On the last morning of free America

A repost from the old CWRU blog, so that maybe I’ll find it next year. This was written on the 5th anniversary.

I got to work just before 8:30, as usual, opened up the library, got my email and dealt with it, opened Netscape, around 9…and there on the home page was something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. Shrug. Tragedies happen all the time, and I don’t pay much attention to them. A few people die, life goes on. Some drunk or crazy private pilot, probably. I didn’t click on the headline; I did whatever I’d opened the browser for.

I don’t recall who called first, whether it was my girlfriend (now wife) Rusty, or Mary Burns from Special Collections (who I think had the day off). But they both let me know that this was not your typical tragedy, that something very big was happening. And I wanted to know more. So I hit the Net, just like every other person in every other office in America. And I learned that broadband avails not when every news server in the country is being bombarded. Web sites took hours to load, or so it seemed. So I tried broadcast. No TV in Kulas (we had a straight video monitor for tapes and DVDs). We had a room full of receivers, but none had antennas, and none brought in anything but static. Mary and Rusty kept calling, people coming through to the music department were pumped for details and provided with what I had. I’m a librarian, damnit, let me do my job of transmitting information. Work keeps me sane. Yes, I’ll show you how to find Rite of Spring, if you really care today. Nobody did.

German class at 11:30, was it? And that bastard Benseler dropped the lesson plan and had us talking about it, in English yet. Nein. Fick das. Ich kann die Wörter für dies auf Englisch kaum finden. Wie schwerer konnte es auf Deutsch sein? Lass uns über Flugzeuge und grosse Gebaüde reden, ja, selbst über das Turkenproblem (and I note that my old German-English dictionary has no entries for Moslems or Islam). Es klingt ferner, wie Dresden oder Auschwitz oder der Heimatssicherheitsdienst (Ach! Das war nicht in der Vergangenheit, sondern in der Zukunft.)

Shortly thereafter, the University sent us all home. And the RTA made us leave the Rapid at E. 34th, to get on busses to sit on Public Square forever so that, in that hypothetical moment when the plane hit the Terminal Tower, only half of it would fall on our heads. And finally home, to the deafening silence of an nearby airport with no planes (and the stark terror three days later when I heard the first one fly over), to the TV that I couldn’t watch and couldn’t turn off.

In days after, I checked friends in NYC. The composer Jeff Harrington saw the smoke from his office. My old love Beth Marker was working as a toxicologist for NYC, and was stressed. As I later learned, baritone Stephen Poulos, a schoolmate at University of Michigan (though I didn’t know him) had decided there was more money in computers than in singing, and was in one of the towers.

It hasn’t happened again. Does this mean the government has done a good job? I haven’t flown since then either, since I don’t care to be treated as a criminal. On 9/10/01, we weren’t discussing NAIS, or Real ID, or a hundred other assaults on liberty only tangentially connected to radicals hot for their 72 Virginians. It was the day that we as a culture learned how to fear, and we ran towards anything that would promise safety. Judged by that, it was the most successful terrorist act in history.

My colleague Mano Singham sees all the commemoration as false sentimentality. Not here. I don’t, can’t in any real sense mourn 3000 people I never knew. The only difference between them and any other random sample of people is that they died earlier and more unpleasantly. I mourn the free country I grew up in, freedom that has been going downhill for years but which was given a good kick downward 5 years ago today.


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