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September 11, 2015

From the Ashes

A repost of a 9/11 post written in 2009. In memoriam.

The Phoenix is a supernatural creature, living for 500 years. Once its life span is over, the Phoenix builds its own funeral pyre, and throws itself into the flames. As it dies, it is reborn anew, and rises from the ashes to live another 500 years. Alternatively, it lays an egg in the burning coals of the fire which hatches into a new Phoenix, and the life cycle is repeated.

The Phoenix was the symbol of the great civilization of Phoenician people who lived in the East Mediterranean around 4000 BC and invaded the whole Mediterranean area which was known as the Phoenician Sea.

- The Legend of the Phoenix

I awoke this morning to a silent house and the sound of raindrops patiently tapping the leaves outside my bedroom window. I lay nestled underneath the covers for a long time; approaching consciousness warily as though it were a sleeping dog of uncertain temper.

There is a feeling of weightlessness in the moments just before one falls asleep. It happens again just before we open our eyes in the morning. I have often wondered whether that is why I dream of flying sometimes? Lying there, eyes closed, it is almost possible to imagine the mind shaking off the dull restraints of physical existence and taking flight: unbound, unbowed, unfazed by what we think of as reality. Blessedly free, like a child contemplating an endless summer where homework is just an unpleasant memory and the dinner bell doesn't sound until the sun is low on the horizon.

I didn't want to open my eyes this morning. More than anything else I wished to remain in that twilight world where the inexorable laws of physics are momentarily suspended and anything is possible. I didn't want to acknowledge the silence that seemed to press in on me from every wall or the aching, empty place on the other side of the bed; at once a foreshadowing and a metaphor for so many other things I do not want to think about today.

Eight years down the road so many things have been written about 9/11. I suspect this partly explains why each year we grow more reluctant to drag it all back from the recesses of memory. Each anniversary finds us increasingly reluctant to paw through the memories for some new insight, some gleaming bit of sanity that will allow us to make sense of it all.

Most of us, on this day, think of loss. The loss of innocence, of safety. Of nearly 3000 souls we never had a chance to know: entire lives casually snuffed out as though they had no value. Of the sons and daughters, husbands and wives who rose up to defend all that we held so lightly before that fatal day. But most of all, of the shock of having that bouyant, almost peculiarly American sense of invincibility violently ripped away by 19 savages armed, not with assault weapons or suitcase bombs, but with box cutters.

That is all it took to penetrate our superior defenses, our 21st Century technology, our smug sense of superiority: a simple tool most of us have in our toolboxes.

Sometimes, driving along urban superhighways or over gleaming bridges with gossamer supports that arc up into the clouds, or perhaps just strolling around Manhattan as people bustle hither and yon like worker ants - each intent on tasks I can only guess at - I get the feeling we are poised on the edge of history; that this moment is fragile, precious. That this perfection we call America cannot last.

I suppose it is no great wonder, then, that on this particular morning I awoke and thought - not of 3000 lost souls, nor of the 5000-odd who followed them into the abyss - but of an ancient legend.

The Phoenix is a creature of myth and fable conjured from thoughts that dwell just below the surface; an amalgam of centuries of watching people and societies repeat the same mistakes and rediscover the same eternal truths. The story of the phoenix's glorious ascent, slow decline, fiery self-immolation and resurrection reminds us of something important: the loss, destruction, conflict, and pain we instinctively loathe and seek to avoid have a purpose. They awaken defiance and determination in our hearts. They push us out of our complacent sleep - a sleep in which we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the faint whiff of decay emanating from the glittering facade we have built for ourselves.

On 9/11 we were shaken from our sleep; forced to admit the existence of something we should have known; that abundance, freedom and technology cannot protect us from one of the oldest destructive forces known to man: simple human malice. We carry the seeds of our destruction in our own hearts. No system of government, however lofty the ideals upon which it was based, can protect us from our own failings.

It has been interesting, in the 8 years since that awful day, to watch the parade of villains frog-marched before our eyes: Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Bush/Cheney and their neocon puppetmasters, Islamic extremism, Darth Rumsfeld, the Patriot Act, the Israel lobby.

Fear itself. And the latest scary monster under the bed, the fly in the ointment of our content, the intolerable insult to our amour propre; our sense of "fairness": inequality.

What tends to get lost in the post apocalyptic hand wringing, the mourning, the incessant rounds of accusation recrimination and counter accusation, is any recognition of the truly inspiring stories that sprang from the ashes of our smug, pre-9/11 complacency. I used to wonder why we seem so reluctant to take comfort from them. I don't wonder much anymore.

Rick Rescorla, a forgotten hero from a forgotten war. A man seemingly born of another age; cast from a mould we long ago discarded for something more edgy, more relevant in a world where crisp black and white have been so often confused that all which remains are murky shades of grey.

