11 September 2003

A Covenant Of Silence

Something tells me that I should write something about today being September 11th, that I should reflect with some sort of somberness on the events of that horrifying day two years ago, and not just put together my usual ramblings and musings and cyber-clippings of bits from the news dailies. It's not, I'm sure, just some onerous sense of 'decorum,' of feeling that I *ought* to be serious and commemorate, in one way or another, the gravity of what happened as almost three thousand people perished; it's not merely some vague sense that I should say something intelligent or profound or insightful or elegiac about what happened. I can't say I know for sure what I should say, if I should even say anything at all, but going on with everyday life on the anniversary of those attacks is too much like walking past a familiar graveyard: one tries not to think too much about what happened and how things changed, but to walk past without thinking of those things is like a kind of denial, and indeed a kind of moral irresponsibility. As much as we may not want to look too deeply into the piercing stare of history, we mustn't let ourselves avoid its gaze, either. What does one say? What does one not say?

In the two years that have passed, the callouses to the events of that day have started to form. The casual punditry is everywhere, and I have to confess I've done my own rather 'detached' commentary on it, mostly in private. Reason, logic, detachment, they eventually make their ways in to help us understand what we've seen and known, and inevitably we lose some of the sense of emotional immediacy, and harsh poignancy, most of us felt that day. We think now, in the cold distancing of time, more in terms of abstraction: of terrorism, of politics, of the idea of war. We tend not to think so much of images and sensations that seared themselves into us as things happened. Some of them, like the pervasive images of the planes hitting the towers, have been played so often that it's as if we've become inoculated against their horror; others, like "Let's Roll," the last words of one of the passengers on Flight 93, were all but anthemized, to the point that their original poignancy has become diluted, even commercialized. We try not to think of the cries of terror as emergency forces tried to tell people still trapped inside the towers what to do; we try not to think of the horrifying desperation of those who saw horror inside and thought jumping from ninety-stories up was a better alternative; we try not to think about the very few bodies that were found, that so many people were little more than ash and the odd body part; we try not to think too much about the loved ones who carried photos and names and went searching, so many in Diogenous fashion, for hope against hope. In short, we try not to think too much about the realities, the things we saw, most of us luckily at some distance, and we try not to think about the things that we know must have happened, if only scientifically. We try, too, not to think too much about our own senses of horror, as the shock of disbelief, that these things couldn't possibly be happening, gave way, moment by moment, to the stunning realization of what was indeed happening and that all of us were moreorless helpless to do anything about it.

On September 11th, I watched, as I think most of us did, as everything happened. I know I spent over twelve or thirteen hours straight, watching and waiting for news, and in my own way praying. There reached a point that evening, that I couldn't bear to watch anymore, and so went to have a pint or two and just get away from the news-- in my own way, I think, to digest and to deal with all that had happened. I remember sitting on a patio at a then-favourite haunt, and the silence was deafening. No one was talking. All along the road, a road with a dozen bars all interconnected with one another, there were maybe two dozen people out and about, all in the same boat I was in of not being able to take anymore information. Everyone looked so gaunt, so weak; even people out with guests and loved ones sat in almost complete silence, as if such silence was the only way people could deal with this, or as if any intrusion of sound would disrupt the delicacy and somberness by which we kept our emotions at the very least in check.

Of course, we were all thinking more or less the same things, and we all knew that the world as we had known it had changed in a single day. We sat there, in a kind of covenant of silence. There, really, was nothing to say, because nothing anyone could say at that point would have made things better, or eased anyone's fears, or made sense of the catastrophe. It was a lesson in pity and terror that many of us would never have imagined outside of a movie; it was a lesson that the monstrous and the infernal were not just things of a past about which we'd supposedly learned better after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. Nor could we turn our heads from it, as much of the world has done, say, with the conflicts in Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda and in far too many places around the world. And, for the first time in a very long time (and perhaps the first time ever, depending on how one wishes to define this), we knew a kind of global pity, as we were all watching the same tragedy, and only the most ardently radical proponents of hatred and bloodshed went untouched by it all. Our notions of being at least relatively insulated against horrendous violence were shattered. The world became both much larger and much smaller at the same time, as the unreal became real, and real became unreal.

I don't want to use this space to talk about what has happened since, nor do I want to try, at this moment, to understand, because, at least in commemoration, perhaps understanding is a luxury of the living. It becomes a kind of bandage we put on a wound so we can move on. In a way, even writing this I feel like I'm saying way too much about something that can really only be understood and felt in silence, in the quiet sadness before language imposes a kind of order and logic. Today, I don't think I'll be watching the memorial services and the copious television coverage. I do know this, though: it'll be very difficult not to think too long on the obvious today, and it'll be very difficult to avoid the clatter that will try to suggest what I should be thinking and feeling on a day such as this.

The hard part will later this evening, long after the sun's gone down, as I try not to forget the painful silence that came after seeing too much and knowing too much, after all of the thoughts and feelings of a day of madness truly started to mean something, but before they became something 'understandable.' My mind, if not my body, will be on that patio again, between knowing things and accepting them, and remembering all too well a night it seemed when everyone ached and no one knew what to say-- and no one dared to try.

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