September 12th, 2001, was the beginning of the best few weeks of my life.
We had all suffered a massive psychic wound, unsteady and nervous. Rumors fomented. In this fertile ground grew overt xenophobia. The preceding day defined the lives of a billion, rarely for the better. But, for a little while, we were part of a massive community that cared and would take care of one another without a second thought. Everyone had a common experience, a shared trauma that reframed the lives we thought we were leading and shook us out of our delusion that we are not intricately connected.
In stores, on the street, wandering between classes people asked me how I was, if I had known anyone who died in the attacks (one, the father of one of my friends, though I didn't realize this until later), where I was when I found out. If we saw someone on a bench crying, our reaction was not to cringe away from their intrusion but to sit beside them, even if we had nothing to say. All at once, with that hideous preamble, we were made compassionate. Our boundaries and borders obliterated. Most of us wanted to love one another because it was safer and more comforting than hiding in private bubbles again.
I thought my world might end with little notice and I had no time for hesitation in connecting with other people.
I thought, apparently naively, this would redefine our nation, that we would see we were fallible and mortal and care for one another more. I thought we learned the right lessons from so grievous a wound. Even as I hoped this, the ignorant and terrified kicked Sikh children bloody and shoved gun barrels into the jaws convenience store owners who were a shade too swarthy. Most of us reacted by reaching for a hand when planes resumed flying low overhead. The rest chosen to beat their fear into a sword to swing at anything that dare to twitch in their periphery.
I won't get too into the geopolitical ramifications of what happened that day, because we are living them now. The antiphony of our leaders to barbaric verses shrieks in my ears. Our government let the terrorists win by turning us into al-Qaeda propaganda.
My concern here is this prolonged, if limping, period of enlightened unity. For weeks, I no longer had the energy for barricades against the world around me. People looked me in the eye and shared sympathetic smiles. I worked in a library when books about the attacks started being published. I would skim through them and openly cry. Patrons would look askance until I lifted the cover, then they would nod and leave me to my piecemeal grief.
Before the attacks, I didn't understand that I could be a part of a community. I was barely out of my teens, when one is a tizzy of hormones and rebellion, the center of a universe that does not extend further than one's toes. I belonged to schools, to clubs within them, to productions of musicals despite my ability to sing and dance, to cliques and girlfriends, all with expiration dates. I did not have a concept of a lasting belonging, the sort I glimpsed before America turned hard and cruel and militaristic and insular when they could have led the world by example.
When countries incur a tragedy, when people are violently removed from modern conveniences and safety and are forced to band together, they often report contentment that otherwise evaded them. We are a tribal species who has erroneously taken this to mean factionalization. Instead, we need to detribalize and see that we belong to the same struggle of existence, that generosity and kindness improves instead of detracts.
I would never wish another tragedy. Partly, it is because we have enough of them with a combination of three-times-a-season "once in a century" hurricanes and mass shootings where each terrorist is trying to get a higher kill-count than the last guy. But mostly, it is because I have seen that a tragedy is no longer sufficient to release us from our reptilian brains. Instead of 9/11 allowing us to unite into a single country, those in power have used it to push us farther apart, urging the insecure to spit venom toward their countrymen, despising Hispanics and Muslims with no awareness of the historical context, explicitly calling for black people to be shot in the back for kneeling before a game. The person screaming at anyone darker than ecru while wearing a red baseball cap and white polo shirt doesn't know the term "blood libel." Or, if they do, they revel in dehumanizing the Other because it is easier than facing how they have let this fearful hatred deform them.
We have seen too often how little we can give our trust to the institutions that were intended to protect us, banks and governments and churches. It is no wonder that we have a generation of the anxious, furtively glancing about for the catch, unwilling to engage in a society that does not have our best interests in mind. We were promised a gradual evolution toward better lives, but instead have literal Nazis getting flattering press coverage when they drive cars into crowds of protesters. We were told our student loans were necessary to have a good life, then left as nearly jobless wage slaves to chip away at a debt that could have bought a house in our parents' day. All political parties are demonstrably corrupt and our last election was swayed by Facebook and a Russian troll army revealing how the Democrats subverted democracy to hand the election to a racist, sexist, abusive, demonstrably fraudulent, insecure, inexperienced reality TV host. Why would we trust anyone enough to belong with them, knowing that it has and will be abused for money and power grabs?
I fear tripping into the naturalistic fallacy here, dictating that what we are built to do is what ought to do. Still, I will chance it by noting that we have evolved only because we have stuck together, from hunter-gatherers on the veldt to agrarian villagers to city-builders to citizens of a global world. Each step has pushed us further apart, even as they should have allowed us more ability to connect. Social media is cruel parody of this, distracting us from connecting to anyone significantly while all but mandating it to function socially. Every week, I unfollow a few more people because the sight of their curated lives or willfully obnoxious opinions (on all sides) only make me feel further from the sort of contentment and hope of September 12th.
I've felt familiar remnants of my post-tragic community when I was at a Pagan festival and the weekend of my wedding. I belonged to something greater. I could be loved without proving myself, without insecurity or fear. These were communities I built or that welcomed me without reservation. They, too, were finite, but I carried their dust with me after.
I don't even know most of my neighbors. There is Jake, a borderline elderly man who maintains the property in exchange for reduced rent and who keeps dumping Amber's bucket of compost when it attracts raccoons. There are a couple of young men with a brown cat who took the place of an Asian couple with a black cat. There is a friendly middle-aged woman whose name Amber tends to know but I constantly let slip away. There are the Bard Kids, who must have graduated at least once given how long we've been there. Aside from a bearded man who once pounded on our door because Amber "took" the spot a couple of girls had shoveled out of the snow while he sat inside, it's unclear who else lives there and who only visits. In other buildings on the property are an Egyptian family, a couple with a baby, the sister of the woman whose name I cannot remember. There are surely others, but I don't even know them enough to describe them even with a vague hand-wave. If they recognized me in town, outside the context of our neighborhood, I would squint uncertainly.
Even when our utilities were knocked out for nearly a week, we did not join together in camaraderie, sharing grills and hauling water from the functioning spigot in the other building. Amber and I would have surely offered our help as we cooked on the porch, huddled in blankets, reading and studying, but no one engaged us and we didn't extend ourselves. In short, even so close for so long, we do not think of ourselves as having any social obligation toward one another, not even one that would include knowing names.
I want to walk down the street, have someone ask me how I am and mean it as more than a phatic grunt. I want to feel comfortable enough that I will be understood - I am not flirting, I am not trying to sell you something - that I am liberated to ask this myself.
Soon in Xenology: Gods. Untrustworthy adults. Apocalypse.