Several weeks after 9/11, my friend and I went skydiving for the first and only time in our lives. As it happened, the airstrip was about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix, on a brown, scrubby patch of desert within sight of some half-dozen gnarled buttes. Give or take 15,000 feet, it could have been Afghanistan — at least to people who, like the two of us, knew the country only from the occasional wide-angle shot on CNN.
Neither of us would have admitted as much at the time, but we undertook this plunge into a mockup war theater as a form of therapy, a restorative game of cops and robbers. If we could not actually help avenge America by going after bin Laden, we could at least tend to our own consciences by pretending we were going after bin Laden.
Over the past few days, 9/11 survivors’ stories have blanketed the internet like ash from the fallen Towers. Salon promises “9/11 Stories We’ve Never Told Anyone” from three women who were attending school in Lower Manhattan during the attacks, and who later bonded over the experience. That’s fairly tame stuff compared with the residents of Rockaway, in Queens, who, according to the New York Times, are still actively mourning the 59 of their neighbors — mostly firefighters — who died that day. On the Deacon’s Bench, Greg Kandra posts a link to the homily delivered by Fr. Michael Duffy at the funeral of Fr. Michael Judge. It’s soul-stirring stuff; placed in the mouth of another Fr. Duffy, it could have fit perfectly into the script of the Fighting Sixty-Ninth.
Reading these stories triggers all the prescribed reactions: rage at the attackers, sorrow over the slain, reverence for those who acquitted themselves heroically, nostalgia for the certainties of the pre-9/11world. But it also triggers something else, an emotion as senseless as it is unseemly. That emotion is envy.
“What if they threw a war and nobody came?” asked a dovish slogan dating back to the days of the Vietnam War. Whenever I am unwise enough to dwell on the events of 9/11 without sheathing my mind in Kevlar, they seem to answer a very different question: “What if they threw a national disaster and nobody invited you?”
Childish this may be, but I can’t believe it’s uncommon. Shakespeare has King Hal promise his men, grumpy over having to face superior odds at Agincourt: “And gentlemen in England now a-bed /Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.” At least in my case, the poison on that dagger is the part about being “a-bed.” Thanks to the time difference between Phoenix and New York, I was very literally a-bed when both towers were struck. They were already on the point of collapse when my girlfriend called with the news.
“Just wanted to FYI you, honey,” she said, adding, somewhat inaccurately, “they just bombed the World Trade Center.”
Remembering Ramzi Youssef, I mumbled back, “Don’t worry. They do that every once in awhile.” Shakespeare might have added that the last gentlemen to get the dish, and assign it its proper importance, will think themselves most accursed of all.
My mother’s boyfriend works at Columbia University, in Morningside Heights, far from Ground Zero. My mother herself teaches at NYU — in Lower Manhattan, but still comfortably out of danger. Yet even they managed to be part of the happening, and in a way that pressed another bruise. The son of one of my mother’s colleagues disappeared when one of the Towers fell. Months later, when he was declared dead, she and her boyfriend both attended the memorial service. There, they saw the dead man’s girlfriend — or perhaps she’d been his fiancee — arrive wearing what my scandalized mother described as “a black minidress and Keith Hernandez.” Like the Titantic, like the Lusitania, like the first Ypres, which snuffed out battalions of “pals” –public-school boys fighting as gentlemen rankers — 9/11 affected, to an unusual degree, the comparatively fortunate.
What do you do when you’re declasse and barred from the ball? Taking the shilling would have been tempting, but it takes lenses of 16.5 diopters to correct my vision to 20/30. The army would have had scant use for me, except as a bayonet dummy. One of my grad-school friends covered himself in glory in Afghanistan as a Newsweek correspondent. But then, he was a native Farsi speaker. I did begin teaching myself Arabic, in the hope of landing a job with some alphabet agency, but dropped the project on the suspicion that something — maybe my low credit rating, maybe a misdemeanor trespassing charge — would disqualify me. It was right around the time Jessica Lynch became a household name that I realized my services in making this segment of history were simply not required.
Of course, history is also an armchair sport. For the audience, there’s always a temptation toward a compensatory hawkishness. One happy victim was Tubby Chesterton, who wrote of war as a practical exercise in Christian virtue though his own physique would have beggared Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann’s powers of derision. There’s also a temptation toward the opposite vice, a self-justifying dovishness. In Of Paradise and Power, Robert Kagan writes, of demilitarized European nations and their evaluation of security threats, “When you don’t have a hammer, you don’t want anything to look like a nail.” The same can be true of unmilitary individuals: anyone who wants to can become a Europe of one.
Miraculously, I managed to avoid either extreme. Like many Americans, I viewed the War o Terror with a nervous pragmatism, initially supporting the invasion of Iraq, feeling disgusted by the unworthiness at Abu Ghraib and thrilled at the re-capture of Fallujah, losing faith around 2005, but regaining it after the surge. Now, a year after the drawdown in Iraq, and with no obviously reachable goals left in Afghanistan, I am comfortably numb.
That being the case, it’s frankly amazing that remembering the events of 10 years ago can snap me out of my stupor. Whatever I’ve learned — or have tried to learn — about global power or its logical limits feels abstract, even spectral. It is about as viscerally satisfying as the chemical equation for water. What feels as palpable as water itself is the desire to been present at an important event, even a horrible one. I wonder whether it will console those who were marked for life by the attacks to know that some of the unmarked, against all reason, still reproach themselves for not having fought on St. Crispin’s Day.