Distance

It’s starting to feel like a really long time ago.

It was the middle of the night in New Zealand. I was rather rudely awoken by my boyfriend’s clock radio at a weird hour of the morning. He wasn’t even there.

Now I had a clock radio of my own – it dated from the late ’80s and was hot pink. It also only got AM, so I just used the buzzer as an alarm. But the buzzer sounded like the drone of a thousand angry bees in your sinuses, so my then-boyfriend decided that he needed something gentler to wake him up when he stayed over. Hence the fact that he had put his own clock radio UNDER MY BED. And the buttons on it were all in Dutch, so I couldn’t figure out how to work it. It had developed the random tendency to just go off in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. Which is what it did that night. At about 3am.

…”plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Authorities are warning of the possibility that this is a terrori…” which was about the point that my stumbling hands found it and bashed it back into silence.

But you know those times when you’ve been rudely ripped from sleep, and then you just lie there, wishing so hard that you could simply fall back to sleep, but you can’t? I lay there for a bit in that weird limbo of not-quite-awake-but-still-frustrated. That blaring jumble of words, so far the only thing to break the silence, kept playing in my head. There had already been a bombing at the World Trade Center. Then there was that idiot who flew a plane into the White House to try and kill Clinton. And there had been the al Quaeda attack on the USS Cole a year earlier. Even in the bleary darkness of 3am New Zealand, I figured it was possible that someone really hated the World Trade Center, or they were just an idiot. Or both.

With sleep now completely evading me, I got up and went to go find my parents’ TV. At that time I lived in a self-contained flat that was attached to my parents’ house. But they had Sky TV and I (being a poor university student) did not. I went past my parents’ bedroom and realized that my mother was already awake and lying quietly, listening to the radio. My dad had obviously already gone to work, but he ran a radio station so: a) early starts were very normal for him, and b) I guess everyone in the media needed to be at work that morning. I went to the lounge and turned on CNN with the volume low.

One tower was clearly on fire – black smoke was pouring out of ugly gashes in its sides. People were waving from windows above, desperate to get help. Then another plane came into shot and hit the other tower. That moron! What was he thinking? Was he so distracted or blinded by the smoke? Didn’t he see the other building?!? Then, in the next bit of footage, that second tower collapsed…

My mouth went dry. I shot across to my mother’s room and stirred her. “One of the World Trade Center towers has collapsed!” I blurted.

“They both did,” she mumbled. Deadpan. In that bland, austere, they-almost-deserved-it tone that she has.

I went back to the TV, realizing that the footage I was seeing was simply a loop of what little footage they had. Yes, sure enough – there was the fire again, people waving for help, another plane, one tower collapsing, and then the other. Over and over again. We’ve all seen it a thousand times now, but right there and then, in the cold darkness of the early morning, it was truly horrific and surreal.

***

I still had to go to class that day. And in a weird, impulsive act on that Wednesday morning, I pulled the tiny American flag from my pen cup – a souvenir from my last 4th of July parade a couple years earlier – and stuck it onto the back of my backpack. I wore it to class that day, and every day after until… well, we’ll get to that.

Again, it was a surreal thing. There weren’t tons of American flags on display in New Zealand, but there were a few. Mostly the people who flew them were already maniacs anyway. Some businesses made a point of publicly expressing their condolences. Walking around with my flag, I got a few sympathetic looks from people, but nobody really wanted to talk to me about it. And I didn’t really feel like I had a right to be aggrieved anyway. It wasn’t my tragedy. I’d never even been to New York. I just wanted show people that there was solidarity and goodness in America – something worthy of love – and that it would not be so easily broken.

Not everyone felt the same way though, and I guess that’s partly because I wasn’t there. I felt wholly unafraid of al Quaeda, and most determinedly would not be cowed. But what I saw come next was a lot of irrational fear. On the day that the Bush Administration invaded Afghanistan, I put my flag away again. Osama Bin Laden wasn’t even Afghani (he was a Saudi) so bombing lots of ordinary people in Afghanistan just because their warlord leaders were hiding him: that was horrendous to me. This was a crime – not an act of war between sovereign nations. Why did some Afghani four-year-old have to be punished for it?

But the train just kept on rolling. The Patriot Act, the Iraq war, the Dixie Chicks… I gradually realized that I no longer connected well with what American had become. I had not just the benefit of distance (and let’s be honest, Kansas is also a long way away from New York) but also the assortment of perspectives around me. I wasn’t in the echo chamber, and I felt so far removed in every way. I genuinely couldn’t understand all of the surprise that people expressed on TV – as if they’d never even heard of al Quaeda before! As if they had no idea about the existence of the Mujahideen or the Taliban or Osama Bin Laden. And perhaps they didn’t, but in that case they were very poorly served by both their media and their schools. To me, this was just the next step of escalation from a group that had already shown every intent to kill Americans. Again, it was a crime – not a military act. To other people it was clearly a wholly unforeseen bolt out of the blue. And all of the things that I had loved and respected most about my country – the restraint from empire-building, the moral highground, the acceptance of all faiths, the desire to improve everyone’s lot, the freedom to disagree in a civil way – those things seemed to crumble away before my eyes. What was left was something I didn’t easily recognize. America didn’t rise above – it raged, and destroyed in its rage. The people around me spoke a lot about America squandering the world’s goodwill, and voluntarily becoming all of the worst things that terrorists accused it of being (all of the things that the terrorists already were) – blinded by its own interests, killing all debate, vicious, greedy, self-superior, cruel…

Cruel… Let’s be honest, it’s not a word that applies to most Americans – certainly not the people I grew up with – but in our anger and fear we made a world where it was easy for some people to be cruel. And then when they perpetrated cruelty in our name, we made excuses for them, as if our suffering must always take precedence over the suffering of others. That’s not the country I thought I knew. Something did indeed change that day, but not in the way that people think. The attack itself surprised me much less than my heretofore rational country’s horrific, revenge-driven reaction. And two wrongs most certainly do not make things right…

***

It does feel like a long time ago though. I’ve realized this year that it has been 17 years since I stood in that last 4th of July parade. And I wonder whether I would even recognize my country if I went back now. Most of the buildings would be the same. Most of them.

And the rocks. The painted colors of the canyons. The cool waters of Oak Creek. The dust of Mars Hill on the edge of Flagstaff – fine like cocoa powder. The creaking, gila-patterned bark of the ponderosas. The liquid squirrels. That sweet, dry, pine scent of summer. That stuff never changes. It was there long before Man, and it will outlast us all. That’s the stuff I miss the most.

It’s not my land anymore though – I’ve come to realize that. I couldn’t understand the shattered illusions of so many people that September, but then my illusions got shattered too and I’m not sure if there’s a road back to what used to be.

It was a long time ago. But it still seems so unfair.

 

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