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September 11, 2010

Two Americas

I spent Wednesday afternoon at Nationals Park watching my home town team play baseball.

It was one of those impossibly idyllic days you only get in September. Here in DC we look forward to them all year; look forward to a break from the heat and humidity, to warm days punctuated by cool breezes that lift our hair along with our spirits; to golden moments perfectly suspended between endless summer and the gloom of approaching winter. My firm was having a Team Building event and so - though I have little in common with the sales staff besides working for the same company - I gamely joined them in the pursuit of something that seems to hover just out of our reach these days: unity of identity and purpose.

The home team lost, but somehow even that didn't matter. It was a beautiful September day and we were full to the brim with hot dogs and beer and happiness; united for a moment by the glorious feeling of playing hooky from the responsibilities that awaited us back at the office.

Perfection, ephemeral as an Indian summer afternoon.

On the way back reality, held at bay by those ballpark gates and the tantalizing possibility of extra innings, began its relentless assault on our senses. Route 66 might as well have been a parking lot. Jokes gradually gave way to silence as we pulled out our cellphones, checked messages and email and mentally braced ourselves for the shock of re-entry.

That's when it happened. Someone said, "I can't believe it will be nine years this week since 9/11". And one by one we began to remember where we were, what we were doing, how it felt. It was this generation's "Where were you when they shot JFK?" moment and for a brief shining moment the shared memory pulled us back from the brink and made us one again.

But like everything that seems impossibly perfect, that moment wasn't meant to last.

Remind any group of Americans about 9/11 and for a moment we'll put aside our differences, put aside our disparate values and priorities. For a moment - but only for a moment - everything else is burned away by the searing memory of the mutual shock and loss and disbelief that gripped us: Republicans, small L libertarians and Democrats alike. For an instant all of that will be forgotten as we remember what's important: that somehow, despite the thousand threats to our security and peace of mind; despite madmen who strap bombs to their chests, zealots with box cutters, and idiots who burn Korans, we are alive.

This week, on the ninth anniversary of that awful day John Edwards' Two Americas stand side by side, an eerie memorial to those vanished Twin Towers. They have long since crumbled into dust, their twisted girders repurposed and reforged into an enduring symbol of American strength and resolve.

Or at least that is how one of the two Americas sees it. That America sees the last flickers of the defiant spirit, the resourcefulness and ingenuity that built this country. It is reassured and reaffirmed by the visible reminder that we still produce leaders who make hard decisions and accept the consequences. This America attributes our current security to our willingness to defend ourselves; to men and women who have given up that most precious of commodities - time with loved ones, or even their very lives - to ensure that no more brilliant autumn mornings will be rocked by unexpected bolts from the blue.

The other America sees hate, paranoia, a foolish overreaction to a minor threat. That America wants to move on already. It is weary of war and its discontents and suspicious of American exceptionalism. It only wants to be left in peace, citing the absence of a follow on attack as proof that (had we only possessed the surety that comes with 20/20 hindsight) we could have reacted differently but achieved essentially the same results. Bin Laden would not have tried again. He would have slunk back to the far reaches of Pakistan to lick his non-existent wounds, or been captured. Somehow they know this. Saddam would not, as he did during the 1990s, once again send an invading army over the border to attack his neighbors. He would not use chemical weapons on his own people. He would give up his nuclear aspirations and cease funding acts of terrorism. He would bow to the will of the global community and meekly allow arms inspectors full access. The leopard would change his spots.

Which of these two Americas is right? Who are we, really? The truth is that we cannot know what future would have followed the path not taken. Nine years after 9/11 we would like clarity. We would like closure. But we will not have either of these things. Certainty is a dream - as much a dream as the illusion of invulnerability that united us until 8:46 a.m. Eastern time nine years ago.

