about it in relation to 9/11.  Since the movie is 20 years old, I won’t consider myself a “spoiler” if I recap the essence of the story.

Thelma, an obedient, ditzy little housewife and Louise, a capable and emotionally scarred waitress, set off for a weekend vacation in the mountains.  For Thelma, their stop at a honky-tonk bar leads to too much drinking, a little suggestive dancing, and an attempted rape by a nasty good-ole-boy in the parking lot.  For Louise, armed with her friend’s gun, it leads to a flashback of being raped herself, a verbal altercation with the attempted rapist, and her shooting him dead.

From that moment on, these two ordinary little gals from Arkansas zoom through a series of new incarnations – from frightened victims to brazen criminals to avenging Amazon warriors.  They shed their feminine propriety for a “macha” kind of chutzpa and discover a comfortable new wildness in themselves.

Even before they’re surrounded by an army of police, they acknowledge their transformation to each other.  “I can’t go back,” says Thelma, “something’s crossed over in me.  I just couldn’t live.”  “I know what you mean,” answers Louise.  So by the time they’re cornered fugitives, they would sooner die than be defiled by a system that would never have believed or helped them.  They don’t go back.  They clasp hands and drive their car over the edge of the Grand Canyon.

I think something like that happened to America and Americans after 9/11.  We lost our innocence along with the sense of safety that comes with being powerful.  First we got scared and allowed an opportunistic government to curtail our freedoms.  Then we got mad and consented by general silence to two ill-advised wars that are still raging. Then finally, we had enough.

Some of us expressed our rage and need for positive change by electing Barack Obama.  Others created the Tea Party.  We all “want our country back,” by which we mean many different things.  Hardcore conservatives want to get the black president out of the White House, not pay taxes and move back to Mayberry.  Hardcore liberals want a sane, engaged government that’s got our backs; we want justice for all and to give peace a chance.  We all want to go back to what we personally recall as the best part of the 20th century, the American century.

But we can’t go back.  Something’s crossed over in us all.

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