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From Fly Creek

September 1, 2011

From Fly Creek: Ten years of loss

 The date Sept. 11 is as carved into our hearts as is Dec. 7 for those who were alive on that awful day in 1941. On both days our sense of security, of unquestioned invulnerability, was shattered.  We were left shaken, changedperhaps forever.

We realize now, 10 years after the horrors of 9/11, that we are still stunned and reeling. For within days of that date, we began behaving like a blinded giant, enraged, flailing this way and that, determined somehow to hit back the enemy that dared attack us.

Our leader even gave the enemy a name, though the name was not of an enemy nation. The name was an abstract noun: Terrorism. We declared WAR ON TERRORISM, and we smote the countries that might be giving IT cover.

Of course there was and is an enemy: small groups of rabid fanatics; but our destructive battering has multiplied their number by millions who see themselves as victims of the blind, godless giant.

Precious lives have been lost in this war, as well as thousands of children, women, and men who have been “collateral damage” to our wrath. Meanwhile, soullessprofiteers have made billions by equipping us for destruction,and then by rebuilding the very nations and cities and villages they had helped destroy. And in the ravaged countries, corrupt men have taken leadership, men as hypocritical and venal as our own profiteers.

All this has cost us horrifically.

Worst of all, it has corroded our national soul. Perhaps because we angrily repress guilt, we seem to have become far too given to anger, far too ready to condemn every differing opinion as a personal insult if not an attack. “Getting what’s mine” has become an obsession, and corporate greed has nearly bankrupted the country.

Tragically, our Congress presents this national malaise, closely focused. Patriotism has been eclipsed by party loyalty, and far too many congressmen seem to be in thrall to big money, big business, big industry.

I’m convinced, friends, that our national health reflects our own vital signs. The nation’s  ills should concern usdeeply, but they should also make us look in the mirror. We’ve been getting sicker for ten years. Maybe what we see in that mirror will incline us fall to our knees.

What follows was written just after 9/11. It reflects the first reactions of an aging man, only sixty-three then. He had no more idea than you did of what the next decade would bring to all of us, He only knew that we had suffered a crushing blow to our spirits. We’re over a week away now from that shocking day. Not time enough, surely, to comprehend the full horror, much less the implications that extend from it into our future. But maybe time enough to begin aligning a few ideas.

The day after the attacks, Crier co-editor Jim Austin called and asked for a reaction comment for a front-page piece. “Think about it, please,” he said, “and email me something.”

It wasn’t hard to think about the events; who could do anything else? But it was much harder to state my reaction − I was still in the midst of experiencing it. Or, better, experiencing them. For those incredible events set off mass emotions in us. Together, they were as swirling and blinding as the hellish dust clouds boiling through Manhattan streets.

To name those emotions is not to really capture them.

Call them shock, disbelief, rage, grief, denial, revulsion, heart-sickness, empathy, whatever. The words hint at the fierce feelings, but don’t reflect how they mixed and fed on one another as we watched, again and again, the planes explode and buildings fall.

Poetry, says one definition, is emotion recalled in tranquility. I’m a long way from any tranquil vision of those  events; certainly I was fartheryet, back on the day after.

That day, the best I could send to Editor Jim Austin was one man’s answer to the question all were asking: How could anyone turn passenger planes into guided missiles? How could anyone choose to wipe out life at such a scale?

The one man’s answer I offered was not my own. It belonged to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, his nightmarish account of Soviet concentra Solzhenitsyn described the carefully planned agonies of torture inflicted on prisoners to elicit information − inflicted by men calm and self-possessed. Men who, after their

grisly work, went home to kiss much-loved wives and play with their cherished children. How could that be? asked Solzhenitsyn, and then answered.

Humans, he said, are capable of anything for the sake of ideology. By ideology he meant deep, even fanatic belief in a social or political system.

Or a religious one. If you are mindlessly committed to such a belief − what Eric Hoffer ironically called “a true believer”− you’re unshakably sure that everyone else must accept that belief − whether they want to or not. And to serve that goal, you’ll do anything.

The ugliest ideology is its religious form, for then you believe that anyone who challenges or thwarts your belief is not only your enemy, but God’s. So to strike out, however savagely, is an act of virtue. And should you be killed in the process, then God will surely reward you as a martyr.

But there’s more to it − a horrible complication. One suspects that the men who lead others in such perversions of religion are not themselves religious fanatics at all. They just use the language and symbols of religion to inflame others. They themselves seem driven by only one thing: a lust for power, for control.

Such steady, dead-eyed people seem to me the very incarnations of evil − much more so than any caricature devil with horns and a tail. Such people chill me to my soul.

Ever since Jim Austin asked for reaction last Wednesday, I’ve been watching myself, as if from a distance. I’ve watched an aging man’s emotions unreel across the days.

Repeatedly, I’ve seen the old guy fill up − at the sounds of hymns patriotic and religious; at sight of massed flags and candles, or of grieved firemen, or of hollow-eyed relatives  trying to nurse flickeringwisps of hope.

But though his throat closed and face creased, the old guy didn’t cry, even at the sight of vast, familiar St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, packed to the doors with wet-cheeked Brits singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Time and again, the old guy’s emotions piled like clouds on a horizon, but release didn’t come. I guess he was too benumbed.

Until four days later, doing homely chores. Late Saturday he was alone in the sunshine, in the back field, raking up spoiled hay, pitching it over the fence for compost.

It’s been so dry, you see, that the sheep have eaten off their pastures. They’re already being fed hay. And sheep are very wasteful of hay, standing on it as they eat, soiling it with mud and worse.

As the old guy raked, the seven sheep, which had been idling in the shade, wandered over to watch. They stood near him gazing, innocent of intelligence, free of knowing.

He’d just rolled up a mass of hay, damp with their urine; he’d driven the pitchfork into it, was ready to lift it over the fence. But paused. He looked into the sheep’s gentle eyes. And something broke.

Leaning on a pitchfork, in company of mute, harmless beasts, the old guy wept till he shuddered. For the dead. For all we’ve lost.

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