We cannot rewrite the past; cannot shape a happier ending for the story that began nearly a decade ago. What we can do, is remember:

In St. Augustine, Dan Hill was laying tile in his upstairs bathroom when his wife called, "Dan, get down here! An airplane just flew into the World Trade Center. It's a terrible accident." Hill hurried downstairs, and then the phone rang. It was Rescorla, calling from his cell phone.

"Are you watching TV?" he asked. "What do you think?"

"Hard to tell. It could have been an accident, but I can't see a commercial airliner getting that far off."

"I'm evacuating right now," Rescorla said.

Hill could hear Rescorla issuing orders through the bullhorn. He was calm and collected, never raising his voice. Then Hill heard him break into song:

Men of Cornwall stop your dreaming;
Can't you see their spearpoints gleaming?
See their warriors' pennants streaming
To this battlefield.
Men of Cornwall stand ye steady;
It cannot be ever said ye
for the battle were not ready;
Stand and never yield!

Rescorla came back on the phone. "Pack a bag and get up here," he said. "You can be my consultant again." He added that the Port Authority was telling him not to evacuate and to order people to stay at their desks.

"What'd you say?" Hill asked.

"I said, 'Piss off, you son of a bitch,' " Rescorla replied. "Everything above where that plane hit is going to collapse, and it's going to take the whole building with it. I'm getting my people the fuck out of here." Then he said, "I got to go. Get your shit in one basket and get ready to come up."

Hill turned back to the TV and, within minutes, saw the second plane execute a sharp left turn and plunge into the south tower. Susan saw it, too, and frantically phoned her husband's office. No one answered.

About fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. It was Rick. She burst into tears and couldn't talk.

"Stop crying," he told her. "I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I've never been happier. You made my life."

If we are to remember on this day then we should remember all of it, without flinching and without prettying up the messy parts.

Nine years into this war on Islamic extremism we hear a lot about lives destroyed by war. We hear of shattered limbs and broken minds; of suicides, despair, and shadowy figures living under bridges because they can't ever, truly, return from war. The America they left no longer exists for them.

And the hell of it is that all of this is true. Every painful, stinking bit. But it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that the horrors of war rend and tear at our spirits but they also stiffen our spines and harden our resolve. War gives us back broken children, husbands, wives but also survivors who emerge stronger than ever from the crucible of war. Heroes like Rick Rescorla - a man who, for over a decade, kept watch over the workers at the World Trade Center against an enemy no one else took seriously.

And without men like Rick - without men hardened by horrors most of us cannot imagine even in our worst nightmares - a lot more than 3000 people would have died. Up to 2600 more, by some counts.

Sitting there in that van on Route 66, it wasn't the morning of September 11th that I remembered.

It was a moment that occurred at dusk several weeks later. I've forgotten the exact date now. I was alone - living at my mother in law's empty house in Arlington as I waited for our retirement home to be completed in western Maryland. My husband, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel at the time, was on duty at the Pentagon; one of a skeleton staff still manning its silent halls filled with the acrid scent of smoke. I smelled it on him every dawn when he slipped into bed beside me, moments before my alarm went off.

I got home from work late (as usual) and hurried around the unfamiliar house searching for candles, matches, a sweater to protect me from the autumn chill. And precisely at sunset I gathered these things and went out onto the flagstone patio. Although I could not see them, nearly every door on the silent suburban street was filled with mothers, fathers, children crowding into cramped doorframes. I couldn't see them, but I felt their presence.

And as the sun slipped slowly out of sight on the horizon, tiny flames lit up the autumn dusk like fireflies. For a moment - one, golden moment - the two Americas were united in grief and loss and anger. And the world grieved with us.

It didn't last, but then such moments aren't meant to last. With the dawn the two Americas parted again, standing side by side like those Twin Towers. We desperately want there to be only one, but that is not the America we know. America was born in revolution and dissent and baptized by years of bitter war and violent enmity. America is the product of a clash of ideas - rich, landed gentry who distrusted the passions of the common people and firebrands who envisioned a people whose ardent love of liberty would no more countenance the tyranny of home grown despots than they would the rule of a foreign power.

