I think about September 11th a lot. More, lately.
I was working at Duluth’s now-defunct Ripsaw newspaper at the time, and we were confounded for the first hours. Do you remember the world in which an attack on U.S. shores was impossible? The idle impenetrability of the United States? We invaded. The world was our bully pulpit. But that day, the paradigm shifted as surely and as immediately as that of a new mother, who, in the second her child leaves her body finds her heart, her worst fears, vulnerable and exposed to the worst the world has to offer. You could almost hear it, the snap of collective consciousness as the reality became apparent, over the day. One hour at a time, our perceived security, the luxury of our superiority, rolled away like so many layers of fog.
My sister came and picked me up. We drove around, listening to the soundtrack from the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and tuning in to the news for updates. We smoked a million American Spirit cigarettes. We felt scared.
Later, I stood on the balcony of my third-floor apartment, on the phone with my best friend. “We’re going to war,” he said.
“Definitely,” I replied.
I tried to comfort him — of course we were going to war. We were a country founded in rebellion and dissent. Our history was written in blood. From our arrival on these august shores, every new version of us was achieved while standing on a field of bodies that dissented or resisted. It made sense, I explained. When you establish a government that assumes and protects disagreement as a staple of every decision, whose presupposition is that every citizen has equal right to and protection from his or her government, coupled with a right to vocal dissent and to bear arms, you can expect blood. Every inch of territory claimed was taken from or in spite of indigenous people, over their dead bodies. Order and authority were created with no less bloodshed and acrimony.
The United States wasn’t like the moon, empty and waiting in the sky. We didn’t discover anything. And still, as I said all of this to my friend, I felt the swell of emotion and fire in my chest that I’ve since come to recognize as patriotism. I’m sorry for these things; I mourn and regret and attempt to make amends for them, but I continue to love both my country and its inhabitants. I understand why someone would attack us, but am filled with indignation and fury if they dare do so.
Deep down, I know that we are not better or different people for our allocation of resources. We are the most powerful country in the world, but we’re not better humans. My love for us is conscious and judicious, a sometimes confounding combination of hope and cynicism. Because they are equally warranted, based on the empire of data provided by our relatively short history. I love us, but I know us, too.
In the days following the attacks, every permutation of the phrase, “we stand united,” was suddenly plastered across every surface — T-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards. As the next months unfolded, through Anthrax attacks and a seemingly endless series of blurry night-vision aerial shots of what looked like a bunch of water towers, chatting over coffee, we marched to war. Weapons of Mass Destruction, Pre-Emptive War, the Geneva Accords, Saddam Hussein — all entered the everyday parlance of gas-station America. We were savvy, but we weren’t united. We were deeply divided. The one thing we were united in was our horror — whatever shared experience we might have had in that moment, whatever somber reflection and collective, “We Are the World”-ing that might have occurred was beaten out of us by our leaders. We never even got to have a conversation. We never got the truth. We had been inexplicably and silently stripped of some aspect of our freedom.
It made me so angry. Not just because I am so deeply and passionately anti-war, although that is certainly true. I was angry because we didn’t get to talk about it. I felt duped and coerced and spoken to like a silly child. For the first time in my adult life, I thought, “we aren’t running this country anymore. What we think doesn’t matter.” I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I can now: at some point, our representative government became leaders, rather than representatives. While I want and respect leadership skills and qualities in my representatives, I am both capable of and legally endowed with the ability to make my own decisions. I expect this handsomely-compensated and carefully-selected group of politicians to not just know how to do politics, but to do them on behalf of their constituents.
As we steadily marched to a war whose reasoning and justification were specious, under the direction of a group of leaders who showed little concern for the desires of the people they were selected to represent, I got madder and madder. I felt every bit as strongly as they did, but differently. I was no less American than they were, but what I thought didn’t matter. I kept picturing those first responders, rushing into the twin towers. I kept hearing the voices of the rebel passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.
I was ready to go to war, too. But not that war. Not that way.
I felt in every moment of banality — choosing the cheapest ketchup from the grocery store, vacuuming the living room, folding towels and watching TV — that somewhere else, those buildings were falling, over and over. The world was on fire, burning to the ground, and I was folding towels. Not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t count.
In March of 2003, we went to war. Bombs started falling that night. I was at a concert in Minneapolis — Godspeed, You Black Emperor. Before the band got started, its members stood on the stage and talked about the war that was just beginning. They lamented the call to arms, and derided first the U.S. government, then the American people — for who we are, for our violence and our power. At first I was ashamed of us, but then furious. How dare they speak to us about our country like that? It was like somebody else was yelling at my kid. This country was mine. For the first time it occurred to me that my disenfranchisement was my problem. If I didn’t count, it was up to me to change that.
