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A personal essay

by B. Russell

When I first set out to write this essay, I did not realize what a daunting task it would become. What I wish to write about is on a much larger scale than what I am used to dealing with, and in general I find it much harder to write about something big than something small. I find myself unable to wrap my mind around it, so to speak; it is too much and too overwhelming for me to tame it. Nevertheless, I present here my thoughts and experiences, and I hope that my words are honest.

When the September 11 attacks first occurred, I had no idea what to think or feel. All I had were ghosts in my own mind, faceless attackers and faceless victims and no reasons for anything: for a brief period, my universe had a complete disconnect. Since then the media has told me more than I could have asked for, but that initial moment of complete confusion and insecurity has continued to figure prominently in my consciousness. Even as I put my world solidly together again, I am aware that in an instant, it could all fall apart.

Part of me wanted to continue on with life as if nothing had ever happened, but I could not pretend that I was untouched. Another part of me wanted to help, but I knew that there was nothing I could do for those thousands who had died. There was so much that I couldn't do for myself or for others, and I knew that everyone around me was in the same situation. I have felt helpless in my own life before, but never had I felt the sensation of collective helplessness, of helplessness of a people. It was a strange comfort to feel, even if temporarily, that I was truly a part of my country, rather than a person who merely lived within its borders. The attacks had the odd effect of inducing a sense of patriotism in even the most cynical and mistrustful of Americans.

I was also feeling an intense guilt over having survived. I still felt pity for myself and others for being put through this ordeal, but I also felt I had no right to complain because others less deserving had gotten much worse. I had not perished nor had anyone I knew. I felt weak for being so affected when others had much worse luck than me, and I had a sense that I was a criminal somehow for having lived. It was not a rational feeling, but it was very real and it stayed, just below the surface, in the background of my thoughts.

Like many Americans, I gave money. Others gave clothing or donated blood, but the quickest path to redemption for me was a cash donation to the Red Cross. I read that over 850 million dollars were donated by millions of Americans, and I wondered if they had done it out of guilt, like I had. It didn't give me the comfort that I hoped it would.

It consoled me some to learn about the victims. Through reading and hearing stories of the people that died, I found a way to make them live through me: the separated lovers on the plane, the suicide jumpers on the rooftop, the ones who were trapped beneath the rubble. By making their stories part of me, I found another way to be useful: I was preserving their memory and honoring them so that their loss would not be for nothing.

When President Bush came on my television screen, naming our enemies with absolute certainty and promising their eventual punishment, I thought I was listening to a speech out of a comic book, hearing him talk about "The Evil One" and his evil plans. But I revelled in it: finally we had something to fight and were no longer helpless. Before, all we could do was to share each other's pain, but now we could clear our conscience and be heroes. I couldn't wait for the war to begin.

The bombs dropped on Afghanistan, and the protests began. I was surprised, then angered. Why wasn't it obvious to the world that we were the victims, the good guys who had been wronged? Then that lingering guilt came again, and I wondered for a moment if they could see something in us that we could not, if we really were the monsters that they saw us to be. At that point I felt torn between my patriotism and my skepticism. I could not accept that anything we have done could make it acceptable to massacre thousands of civilians, but I also didn't know everything my country has done in my name and I was suspicious. I wanted to blame the government for doing things that would evoke such an attack, and I also wanted to support my country in destroying those that attacked us. I didn't know who to blame, even I was a suspect.

When I read a transcript of Bin Laden's speech, videotaped from his cave hideout somewhere in Afghanistan, it really confused me to realize that the man really, truly believed that he was a hero. A naive part of me wanted to think that he really was a bad guy out of a comic book, an evildoer that knew he was the bad guy and was doing this because he was evil. Bin Laden thought he was doing something brave and richeous; he believes that he is good and we are monsters. It is much harder to kill a man like this with a clear conscience, but God knows we will try.

What I find amazing about this war is how much our conscience has factored into the way my country is fighting. We are dropping food along with bombs, and distributing propaganda telling the Afghan people we are here to save them, not just because it is tactically useful to do so, but because we want them to believe that we are there to help. We are attempting to surgically divide the evil from the innocent, bombing only military sites, skipping the civilians. It is perhaps delusional to think that such a line can be drawn, but I can see why we are trying. We know that if we want to sleep at night, we have to show the world that we are not monsters, that we are better men than the terrorists we come to destroy. We are fighting this war with a guilty conscience, but we truly want to believe that we are good. We are not sure we are the good guys, so we are trying hard to prove that we are.

I don't think this is the sort of thing that I will ever forget completely. But as the event fades in my memory, losing its immediate impact, I find myself becoming increasingly able to live life as I did before. I do not anticipate finding closure, but I have great hope that things will still be all right. The event has altered me, but I will move on. I will still believe I am good. I will be strong even as I know I am weak. I will remember, even as I forget.



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