When I was a kid the Challenger blew up on television. We were all sitting in the school library, watching man’s latest grasp for the heavens when something went wrong, an O-ring here or there, and I thought that was it, I thought that would be the moment that I’d never forget. I remember how it looked on the television, and how, when it began to burst and tumble and disintegrate before our adolescent eyes, none of us were sure what was happening. It was so foreign to our post WWII, “perfectam vitae” that, as it turns out, none of us could accept that something was wrong. We watched it all unfold, publicly, and suspended our disbelief until our teachers started freaking out. Then the collective, Midwestern, empathetic sobbing started and, like I said, it had to be the moment I’d remember forever, like how my folks talked about the President getting killed in ’63.
For those of you born in the last twenty five or so years, it’s hard to understand just what a shock 9-11 was to the America of 2001. The rest of us had grown up with the cold war, and the Soviets, and the rebirth of US patriotism. We learned to trust a love of capitalism, and thanks to the nineties, there was a job for every grad, blameless (possibly baseless) binge-drinking, terrifying casual sex, and lives so easy and blissfully limited that punk rock actually seemed subversive. We even spent months stressed and wrestling with the “horror” of a president’s libido.
Last week a woman at my work flew into a tizzy when her name was misspelled on the school roster. She halted the meeting in progress, lashed out at the principal, and demanded that the “Mr.” in front of her name be struck from the record. She’s a “missus” and, by God, she will be identified as such on the roster. This event projected, for me, a micro, diorama-like version of what pre-9-11 America really was; a life so wonderfully lived that we’d howl at the tiniest of slights. Angsty teenage boys and girls would find voice and yell at their parents in front of festival crowds, the media decided that everyone I knew was a “slacker” disillusioned with “the man,” (thanks a lot, Christian Slater!!), and the only people we saw die before their time had done so in car accidents or through the “fuck you” of leukemia, and other cancers.
What those of you born in the last twenty five years maybe don’t realize is that you’ve been infected. It’s been infused with your mother’s milk. The governor’s been removed, the restrictor plate incinerated in the countless hours of newscast gun battles, Apache gunship footage; countless televised-TELEVISED!- beheadings, and the loss of thousands of young lives: white, black, brown, or otherwise. When I talk to younger people they don’t even realize the change. Many of them don’t personally know someone in uniform. The deaths are numbers; the people, humans all!, are fabricated creatures to many Americans. They’re fabricated and fashioned by the Frankenstein media; faces and wounds and ideas about who these military people are have bled into the subconscious of America. The explosions and trauma and burning skin, the bullets and the loneliness and camaraderie have bled and been sewn and birthed into a pasteurized, neutral version of the military, stomping around the village trying not to get pitchforked. It was all fear and exploitation, and then it was the numbing. The Collective is numb, and tired of it all.
It isn’t over though. This inundation, this tidal wave of violence has not reached its high water mark; it continues to encroach, higher each year than it was the year before. Most of you aren’t aware of the lessening of our world through this osmotic violence, you have not seen the world without it, even if you’ve never left suburban Des Moines, or Cleveland, or the farmland in Wisconsin.
Derrick Brown was seventeen and tall and skinny and kind of caramel colored; he was loud and funny and he sold a ton of weed. I liked Derrick a lot except for when I was trying to teach. On that morning, a Tuesday, the students were working. I was hung-over, and we were all settling in for the great game of pretending to learn, pretending to teach, and waiting for the final buzzer so we could all go back home. I heard Derrick yelling from down the hall. We couldn’t tell what he was saying but could tell it was him, could tell it was urgent, and important, and at the very least I started to get up from the crossword puzzle and coffee when Derrick burst in the room. “Mister Lyke! Mister Lyke! They’re bombing the buildings, they’re bombing the city!” He was frantic, and wild-eyed and hopping around the doorway. I started to yell but he was so serious that I asked, “Who’s bombing who?” and then, “Chicago?” He explained it was New York, and that the buildings were falling down. I pushed past Derrick, who had the students quiet for a change. All of the teachers were in the hallway. We looked from one to another, questioning, hoping it was just Derrick. Obviously, it wasn’t.
I drove home that Tuesday, from the far south side to my apartment in Humbolt Park. I was the only one on the road. There were no cars, there were no planes, there weren’t any people, there was nothing but a frightened city indoors, glued to the TV. We drank and called friends and siblings in New York City. We called our parents. We commiserated and we got angry. Many of us stopped being students, teachers, accountants, garbage men, and lawyers right then. We were to be soldiers and They, part of some exotic group most of us had never heard of, were definitely going to pay. A couple years later when I was in Afghanistan, and we’d chased a man into a stone village, the locals came out begging us to leave without hurting any of their families. I’ve told this story before, but they were convinced we were the Russians and that we’d never left. They couldn’t believe what wasn’t in front of them, because clearly we were there, with guns, and violence, around their children and in their village. Despite what we told them, and the flags on our uniforms, and the insistence of our interpreters, and the smiles on our faces, we were the Soviets. It was after moments like this that 9-11 really started to make sense. Look what it had done. We were angry and powerful and had been wounded and we were lashing around at people from the past who had no idea who we were, or why we were lashing at all.
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