Because I was a telemarketer and a single-parent, it occurred to me that what I really needed was agency. So I enrolled in college, thinking my degree might garner me both the right to speak to power and the money to be taken seriously. It was terrifying to me. I’d always thought I was reasonably intelligent, but college seemed impossible to me. I cried in the admissions office, I was so ashamed. It was a little like I was in a confession booth, admitting I had rejected college not because I sincerely rejected the institutions, but because I was afraid that I wasn’t smart enough to do it. Two and a half years later, I graduated. I was the first woman in my family to finish college. I designed my own degree so that I would better understand the problem I was trying to solve, and I worked at it like a lunatic. I graduated, and, as soon as I could, I applied for graduate school.
On one of the first days of my first graduate classes our professor asked the class about September 11. Where were we? What did we feel? There was a remarkable difference in the responses of the students. We varied in ages from early twenties to late fifties. Many of the younger people didn’t remember where they were. They had never lived in a pre-9/11 world, in their recollection. They came into awareness in a post 9/11 world. Many of the younger students, and all of the older students, including me, had near-universal clarity on what (exactly what) we were doing that day. We related our stories, now over five years old, with solemnity and heartbreak. Each and every one of us had reacted the same way. We had all rushed literally or figuratively to war, all summoned by those same burning buildings.
While we completed our coursework, we held down jobs, raised families, and worked like dogs to change the world. We volunteered and interned for political campaigns, we phonebanked and door-knocked and attended city council meetings. We debated and discussed, wrote letters and attended a thousand rallies. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. Whether or not anyone agreed with him politically, his victory was significant for another reason: Obama was not a millionaire white guy. It seemed like maybe the political system was changing. Average people could elect a president, even with all that money floating around. I told people, sincerely, if they didn’t like Obama they could simply vote him out of office. It wasn’t that I didn’t respect and agree with Obama — I certainly did and do. I believed that Obama’s election signaled the end of the ruling elite. The end of the radical partisanship and money-mauling that had run our country for the previous several terms. We had elected a person. Just a person. Our work was done.
I see now I was fooled by the same rhetoric I had been so critical of. I allowed myself to believe a terrible myth: that the party of ascendancy was a real and lasting indicator of persistent social change, and that progress, including progress toward ideals in which I did not believe, was an organism whose growth would organically continue from inception infinitely forward. I stopped talking to people, and I stopped listening. While I grew angrier and angrier at the increasing prevalence of corporate interests in our government, the influence of the economic class (that 1 percent), I did nothing to stop it. I bit my tongue in mixed company, like a secret agent, carrying those conversations in my mind, but saying nothing in each moment.
I had naïve and unfounded confidence in our government, rather than confidence in and relationships with my brothers and sisters. I allowed myself a relationship with my allies and family, like some kind of social Darwinism had happened, and all of the troublesome and vexing lesser adaptations had been selected against. They would eventually die out. In the eight years of a president with whom I agreed and in whom I found considerable inspiration, I did the thing I most abhor: I did not compromise, I tolerated. Because my party was ascendant, I ignored the horrible ways the system that had made that possible operated, the things it was doing to everyone outside my circle, and the danger on the horizon.
We are responsible for our change in leadership. We fill the pipeline. If we elect partisan ballbusters, then that’s who runs our country. If we elect representative leaders, who, because every single constituency in the nation includes diverse political opinions, compromise and creatively problem solve in ways that include even diametrically opposed perspectives, then we get representative policies. Our country reflects not one winning party or the other, but instead the blended results of a diverse and vocal (and well-represented) constituency. Political party affiliation isn’t meant to be determinative — it’s meant to be indicative of shared missions, visions and values. The “platform” we hear about so often. Instead, it has boiled down to two inflexible positions, with leaders at the heads of each equally committed to all or nothing. It’s usually nothing, isn’t it? And everyday people, the working and middle classes, are paying so much for health care that we can’t pay for our food, amassing heroic credit card debt and living further and further beyond our means until we are working to service debt. We are richer than almost everyone in the entire world, but we’re terrified our kid will need to go to the emergency room, or our furnace will blow up. Because what in the hell would we do then?
Meanwhile, the partisan amalgam of power and money blame us for the problems that are killing us. They tell us why to hate each other. They put us in little cages to watch us fight. Republicans elected a maniac because they’re all so ignorant. Democrats bankrupted our country because of all the welfare recipients that use all of our tax dollars. Republicans are responsible for the very educational failures that made them so stupid because they cut education funding. Democrats are responsible for unaffordable medical care because of Obamacare’s socialist medicine costs. Republicans elect zealots. Democrats elect zealots. Everyone is wrong, there is no solution, and you can’t do anything about it. Meanwhile, the richest people in this country pay no taxes, the poorest people can’t physically work enough hours at the wages they are making to feed their families, and corporations are people with more of a safety net, more welfare and more rights than the actual people of America.
