Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Decade of Disillusions

I didn't want to write about my memories of 9/11 last week because I felt that I wouldn't be able to do so without trying to make some political point, and I can't stand when people exploit emotionally charged, traumatic events to do that. But then so many of my students wrote such compelling stories of where they were, what they were doing, and how that day changed their lives, that I felt like, maybe now, a week later, drawing on their example, I would take a stab at it.

For me, 9/11, perhaps because it happened at the beginning of my senior year of college, is connected in my mind with my education--and the limits of that education. I was in school at Bard College (an artsy, liberal arts school, north of New York--if you take a boat up the Hudson River 100 miles from where the twin towers used to stand, you will see Bard on the eastern bank of the river), and as great as my education was there, I felt wholly unprepared to understand 9/11, or the events preceding or following it. Bard was a place filled with incredibly thoughtful and creative individuals, but our world there could seem so incredibly insular--as if it were a product of our collective imagination, discontinuous with the "real world." As a result, sometimes I felt like I was losing track of the world beyond Bard, that it didn't make sense to me anymore.

To give an example of this, let me back up a year to the fall of 2000, and the "election" of George W. Bush. (I put "election" in quotes, because, as many of you will remember, the other guy actually got more votes.) I remember being pretty disenchanted with both candidates--and voting, perhaps foolishly, for the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader--but I also remember never quite taking seriously the idea that Bush could become president. Every time I saw him speak, I couldn't help but laugh--his words so obviously lacking not just in eloquence (or even grammar), but also substance. He had nothing to say, but he managed to say it poorly. How could a nation be charmed by that? I couldn't understand.

A year later, with Bush in the White House, when the planes hit the towers, I, like most Americans, was stunned. I asked the same question as everyone else: "Why would anyone do such a thing?" On some level, this question can never be answered satisfactorily. Certainly at the time of event, we were so overwhelmed with grief and horror, that groping for some sort of explanation seemed impossible and inappropriate. Yet, as time passed, one might expect that we, as a nation, would seek some sort of understanding of the history and culture that enabled this violent act--that some serious inquiry into why there existed such extreme anti-American hatred in certain communities, in certain parts of the world, would take place. Yet all those who tried to offer such an explanation, by critically examining recent American history and foreign policy, were accused of trying to "justify" 9/11, as if they were saying Americans somehow deserved it. As a result, such critical self-reflections were silenced, and people took an anxious comfort in believing that terrorists were simply evil people who hated our way of life.

I was approaching my college graduation with little to no understanding of who Al Qaeda were, what their relationship was to the Taliban and the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds, or why they wanted to kill and terrorize Americans. When we started dropping bombs in Afghanistan, I didn't know what to think. I wanted to believe that we were doing what was necessary to make sure we would be safe from another attack, but I also kept thinking about all of the Afghan civilians who were being killed in the crossfire. What had they done to deserve the destruction of their country and lives?

After graduating in 2002, I again found myself unable to understand the conversations circling around me in public debate. Already involved in a war in Afghanistan, which seemed to be crawling along in a futile attempt to find Osama bin Laden (the ultimate "bad guy"), there was talk of starting another war in Iraq. I couldn't understand why. Iraq had not attacked us. Iraq had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or 9/11. Why would we fight them? The media coverage centered around Bush's attempts at "selling War in Iraq" to the American people -- why would he want to "sell" a war, and why would we want to "buy" it? I couldn't believe anyone would go for it...until we all did.

In spring of 2003, shortly after the Iraq War began, I was at a protest for peace in Middletown, Connecticut, and someone drove by, yelling at the protesters something about how we were disrespecting 9/11. I was baffled. It seemed so obvious to me that the man who had truly and deeply disrespected the lives that were lost and the families that were traumatized on 9/11 was the President, by exploiting people's emotions in order to lead them into a senseless war against a regime utterly unconnected with the terrorists who attacked us.

Eight years later, I think I have begun to understand some of the reasons behind this horrific chain of events, but much I still fail to comprehend. I am glad that most Americans seem to believe that getting our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan is important, even if the government--with a new president--is slow to listen and act on that. But I am concerned that many of us--and many of my students--think of these wars very indistinctly, unsure of why they were fought at all, why they were fought the way they were, or why they are still going on. Worse yet is the fear that these wars are not thought of at all, that our troops and their sacrifices are given token respect but never deep consideration. Where might our troops be asked to go next, if we do not keep a vigilant eye on the government that directs them?

Many of my students pointed out the inspiring sense of unity and togetherness that immediately followed 9/11, as well as their admiration for the soldiers who took on the burden of responding to the attack by pursuing Al Qaeda. I would like to propose that, in order to revive and sustain that sense of unity, we must realize that it is our duty, as citizens, to protect our soldiers, just as much as it is our soldiers' duty to protect us. By that I mean, we cannot let fear, a desire for revenge, or an uncritical "patriotism" pull us into an avoidable war--true patriotism involves restraining that impulse for war, making sure we do not put our brave, all-volunteer forces in harm's way unless absolutely necessary. We owe them that much, and so much more.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Adapting to the New Normal

Last Thursday, when Yuriko and I woke up, the Schuylkill River had creeped over the bank and was inching toward the road. We checked the Weather Channel website and saw that more rain was predicted for most of the day, and that the river was not expected to crest until sometime that evening. We realized that pretty soon the road would be impassable. If we left for work, we'd likely be unable to return that night. If we didn't leave for work, we might be stuck at home for awhile. We decided to do the "responsible" thing (responsible as employees--not necessarily as homeowners) and abandon the abode, taking with us toiletries, an extra set of clothes, and Baylor (the dog). We ended up staying at the Homewood Suites that night--a pet-friendly hotel on higher ground.

By stomping through some neighbors' backyards later in the day, Yuriko was able to return briefly to check on the basement and the cats. Luckily, there was no damage. Here's a picture she took that shows our road, lawn, and driveway as they merged with the Schuylkill.

By Friday morning, the river had receded and we were able to get back home. Some mud and debris were left behind, but we considered ourselves very lucky that the house was completely unaffected.

We know that many others were not so lucky. I kept seeing reports on the news and facebook from my former town--Binghamton, NY, where I lived for six years--that showed immense flooding. The Susquehanna, it seems, had reached an historic level, wreaking an extraordinary amount of damage. In 2006, when I was still living up there, a record-setting flood swamped many riverside homes and businesses, dealing a serious blow to an already weak and vulnerable economy. That flood had been the worst in recorded history for Binghamton. Last week's flood was worse still. Floods of this magnitude, according to experts, should be expected roughly once every century. The upper Susquehanna valley has had 2 in 6 years.

Meanwhile, Texas is literally on fire--Texans are experiencing an unprecedented drought that has destroyed cattle farms and ignited hundreds of wildfires.

For me, this is pretty convincing evidence of what many climate scientists have been saying for awhile: global warming is creating atmospheric conditions in which extreme weather events will happen with both greater frequency and intensity. As Heidi Cullen, whom my students will read later this semester, has written, "the weather is getting more extreme. The conditions have arisen for more major storms, longer droughts, and serious flooding, and they are getting worse." What can we as individuals do to diminish our contributions to climate change and to encourage governments and companies to invest in the infrastructure and technology that will help us adapt?