America embodies the tension between liberty and responsibility and the truth is that we need both if we are to remain a free and prosperous people. In a way, those Twin Towers were a more apt symbol than we knew.

They are gone. Only we remain. We, the people of the United States of America with all our differences, arguments and competing visions. It is the from clash between these visions, and not from some illusive dream of unity, that we will form that more perfect union our forebears envisioned.

The land of the free, made possible by the brave.


Greta and friends: Nine Years Later.

Miss Ladybug: I Remember

Cdr. Salamander: As It Started

Grim posts a poem written on 9/11.

A different kind of remembrance.

The folks at Blackfive have several tributes, all wonderful. Just keep scrolling.

"We will not tire. We will not falter. And we will not fail".

A Friendship Born in Fire.

Retriever fights anger with Scripture.

RightNetwork has a whole slew of essays. One stop shopping.

Over at Mudville, time lapse history.

Posted by Cassandra at September 11, 2010 08:17 AM

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The tripartite America. Partitioned by blood as well as belief.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 11, 2010 10:25 AM

Wonderful thoughts, Cass--as always, thank you.

Posted by: Rick at September 11, 2010 01:15 PM

"You see, for Rick Rescorla, this was a natural death. People like Rick, they don't die old men. They aren't destined for that and it isn't right for them to do so. It just isn't right, by God, for them to become feeble, old, and helpless sons of bitches. There are certain men born in this world, and they're supposed to die setting an example for the rest of the weak bastards we're surrounded with." - Dan Hill

Rick Rescorla, Ronnie Bucca, Sgt Jeffery Smith, Jason Dunham, and so many more valorous men who have given the last full measure of devotion that we may live in peace and freedom.
I don't know if there is one America, or two, or whatever. You can't coerce really free people to think one way, no matter how right your cause may be.

I only know that we can't forget. I won't forget. It's not so much that the United States is going to "fade away", it's just that the Vichy Americans just want to get on with their lives, "the rest of the weak bastards we're surrounded with" as Dan Hill would call them, want to put it all behind us. We "over-reacted", we did too much. As Rick Rescorla was forbidden by the Port Authority from evacuating the folks at Dean Witter who were his responsibility (he got them out anyways), so too are we "forbidden" from thinking the thoughts that free men should think about their past, future and their posterity.

America, as other countries have in the past, changes over time. We will become more one thing than another, and I'm really not sure what it is that we will become. More Code Pink or more Freedom Riders? More Federalist or more centralized statism?
It's all up to us. And it's up to us to remember, and not let the memory of these times fade on a Saturday afternoon drenched in college football.
Because I really don't want us to become a nation of weak bastards whining in the dark, afraid of our own shadows.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at September 11, 2010 01:22 PM

It's all up to us. And it's up to us to remember, and not let the memory of these times fade on a Saturday afternoon drenched in college football. Because I really don't want us to become a nation of weak bastards whining in the dark, afraid of our own shadows.

Amen, Don.

And thank you, gentlemen.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 11, 2010 01:28 PM

Every anniversary of 9/11, I read "Heart of a Soldier" again. This is what duty is all about. The effete left has no idea of the threats that are deflected every day by people like Rescorla.

Posted by: Mike_K at September 11, 2010 03:22 PM

Transparency is very important strategically.

Without transparency, people can be easily fooled into believing Democrats cared whether troops got the proper body armor protection. This can lead individual Americans to provide resources to an enemy that they thought was an ally, which hampers the war effort and prolongs the zone of danger and injury to US soldiers, rather than shortens it by mitigating threats.

But knowing how a con was done, doesn't prevent future cons from working. It's not enough to know that people are attempting to accrue political capital by playing up an issue when it benefits them and downplaying it (like in today's Afghanistan) when it doesn't benefit them.