It’s not us failing. It’s not Republicans. It’s not Democrats. It’s brinksmanship and concentrated power. They are distracting us so we won’t realize that we are enough to change it. We don’t need to fight each other. We need to fight together.
We’ve been led to believe that there are just two ways of doing things, like some massive country-wide reenactment of the Hatfields and McCoys. But the truth is that most of us are part Hatfield, part McCoy. Our leadership is forcing a false dichotomy, a fraudulent ultimatum. Choose one thing or the other. Choose Donald Trump or choose abortion. Choose Hilary Clinton or choose racism. Are there really only two ways things can be done? For example, is there really no other alternative between pro-choice or pro-life? Is there really no other option between single-payer health care for all, or relying on the juggernaut corporations to offer their employees health insurance? Why couldn’t we, for instance, have access to single-payer health insurance that allowed users to choose whether or not they want to subsidize abortion, birth control, or other services? Is it all immigrants, or no immigrants? Do we deport anyone here illegally or let everyone stay? Don’t get me wrong, I am 100 percent OK with women making choices for their own bodies, immigrants continuing to grow this country, and single-payer health care. But I am 100 percent uncomfortable making everyone else do what I do because I think it’s a better way to be. That’s neither fair nor representative. I know these are hard questions. That’s why it’s hard to be a representative leader.
Many of the leaders we’ve so carefully selected are not good at representing us anymore. They are the ascendant leaders of either Clan Hatfield, or Clan McCoy. They are not particularly good at politics, either, or there wouldn’t exist such a profound and misrepresentative delta between our galvanized factions. It’s not like that in my life. My Republican friends are normal human beings, with whom I agree as often as I disagree. If we remove the buzzwords and trigger phrases we’ve been trained to parrot at each other, we can talk about anything. Really. And within my own political party, among the very people I have been polarly identified with and labeled as, I disagree as often with what’s being said as I agree. You know what? We can talk, too.
We were never enemies. Our differences make us stronger, more complete. When I think back to 9/11, and why I started to care so deeply, it was never to eradicate the voices of dissent. It was never to win. It was because America was under attack, from enemies inside and out. It was because I believed there was enough for everyone, and because I believed that Paul Wellstone was right: we all do better when we all do better. It was because I believed I was America as much as any of them. I believe all of this still. What I want to say to you is that I think you are America, too. America is an idea that only exists with all of us. For the people, by the people. We’re the people.
I will never abandon my fellows again. I will never think my opinion, no matter how strong, is right because mighty people say so. I will always fight for a government that represents us all, as long as I draw breath. I will never let tolerance replace compromise and acceptance. I will make room for you, hold space for you, and listen to you. Will you help me? Can we stand together? Otherwise what will we do? Go back and forth every 4-8 years? At every change in command, we undo everything you did, and then you undo everything we did, and nothing improves. Rural America continues to be lied to and misrepresented. Farms continue to go out of business, manufacturing jobs continue to leave the country, small schools lose money and small communities pay disproportionate taxes for the services they receive. College kids graduate with more debt than a mortgage would cost them and little hope of a proportionate income with which to pay it. The old and the sick are more and more vulnerable, and their families are less and less able to help them. Meanwhile, the poor get poorer, work more hours for less money at worse and worse jobs so the corporations can thrive. And us? We don’t talk anymore because we believe we’re so different. But we’re no different than our parents or our parents’ parents were.
There is no such thing as trickle-down progress. We go together, or not at all.
So today, I keep thinking about the incredible power of our collective voices, the force of us all standing on common ground. We share so much common ground — much more than we don’t. While these buildings are burning, but before they fall — here in the chaos and clamor of the moments between attack and retaliation, here in the eye of the storm, here, in the fever of our illness- we have to find each other, again. We’re right: it is us or them. But we have been desperately wrong about who “us,” and “them,” are.
There is a moment as a woman is giving birth when the contractions of labor change. The world is still, and eerily full of portent. The pain rests for a moment between a crushing, building internal pressure, and a bone-grinding onslaught of power and motion. The pause is chilling and paralytic. The next part, the pushing — it will be absolutely agonizing and terrible; brutal, transformative and so hard. But she has no choice. She pushes forward, or she and the baby die. Now, we have no choice. The world is waiting to be born.