The Rorschach test

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Seven years on, what does September 11th mean? Nothing.

Perhaps it would be less confrontational to say it means everything, or anything.

I had a terrible argument with a relative of mine during those bleak last months of 2001. I said something to the effect that a person's experience of September 11th was more valid if he or she was there, or at least that's how, in my clumsy way of speaking, my words came across. My relative took great offense at the idea that he wasn't as affected in Utah as I was in New York City. "You're telling me," he said, "that you wouldn't feel bad if someone blew up the Church Office Building in Salt Lake?"

"Of course I'd feel bad," I said. "But I wouldn't feel the same way as a person in Salt Lake. It would be more abstract for me."

This got me nowhere, but I stand by the core argument I was trying to make. I was in Queens when the planes hit the towers, and as much terror and horror as I felt watching from the seat of my bike at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island as all that black smoke roiled into the air four miles away, my experience was nothing like that of the people who had to run for their lives through the debris cloud when the first tower collapsed, or, God forbid, like that of the ones who had to choose between burning to death or jumping to death. And my experience of that day—of seeing the city where I lived and worked and played be attacked and disfigured and transformed, of losing the ugly but somehow comforting giant landmarks that made orienting yourself in the urban maze so simple, of ghosting through the otherworldly hush of Manhattan in the days that followed, of rolling through the deserted and darkened subway station at Cortlandt Street—was quantifiably different from someone whose experience of that event was entirely mediated through television, radio, print, email, telephone, and word-of-mouth, and who maybe had never been to New York City at all.

This doesn't mean someone two or even twelve thousand miles away could not have been affected as significantly by September 11th as someone who was in one of the target zones. I can't even call the spheres of experience concentric, because someone in Japan who lost a family member that day is no doubt still more affected by it than I was. I don't think there's a person in the world who wasn't affected somehow, and to graph everyone's comparative experience would call for the most complicated Venn diagram ever devised.

Only if you grant my proposition that September 11th is in and of itself meaningless can you possibly say that John McCain and Barack Obama appearing together at Ground Zero is not political. Maybe I suffer from a lack of imagination, but I can't see how the sight of opposing presidential candidates, one young and black, one old and white, sharing a stage at the site of the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil can fail to be political. What that political meaning will be will of course be different to each person watching, but it will be there because of the individual emotional freight we all bring to such images as contrasting skin color, American flags, snapshots of the dead, and giant holes in the ground.

And that emotional freight will dictate how we feel, and how we feel will, in most cases, dictate how (or whether) we vote in November. The more I read and listen to voices on the radio, the more elections I live through, the more I'm coming to believe that we vote because of how we feel, not because of what we think. And I think we are feeling our way blindly into deeper disaster.

With Bush's approval ratings so dismal for so long, there is no logical reason for McCain and Obama to be so close in the polls. A Republican administration got us embroiled, bogged down, and distracted in Iraq, wrecked our economy, rolled back our civil rights, and ruined our standing in the world, and yet it's still working for Republicans to say that only they can fix the mess they got us into. McCain's recklessness in picking his running mate is confirmation of his "maverick" credentials, while Obama's long and fruitful relationship with his is swept under the rug. Obama's long experience is dismissed as non-experience, while Palin's non-experience is pumped up to levels of Jeffersonian statesmanship. Her family demands that its pregnant teen daughter's "decision" remain a private matter, while stumping for judicial change that would take that same private decision away from other families. McCain's erratic record is seen as consistency, and Obama's consistency is seen as dangerous. Outward signifiers like flag pins are more important than inward qualities like reason, compassion, and integrity. The levels of Orwellian doublespeak are remarkable, and the mind-bending contradictions make natural sense to way too many people.

Reason does not rule us as a species. The heart does, or some deeper, less specific organ of instinctual decision-making. That's why we're more likely to swallow big happy lies than sober assessments, galloping cowboys than careful blueprints, loaded buzzwords from an old white man than reasoned conclusions from a young black man. It's the same organ that tells us God can cure our cancer even though we know He will never restore our severed limbs. It's because we make our decisions with our guts, not our brains.

Of course, that's just my gut talking. It's just what I see in the meaningless image of those twin smoking towers, the greatest and most crucial Rorschach inkblot test in our nation's recent history. If I hope anything today, it's that we can all see through the inkblot, and not let our vision be clouded by it.

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William Shunn

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on September 11, 2008 9:22 AM.

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