The Surrealism of Terror

When I heard that there was going to be a press announcement Sunday night I was totally freaked out. When I hear “surprise press conference regarding national security” that’s going to happen that late on a Sunday night, to me that translates to you’re all going to die, fuckers, put your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye.

So it wasn’t that. It was good news. It was Osama bin Laden. And I should have felt relieved, or proud of my country, or something. And I did feel relieved that it wasn’t some sort of imminent bombing, but mostly I felt… nothing. I felt absolutely nothing.

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I was twelve years old on September 11, 2001. I heard about the planes hitting the Twin Towers for the first time in math class. Our principal came on the loud speaker and told us that after that period we should return to our homerooms for a special announcement. Immediately, I panicked. That had happened once the year before, when a bus full of students from another middle school in our town crashed and four kids were killed. If you were told to return to your homeroom, it meant something awful had happened.

Immediately, I excused myself and ran to Prov, which was what we called Mr. Provencher, our journalism teacher.  He and I were close and he was known for being brutally honest. I knew no matter what had happened, he’d tell me. So I burst into his classroom and asked him what had happened, who had died, what on earth was going on. And – and I will never forget this – he looked me straight in the eyes with a blank face and told me everyone was safe, nothing happened, and everything would be okay.  It was just a little announcement. There was no need to get upset.That was the first and last time he ever lied to me.I only remember snatches of the rest of the day, like calling my mom after the announcement crying, confusion over what this meant, confusion that it was even possible for someone to attack America. It was disconcerting. I of course knew attacks happened between countries – growing up Jewish you tend to get almost desensitized to that fact the more you hear about Israel – but we were America. I never knew before that day that there were people in the world who felt anything for America past slight irritation.

The next day, the only way I could go to school and sit on the bus was close my eyes and pretend that what my schoolmates were talking about were unreal. It was a video game, like Grand Theft Auto. People talked about killing prostitutes, too, but that wasn’t real. And this wasn’t real. It wasn’t real.

I don’t think I’ve ever really grown out of that. When Obama started describing what happened that day, I turned the television off. I never think about that day, except to roll my eyes when someone uses it as a political poker chip. It’s like I never grew out of being twelve years old with my eyes screwed shut, clutching my lunch bag handle so hard my fingers cramped. It never happened to me. It can’t have. It just never happened.

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The following things feel unreal to me:
  1. The fact that clouds are not solid, puffy pillows, but rather things you would fall through if you ever tried to sleep on them
  2. About 90% of the creatures I see when I go to the aquarium
  3. Osama bin Laden
  4. September 11
I know, of course, these things are real. I know September 11 happened. I know Osama bin Laden, though he has lived in my head as a cartoon villain for nearly ten years, was a real person. But it’s not something I ever think about, or feel anything towards, it’s just there.
I’m also aware it is a luxury to feel this way. It’s a gift that I didn’t lose anyone on September 11. I’m lucky the day has so little meaning to me. But because I’m lucky, I think it’s made it easier for me to be in the final stage of grieving – apathy, or as close to apathy as you can get when you’re discussing an event that took the lives of thousands of people.When I watched people who were so relieved and excited, who said this brought them closure, I was glad for them, I guess, but I was also confused. How did we get here, I wondered. How did we get to a place where the entirety of our success as a nation hinged on if one man was alive or dead?

Maybe it was naive of me, but September 11 was never about Osama bin Laden. He wasn’t the one who actually hijacked the planes. It would be like blaming Pearl Harbor on Tojo. We don’t do that. We say it was the Japanese soldiers and the Japanese government at the time – allof it – that was responsible, because it’s short-sighted and bizarre to blame every bad action taken by individual people on some higher power, not legally and not in times of war. We recognize, and have always recognized, that there is at least some level of free will.

To me, the attacks of September 11 don’t make sense if you blame it all on one person like he personally did them. They and everything that happens in the world only makes sense when you realize that there are extreme, crazy people out there who will always hate other people and will always try to hurt them. Killing one does not stop this from happening. And even if we wiped out every extreme Muslim on the planet, some other group would rise up to hate America and everything it stands for. It’s all one pointless milestone in a never-ending meaningless cosmic conflict that is as old as time and will continue long after you and I are dead.

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Until very recently, being American was something I enjoyed, but felt no particular pride in. Coming to political awareness in the age of Bush, there wasn’t a whole lot to be proud of. It wasn’t until Barack Obama’s campaign that I started to feel stirrings of patriotism. And when he was sworn in, I nearly cried, because for the first time in my life I looked at something my country had done and didn’t feel one iota of embarrassment. I was proud. I’d never been proud before. America had never made me happy.

People are saying how proud they are of America for killing bin Laden. Militarily, I think this is something I can understand. Strategically, I agree it’s an accomplishment. But personally, I feel the same way I feel whenever I hear about America’s military – I respect it, but I feel sad it has to exist in the first place.You see, for me, the reason Osama bin Laden was so utterly unbelievable, so strange and unreal, was because of how he spoke about America. It was as if all million plus of us were one single evil person, like any nation can be characterized a certain way, especially a nation so vast and diverse, and that justifies thinking of it as one singular enemy that we  must destroy. I feel that way when people speak against Islam, too, or even just lump terrorists as “radical Muslims” without realizing that the Muslim world is deeply complicated and even within an operation such as al Queda, there are gradients and political snipes and tensions. Everything is just really fucking complicated – and that includes my feelings on bin Laden’s death and what it means.

For the most part, I am just as in love with Obama as I was the day he took office. He’s not perfect, but I believe he has done the best job he can with the political climate he was given. And in his America, I consistently feel proud. I felt proud when I watched health care be passed. I felt proud when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. And I feel proud because something about him seemed to wake up America from the political rut of ennui we were wallowing in. At least now people feel something. At least they do something. Even if that something is viciously and mindlessly hating him, they do it. I feel proud when I see peaceful protests and I feel proud when I see how much, even in off years, voter turnout seems to have increased where I live. I’m proud I live in a country where we still do things that are good, we still make things and get things done and have opinions that we can voice to each other perhaps not respectfully, but at least we can voice them, and at least we don’t usually kill each other over them.

I want to get back to that America. Because this America, that’s united in joy over someone’s death? It doesn’t feel like the America I love. It feels like cartoon America bin Laden used to describe. It’s a bloodthirsty, wounded, angry America taking vicious joy over its own power. It’s an America that believes that it had never healed and, in fact, would never heal, until we brought one symbolic man to a bloody end. It makes me long to skip ahead to the part where this becomes a partisan talking point snipefest, because then I’ll know we’re back to the country I know, love, and often sigh and shake my head at in fond mortification. But when Obama promises in speeches that America’s going to be a nation that everyone can be proud of because we Get Shit Done, when he first said that and I cheered, I didn’t think he meant anything like this. Because these people in the streets singing loudly about someone’s murder? That’s not an America I think I’ll ever be able to be part of, or even recognize. It’s just not an America that feels real to me at all.