Transparency solves this problem, as all evil and shadow players like the darkness to cover up their real intentions. Sooner or later, if you shine the light bright and hard enough, the inner most depths to their intentions and goals will be clear. But it takes time and work. Most people are satisfied with a superficial excuse or explanation. That won't work to get to the goods.

People need full and clear information so that they can make decisions. Decisions on whether they should support more body armor money now, even though this will lead to Democrats flipping more troops/less troops and then defunding the military in post 2008 November. If that's what the Americans want to go for, because they think it benefits them personally or something, they should be free to go for it. But they also must not be under the delusion that they are doing something else. They need to be clear and transparent on the consequences. Not in lalaland.

Human mental defenses have become a liability, when so many choices today are long term rather than short term survival esque forks in the road. It's hard to reflect back or even get an accurate feedback of the consequences.

Stick your hand in a fire and the consequences become very clear and transparent. Stick somebody else's hand in a fire and the consequences are also very clear, if not quite as transparent given human communication interlocks.

Giving terrorists a check for 50 dollars which leads to the terrorists having enough resources to stick somebody's hand in a fire to torture them for information on who aids Americans in this village, which then leads to the night time execution of said villagers, may not be so clear. It's easy to deny it. It's easy to be deluded by happy thoughts.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 12, 2010 03:03 PM

Grim mentioned a exclusion policy based upon virtue, to inform society on who can adequately judge between good/evil, right/wing, truth/falsity.

The execution, however, runs into human fallibility in determining the details of execution.

It's always back to principle and institutions. Creating a balance of power, such that one can call the balance an institution, organic and self-supporting beyond the usual entropic limits on human organizations. Regardless of what you call it, humans need organization and institutions to tell them who is boss. Even in a democracy, which is why we have an oligarchy in power, not so much a republic or democracy.

People usually ignore this as institutions and principles of governance are too long ranged strategically to matter to people staring at immediate life issues. They have no interest in such, usually. That's because nobody informs them on it impacts their life. For it does impact their life. Whether ruled by king or senate, it affects their life. But they are kept ignorant, on purpose. It serves totalitarian principles to keep people in the dark and dependent upon the "educated" for the truth.

Just as there are principles and institutions to creating and maintaining a society of free individuals, so there are principles and institutions to creating and maintaining totalitarian systems of absolute slavery.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 12, 2010 03:11 PM

On to the subsequent issue. How do you pass on down the knowledge required to emulate both systems found in human history, those centered around liberty and security and those centered around security and slavery?

It may be enough to simply teach the Light side of things, but eventually people have to learn about the Darkness as well, to understand what the point of it all is.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 12, 2010 03:16 PM

I liked the reference to the 'Vichy' in France as it applies to dreamy, Hope and Change Americans. Pretty to think that by organizing a hands across here, there or somewhere, swaying to a "We are the World" utopian dream of coming together and expecting an "aw shucks" from the resident evil du jour is shameful. Not the least because it assumes that history was meant for someone else and does not apply to our current conflict or enlightened elites. No need to learn from France's failure or Britain's Chamberlain.

Never forget the horror and the apt discription of the Hindenburg disaster "OH THE HUMANITY" as it ressurects itself in the jumpers off the WTC. It is impossible to not digest the sober horror of these souls who chose one type of death over another. Sometimes holding hands in the duality of life and death choosing the abyss over the inferno. Or piloting a hijacked plane into the ground with a resident evil whose last words heard was "Here they come" and "Let's roll."

"Darkness At Noon" haunts many of us to this day whether in the bowels of Lubyanka or a jungle where the buzz of insects stops to be replaced by the click of a safety on a weapon in the darkness, too many don't want "to understand what the point of it all is."

Never forget!

Posted by: vet66 at September 12, 2010 08:02 PM

"Nine years into this war on Islamic extremism..."

If only the People In Chargeā„¢ could state it so simply.

Posted by: camojack at September 13, 2010 01:38 AM

Some days I wonder which I am less worthy of:
God's love or being born an American

Posted by: tomg51 at September 13, 2010 08:52 AM