Dust in our Eyes: Memory, Poetry and 9/11





The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.

 And I won’t speak at all about the crying of orphans
that reaches to the seat of God
and from there onward, making
the circle without end and without God.

Yehuda Amichai, 1978

(Translated from the Hebrew by Yehuda Amichai and Ted Hughes.) 


This week, people across the United States are reflecting on the diameter of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC from ten years ago.  There is a lot of media coverage focusing on the moment of the attack, stressing the shared phenomenon of remembering where we were when we first heard, or realized, that this was no accident, but was an orchestrated attack carried out by trained, committed operatives.


This focus emphasizes the immediate impact on our individual imaginations.  As such, it validates an impression of automatic, knee-jerk connectedness with the horror.  It is to suggest that seeing is feeling, and exalts the power of the media in relaying, and replaying, the message sent by Al Qaeda in this attack. As such, it reminds us how media images acted as an instantaneous force-multiplier for Osama Bin Laden in prompting the over-reaction he hoped to provoke. Footage of the towers' collapse laid the foundations for the appeal of President Bush’s speech counseling pre-emptive armed action in the Middle East a year later.  When the President raised the specter of the implacable, rolling menace of the mushroom cloud, his audience surely recalled the images of the dust-storm that followed the fall of the towers, sending hundreds and thousands of material fragments from the wreckage swirling around Manhattan.


That dust has settled: and the myth of Iraq’s WMDs, too, has now been laid to rest.  Ten years on, I suggest, the question of where we were when we heard is a distraction. It invites us back into the dust stirred by a dramatic event; and as such, as French historian Fernand Braudel famously wrote, it prevents us seeing the real underlying structures that shape our lives and connect them with others’.


In particular, it conceals how the aftermath of 9/11 in fact divides us by experience, more than the moment united us. Amichai’s poem reminds us that while those in the immediate blast circle are joined in death, the wider effects are far from unitary.  And ten years on, he prompts us to reflect seriously on our own relationship with the events of 9/11.  I remember, for example, a waitress at a local restaurant asking me, as she brought napkins and silverware to the table, “did you lose somebody?” And whatever my feelings of solidarity or sympathy with the victims’ families, or my patriotism, I answered in all honesty that I had not.  I remember also being in traffic in Pawtucket RI, and noticing how courteously we were all driving. And it struck me as strange and somehow miraculous that a tragedy one hundred and eighty miles away could affect our behaviors so quickly and uniformly for the better.


That influence passed within a week: driving in Rhode Island, by and large, is once again a hit-and-miss, fundamentally antagonistic experience. And, once I had checked in with friends and friends of friends who lived in Manhattan or worked at or near the Pentagon, my answer to the waitress remained true for several years.  Like the vast majority of U.S. residents, I have no family members, close friends or immediate colleagues in the military. And so as members of the regular armed forces, the reserves and the National Guard were called up for service in Iraq or Afghanistan, I was reminded of what others have called the “disturbing disconnect” between the civilian and military worlds. Beyond a few officers at the Naval War Institute in Newport RI, I knew no-one in uniform, and the expanding casualty roll still seemed remote.


It was 2006 when I felt the blast rolling closer.  Attending Unitarian church services in Hamden, Connecticut, I encountered the practice of reading the names of U.S. service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan: a ritual of connection not just to them, but to their counterparts from other countries, faiths and convictions.  The practice was introduced by the Minister, Kathleen McTigue, and motivated by a powerful sentiment:  “no matter how we feel about the war, the sons and daughters of our nation are fighting in our name, and their suffering and sacrifice ought not be invisible to us.” McTigue’s simple, eloquent words reminded us that these soldiers were the spiritual heirs of those first responders in Manhattan, facing danger head on, rushing into the towers as most people sought to escape as far and as fast as they could.   


It was not until May 7 2008 when the blast finally reached me. That was the day I learned that Michael Bhatia, a former student and colleague at the Watson Institute, and member of one of the Army’s controversial Human Terrain Teams, had died in Afghanistan when the vehicle he was traveling in was destroyed by an Improvised Explosive Device.  That was the day, then, that if the same waitress asked me the same question, my answer would be yes, I lost someone.


I felt the power of Amichai’s 1978 poem at Michael’s funeral service in a small town in Massachusetts where, down the street from the Catholic church, you can find a cluster of war memorials listing all the local people lost in the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. And face to face with my own anger and loss, and that of a church filled with Michael’s family, friends and civilian and military colleagues, I recognized more than before how the names that are read each week, in churches across the country, are part of the ever-expanding circle of pain and time that Amichai evokes, a circle with no natural end and no God.


It might have been otherwise. Speaking on September 14 2001 in the National Cathedral in Washington DC, President Bush offered solace to the families of the fallen, and hope for the future, when he said


"Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn."


But subsequent history—with the costs of war now exceeding 225,000 deaths and $3 trillion—shows the power of endless replaying of past tragedy to block the kinds of reflection that might lead to positive change.   So that in the rituals of 9/11/2011, on which the roll-call was read of the casualties of a decade earlier, there was no space for the three most recent victims of the still-expanding circle of pain: Sergeant Bret D. Isenhower, 26, of Lamar, Oklahoma; Specialist  Christopher D. Horton, 26, of Collinsville, Oklahoma; and Private First Class Tony J. Potter Jr., 20, of Okmulgee, Oklahoma. These three National Guardsmen died in Paktia, Afghanistan, from wounds from small arms fire when their unit was attacked.


Together with the other 1,763 US service personnel confirmed killed in operations in and around Afghanistan, and the 4, 474 killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, they remind us that, whatever the memorial at Ground Zero suggests, the casualty list from 9/11/01 is still growing; and the names on that list prompt us to recognize that commemoration is not a simple matter of the past.


They bring home again the power of poetry to expand our imaginations, even as a surplus of media images shrink them. As a veteran of the First World War,  Archibald Macleish knew first-hand the horror of conflict, and his 1941 poem, The Young Dead Soldiers,  urges all those who would commemorate its victims to take clear-eyed responsibility for the meanings they create.


The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died.
Remember us.
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.