I sat down to write about 9/11 and this is what happened.
It’s the eighth anniversary of 9/11, and it’s my fervent wish that when I open my laptop tomorrow I’m spared the rhetoric of it as “the tragedy of 9/11″.
To be sure, our stories about 9/11 are tragedies, in the Aristotelian sense:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.
(Poetics, Part 6)
But in today’s vernacular, a tragedy is something different. It’s impersonal; free of malice. It is a hurricane, an earthquake, a massive landslide that buries a school and kills hundreds of children.
Our 9/11 was not one of those things. The buildings did not fall because of designer’s error or nature’s caprice. Human malice brought them down and murdered the people who died that day.
And that’s the striking thing about 9/11. To me (to many, I believe) Pearl Harbor or the Blitz are more understandable. The movement from international contention to conflict seems a part of our history that makes sense, and we can look at the actors today – at a Von Braun or a Yamamoto – with the emotion of the moment faded away – and see in them something we understand and maybe even admire. After the war, we could have a drink. At Christmas, we could call a truce and play soccer. They were injurious, but not malevolent. And yes, I know about the racist propaganda and actions at the time – I’m talking about looking back; I cannot imagine a world in which a Clint Eastwood makes a respectful film about the torture chambers of Fallujah.
And to a large extent, that was the world of 9/10, a world in which many of us felt that people’s actions were injurious, but not malevolent.
But there is something about 9/11 that reeks to me still of malice and evil. There’s something Mansonesque about it, something that reminds us that we live in a world where some snarks are boojums. That some people kill because it just somehow makes sense of their lives and it plain feels good.
I think that’s the division in my friends here in America today; between those who see the world as one where malice can crush you to your component atoms in one unspeakably terrifying moment, and one where motivations are understandable, rationalizable, ultimately negotiatible.
I think that my friends to the right of me on this issue see the world in terms of vast malevolence; I think my friends on the left refuse to see it as anything significant.
I sometimes do both, which I deeply believe is accurate – it reflects how the world really is. And yet I do envy the clarity of my friends on both sides.
Why do lions eat zebras? Stephen Pastis, in his comic “Pearls before Swine” has the zebras write an aggrieved note to the lions, asking them the root of their hostility. The lions replied “…because you taste good.“
And then I think about my man Jules Winfield, Samuel Jackson in ‘Pulp Fiction’ who leaves the film saying “But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.“
…and I somehow have hope that we can all become shepherds. That we spend today thinking about how hard it is to do so, and how worthwhile.