Worlds Changed

Simply, to get it out of the way:

I started the car, turned on the radio, and NPR said the World Trade Center had caught fire. I kind of rolled my eyes, thinking of the car bomb that had been set off in the parking garage a few years before. By the time I got to the freeway onramp, I’d learned it had been struck by a plane, and I shook my head, said out loud: “What a hard-luck building that’s become.” By the time I got to work, I understood the extent of my understatement. A couple hours later, when both tower had fallen, I realized I understood not at all.

Not long after, a co-worker was the first I heard say “from now on, everything has changed.” Which felt like the truth, but made me uneasy. I wondered if I wasn’t in denial–there certainly was an element of that: but I couldn’t help but feel that world had and would abide, blithely indifferent to the ants crawling across its surface. I do remember thinking with grim certainty, drawing, I suppose, from what I knew about war and politics, having written of both, that, down the road, someone would be on the receiving end of a shitstorm.

But the “everything has changed” refrain haunted me. For myself, it was dramatically true: on September 13, 2001, my mother had a stroke which left her partially paralyzed, and began a long, slow slide that ended with her death six years later. My September 11th seemed to last a decade, though it’s nothing compared to those who lost someone in attacks. I’m still sorting out how much that changed my world.

In that, though, I find the truth and fallacy of “everything’s changed.” The World Trade Center attacks injected a before and after into our narratives, regardless of who we are and what we believe. It was not the world that had changed–though it would, politically and economically, in ways we’re still paying for–but our worlds, those of each of us. September 11th served as a cue ball. It struck the rack, and the balls cracked and spun out unpredictably. The trajectory of the game changed, as happens when history shifts.

Still, we continue to be the same mass of contradictory intentions: never saints, but seldom entirely sinners. I admit to feeling a certain satisfaction that Osama Bin Laden ended his journey with bullet through the eye. It’s a feeling akin to knowing Hitler faced that instant when he faced the gun he held to his head and knew he would pull trigger: badly played cards led to an inevitable conclusion. These people never seem to learn from each other, but, when you’re on that kind of an ego trip, you apparently believe you really are exempt. That or you’re so committed to your destiny that somehow it all makes sense to you.

That we can be so flawed sombers us. That others–firemen, policemen, soldiers, doctors, and war correspondents–can risk their lives (and sometimes lose them) in service to others helps balance out the darkness, though all of them have their individual rationales for their actions and do not always live up to our highest ideals. Still, they try, and they are to be recognized for putting the greater good beyond their own. I certainly don’t think I could do that; so I try to observe, not judge.

It’s very difficult to resist, but I think it’s valuable not to let nostalgia for those moments when we all stood to together blind us to our shortcomings–that it’s as important to remember that we’re as likely to make mistakes as we are to succeed. But it doesn’t hurt to take a moment to recall the instant we all ceased to be civilians.

Though nothing pleases most soldiers more than they day they can take off their uniforms, they often miss living in comradery, not mired down by “civilian bullshit” (even if they’re mired down in military bullshit, mostly consisting of officers and paperwork…and the possibility that they might be killed any time). Life during wartime can take on a startling clarity, which tends to fade the farther one gets from the sounds of bombs and small arms fire. It may not be the reason why one volunteers for hazardous duty, but it can be a reason why some people come back to it. I’ve had a little taste of it, covering a couple exciting stories or delving into the lives of soldiers and war correspondents, and it’s seductive. When you’re running around with a camera, you feel a little invulnerable, even though you’re chasing something that can easily snuff you out.

After ten years of sorrow, blood, and fury, what have we learned? That, under duress, we can love one another. Or at least feel compassion and a common humanity. It’s a shame that we need a Bin Laden or Hitler to remind us of it. Since we have paid a very high price for that insight, it’s worth hanging onto when we’re bogged down in our particular bullshit flavor for that day. Taking off forever feels a little spookier, and a smooth landing feels a little sweeter.

Everything changes, except for a few things that make everything worthwhile.

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