Mark Daily, a product of New Age Orange County moral relativism who discovered clarity gazing back from the eyes of an old Iraqi man:

...not to romanticize him overmuch, but this is the boy who would not let others be bullied in school, who stuck up for his younger siblings, who was briefly a vegetarian and Green Party member because he couldn't stand cruelty to animals or to the environment, a student who loudly defended Native American rights and who challenged a MySpace neo-Nazi in an online debate in which the swastika-displaying antagonist finally admitted that he needed to rethink things. If I give the impression of a slight nerd here I do an injustice. Everything that Mark wrote was imbued with a great spirit of humor and tough-mindedness. Here's an excerpt from his "Why I Joined" statement:

Anyone who knew me before I joined knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience then consider me the exception (though there are countless like me).… Consider that there are 19 year old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics.

And here's something from one of his last letters home:

I was having a conversation with a Kurdish man in the city of Dahok (by myself and completely safe) discussing whether or not the insurgents could be viewed as "freedom fighters" or "misguided anti-capitalists." Shaking his head as I attempted to articulate what can only be described as pathetic apologetics, he cut me off and said "the difference between insurgents and American soldiers is that they get paid to take life—to murder, and you get paid to save lives." He looked at me in such a way that made me feel like he was looking through me, into all the moral insecurity that living in a free nation will instill in you. He "oversimplified" the issue, or at least that is what college professors would accuse him of doing.

Not a hero, strictly speaking. But heroic, nonetheless. And Welles Crowther, whose final hours were nearly overlooked in the orgy of navel gazing that followed the attack on the Twin Towers:

Surviving also was the story of a young man with a red bandanna over his mouth and nose who appeared out of the chaos, issuing crisp instructions, lending his strength, and guiding the injured to the stairway out. He spoke with command, but wore no official rescue gear. "Anyone who can walk," he said, "walk down the stairs. Anyone who can walk and help someone else, help. There are people here you cannot help anymore, so don't try to." The young man led first one small group of injured and then another down 17 flights of stairs to relative safety. For nine months, no one knew who he was. Last May, when an article in the New York Times recounted his heroics, he was identified as Welles Crowther '99.

Bill Krissoff, a father who followed in his son's footsteps.

James Layton, Petty Officer 3rd Class, United States Navy:

It’s a small incident in the grand scheme of things. Another Navy corpsman doing his job, working on the wounded, sometimes under fire, and dying in combat as thousands have before him have in the Pacific, in Korea, in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t know if it’s happened quite like that recently, shot dead while applying bandages to a wounded man. Maybe there will be a decoration, something to be presented to his parents to let them know his nation is grateful he did his duty and tended to a wounded Marine under fire, without regard for his own safety. Meanwhile, it’s a heart-rending tableau to imagine, the bandage wrappings and medical gear strewn about the bodies. I stared at the screen for a while and had to compose myself when I worked on the wire copy on deadline tonight.

There is something deeply humbling about these stories. Deeply inspiring.

And also something, I suspect, deeply disturbing. Perhaps that is why our media appear so reluctant to remind us of the greatness that slumbers in the human race; this ability to rise from the ashes of misfortune and summon the courage and the will to do what needs to be done, even at the cost of our own lives.

It is a disturbing mirror, this one. It magnifies our every flaw and makes us look slightly shabby in our own eyes. But the truth it reveals is one we should not fear to face. Though we are all equal in the eyes of God, we are not all equally brave, equally strong, equally wise or equally just. In a way, the fires of 9/11 burned away whatever was dross in these men and left only pure gold behind.

Eight years away from Ground Zero, I find myself beginning to turn from the contemplation of what was lost that day to the contemplation of what we have gained. And in that sense, I can find - even in the pain of over 8000 lives now lost to us - a glimmer of gold. Something to be thankful for. For often it is only when things look bleakest that we appreciate what we take for granted in less fraught moments.


Honor. Duty. Courage. Greatness. These are not every day words. They seem unsuited, somehow, to the quotidian demands of daily life. Still, I can't help thinking on this most solemn of days that we were given a gift. On the anniversary of 9/11 I don't want to think of the Falling Man, but of the hundred shooting stars that rose from those smoking craters. The thousands of men and women who stepped forward to ensure this outrage did not go unanswered. The thousands of ordinary Americans who, rather than take refuge in petty whining about how their President never asked them to sacrifice, stepped forward to ask, "What needs to be done? How can I help?"

From a distance it matters not so much what was done to us, but how some of us responded to it. Not so much the fire and devastation as what rose from the ashes.

The bad news is that we are not all heroes. The good news is that we have been reminded of the heroes in our midst and the greatness of which the human spirit is capable, if only we have the courage to remember it.

Posted by Cassandra at 09:02 AM | Comments (24) | TrackBack