I remember my younger sister calling me on September 11, 2001. She was on her way to work. “Turn on your t.v.,” she said. “The news was on as I walked by a laundry mat. The World Trade Center got hit by a plane. They’re saying it’s terrorism. I’m getting on the subway now, but I’ll call you when I get to work.”
I remember the next 8 hours of silence during which I couldn’t to get a phone line to make sure she had actually made it to work.
I remember standing on my roof with my building super and a few other tenants, watching the towers burn. And then, hearing my super shriek as the first tower collapsed before our eyes.
Mostly I remember the waiting. All day waiting, stuck in Brooklyn with no phone or transportation, while nearly all of my New York loved ones floated somewhere in Manhattan.
It was a long day, a longer night as cold rain poured down on emergency workers, and a longer set of months walking through a city haunted by thousands of “missing” photos hanging everywhere—photos hung by frantic loved ones of every racial, ethnic and economic background, photos we had all quickly realized meant “dead.”
But the feelings that still attend these powerful memories were not what first came to me when I heard the news about Boston.
What came first was the feeling of exhaustion.
The exhaustion had to do with hitting what feels like “violence saturation” point. This was not just about the violence itself. A ridiculously weak gun bill had just failed in the Senate. Now, I knew, the same politicians who refused to take the most absurdly minimal steps against the violence eating this nation alive from the inside out would decry the Boston violence to great pomp and nationalist circumstance. I feel saturated in a national acceptance of violence that seems somehow highlighted by this hypocrisy and related to our strange ability to name some violence as worse than others, to let some violence affect us more deeply and collectively, to refuse to make connections we need to make.
Why not Trayvon Martin’s murder as invoking national unity against Stand Your Ground laws and racial vigilantism? Why not Newtown as leading to a patriotic stand against all who insist civilians have the right to magazine clips so massive that dozens can be slaughtered in mere seconds?
What’s different about Boston?
It obviously has nothing to do with the numbers of dead (think Newtown). It obviously has nothing to do with the lack of provocation and innocence of the victims (think Martin).
The only unsatisfying conclusion I can reach is that Boston is different because it violated our national symbolic world in ways these other devastations did not. The acts we choose to label “terrorism” are those that violate flag, nationhood, “American-identity-capital-A.” That kind of violence is so bad we’ll go to war over it. The other kinds? Well, we can’t even get background checks through the Senate.
As I joined the protests in NYC, I was under no illusion that we declared war on Afghanistan on behalf of the individual people killed that day or invaded Iraq out of an authentic response to the fear and grief many of us waded through in New York and D.C. in the months following September 11th. Amid other agendas, those wars were waged to avenge violations of our national symbolic world.
But to grieve—and then respond out of that grief—to harm done to a symbolic world (as opposed to grieving the actual loss of human life) is to grieve the wrong thing altogether.
It’s unsettling for me to talk about the bombs in Boston. Asking the kinds of questions I want to ask and making the kinds of connections I want to make is easily interpreted as negating the real terror, fear and loss those at the marathon actually experienced. As someone who lives with up-close and personal memories of September 11th I want no part of that. Those were days of real terror and grief.
But they weren’t days of terror and grief because the flag of the U.S. had been desecrated or our national identity violated. They were days of terror and grief because thousands of peoples’ individual, beautiful faces looked out everywhere you went.
Honoring that devastation—the kind that somberly contemplates the loss of human life—puts us in a state of mind and heart completely different to the one created when what matters most is the symbolism. Instead of making it harder for us to identify with the suffering of others, whoever and wherever they might be, because we wrap ourselves in a flag that separates us from “others” that devastation walks us directly into our capacity to abhor all kinds of violence. We become able to see that Trayvon Martin (and thousands of young Black men like him) was a victim of ongoing U.S. racial terror; that the dozens who died at Newtown died oh-so-very American deaths; to see that children dying in Pakistan at the hands of Obama-authorized drones are children—just like the young ones in Boston.
Making such connections doesn’t minimize the experience of Boston. It honors it more truthfully—putting the experience of the people there above the experience of the flag. And, just as important, if we practice grieving the right thing, perhaps we’ll learn to have the political will to do what we need to do to say “no” to violence of all stripes. That’s the kind of grief this nation desperately needs.