Friday, September 16, 2011

Rage (And Hope) Against The Dying Of The Light

For a week now, I’ve been trying to write something about 9-11 and the last decade. Perspective eludes me; optimism is hidden in the darkness; disappointment and frustration have been my companions. The more I think about that day, watch the replays and tributes at Ground Zero, hear the personal stories of the victims and survivors, I am filled with rage.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, I was uncomfortable with the celebrations on the streets of America over the death. I felt it was crass and jingoistic. Then, I heard a Port Authority police officer speak on television last week of spending days digging, sometimes with bare hands, his colleagues out of the rubble, uncovering their broken bodies piece by piece so they could be returned to their families for burial. He said bin Laden’s death was most definitely a moment to celebrate. In his telling, I made the journey with him; I, too, saw the necessity of celebrating the vanquishing of this enemy. I am deeply conflicted between my unbridled rage and my better nature, and some days, I think rage is winning.

By the time I arrived in my classroom on that day ten years ago, the towers were down and the Pentagon was on fire. The world had literally and decisively changed on our thirty minute drive to work. In the classroom, even before the first bell, several seniors were in my face. I wasn’t supposed to see them until third period, mid-morning.

“Mr. Martin, you have to postpone the test today,” said their leader, a girl who normally slept through class.


“Because the World Trade Center was hit,” she yelled at me, as if the logic of her demand was so obviously rational. She smirked. “You can’t give us the test because we’re too traumatized.” At this point the dean came over the loudspeaker and decreed that all tests, quizzes, and homework were indeed cancelled for the day.

Later in the day, I stood watching a television with some faculty and staff members. The image on the screen was one of Palestinians dancing in the streets over news of the attacks. “This is what the United States gets for the way they’ve treated Arabs and Palestinians all these years in support of Israel,” a staff member said. “America deserves this.”

I turned to face him. “Don’t forget where you live,” I said. “They attacked your country, and like it or not, you’re an American. If you were on one of those planes, or in one of those buildings, none of those hijackers would have given a shit if you agreed or disagreed with your government. They would have killed you just because you’re American.”

When the news broke many months later that we had invaded Iraq under a veil of lies and deception regarding weapons of mass destruction, a student in one of my classes said he did not feel sorry for American soldiers who gave their lives in the war. “They knew what they were getting into when they signed up. Being lied to comes with the job.”

At the close of the decade, where do we stand? The wars have bankrupted us. More people live at poverty level, unemployment stands at almost ten percent, our children sit idle in our schools, our culture rots from the inside as we gorge ourselves on fast food, reality television and celebrity gossip while the sun sets on the empire. We are bereft of leaders and ideas, mired in the muck of our entropy.

Sometimes, though, we get a glimpse of hope in the eyes of a child.

This year, a young man in my wife’s English class, barely a teenager, wrote an essay about his hopes and dreams for the coming year, and for the future. His essay was written as a meditation on the themes of S.E. Hinton’s novel, The Outsiders.

“I have achieved a lot throughout my life,” he begins, “but what I am most proud of is placing 1st in the spelling bee when in 1st grade. I am also proud of being on the [academic] decathlon team, having an undefeated season with the school soccer team, winning track races, and participating in all kinds of sports. Although I have achieved a lot, I still need improvement…” He also speaks of the need to strengthen his “work ethic,” the desire to be more responsible, and more neat. These are his goals for this year. Long term, he says, his “life long dream is to have my own house, with a good paying job that I enjoy, and a family that I can share my happiness and memories with.”

He closed his paper with the words of Robert W. Service, poet of the Yukon, and his poem “Success”:

"The haply seek some humble hearth,
Quite poor in goods yet rich in mirth,
And see a man of common clay
Watching his little ones at play;
A laughing fellow full of cheer,
Health, strength and faith that mocks at fear;
Who for his happiness relies
On joys he lights in other eyes;
He loves his home and envies none. . . .
Who happier beneath the sun?"

Sometimes we must put down our rage and look to the far horizon. We must, against our darkest hours, realize the smallest joys, the mysteries of love, the comfort of friends and family. In the midst of ignorance, cynicism, cruelty, and dissembling, we must embrace hope. There is no closure, no solace in our tragedy; there is only one tentative, yet brave step, into the future.

I have written previously about 9-11.  You can access that piece here.


  1. Paul, thank you for this post. I'm sitting on my couch, drinking my coffee and you have moved me to tears so early in the morning. We must indeed look to the far horizon. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I empathized with your "inability" to write anything meaningful about 9/11, though I believe you did, after all. Wonderful piece.
    One comment on the celebrating after Bin Ladan's death; you mentioned how the Palestinians had celebrated on TV after learning of the WTC bombings. There they were, joyous at the death of so many innocent people. If there is a lower form of humanity, I have yet to encounter it.
    And here was my fear as I watched Americans celebrating in the streets at Bin Ladan's capture and execution: we look just like them, and just as low.
    You don't celebrate when you kill a predator, or as my friend Ejay from Texas would say, a "varmint".
    As always, nice job.

  3. Lori, I appreciate the kind words and comment. Saturday mornings and a nice cup of there anything better?

    John, indeed, I find myself in a constant battle these days between rising above the situation and being the "better animal" and falling into the inarticulate cave man mode. Life is so often simply too much--noise, conflict, pain, suffering, frustration--the whole nine yards. It is difficult to see the glimmer of hope, the tiny spark of humanity that is good. But it is there and we must keep it alive.

    Take care, both of you.


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