Numbers

Something is wrong when — living, as I do, within a short hike of the Pentagon — I read the local notices of ten-year anniversary observances for 9/11 and say “Is it over yet?”

I had my 9/11 story — nothing dire, but one with a little suspense and quirkiness — and I told it once and again, when the conversation turned that way, until sometime in the last few years I found I didn’t want to tell it any more.

It was a terrifying day, largely because no one could imagine what was going to happen next. There is no minimizing the loss and trauma that occurred within those few hours. What has begun to wear on me is the way that these events dominate our perspective.

Just short of two hundred people died at the Pentagon; three thousand at the Twin Towers. That is 3200 people too many to die on a day when all of them were going unsuspectingly about their business. But sometimes you would think that it was the only thing that has happened in America in the last ten years. Aside from the shock, these events did not touch most of us; harsh as it may sound, most of America suffered nothing worse than rattled nerves, which we cashed in for periodic infusions of a vague, numinous sense of patriotic uplift that is beginning to make Americans look like swanning fools.

In contrast to the fall of the towers, the subprime crisis of 2008 is the loss that keeps on taking. The loss of homes and personal savings, the constriction of public services and state budgets, the faltering of small businesses, the fraying of the safety net goes on and on. I don’t even need to remark that the people in the financial industry who green-lighted dodgy investments and walked away relatively unharmed were not portrayed on dart-boards like bin Laden, or hunted down and brought to “justice” like Saddam Hussein, who so far as anyone can tell, whatever his other iniquities, was in the bathroom at the time. Actually I think they are all having power lunches right about now.

We’re long past the day when American losses in Iraq and Afghanistan surpassed the death toll of 9/11, but I don’t see a day commemorating that. The civilian losses in those countries — fatalities among those we were supposed to be saving from tyranny — passed that mark much earlier, and you heard even less about that. The firefighters of 9/11 were the nation’s new heroes, but safety workers and ordinary New Yorkers who breathed in the vapor of pulverized Manhattan are still at risk for respiratory disease and cancer, some of them already slogging through legal struggles to meet their health care costs, and you see more concern about saving fetuses than about helping those people. And not surprisingly, we want our “heroes” who return from deployment overseas to pose for their homecoming pictures and then shut up; it took a muckraking series in the Washington Post to tell the nation how shabbily our best military hospital was treating the shattered and traumatized.

As a nation, we’re starting to look like a guy who beat off some muggers and had to go to the ER, and wants his ordeal solemnly remembered every year on the anniversary, while he gambles away his family’s house, defaults on his payment to the people who treated him, sends his kids out to rough up people who look related to the muggers, and then shrugs as if to say everyone makes mistakes. Can we have this ten-year outbreak of solemnity, if we must, and then get it over with?

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6 thoughts on “Numbers

  1. We are being bombarded with TV reruns here in the UK. I can’t see our fascination for the ‘spectacle’ waning any time soon. I say spectacle, because the UK have a rather morbid fascination with disaster. But you’ll probably be stuck with a new and shiny Pearl Harbor Day with equally nauseating parades. I wonder if the 3200 lives lost in one day versus more over a long period is like losing money to some folk. Virtually unnoticeable losing a dollar a day, but a huge wallet killer losing $3200 in one go.

    • I think you have it exactly right. People cringe when they see a butcher’s bill like that come in over the course of one day but it’s casual when it happens over a period of years. It’s the Starbucks Latte paradigm of mortality.

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