Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years Later

The story of my day on September 11, 2001, is one that I've told over and over as a way of explaining my continued optimism about humankind. I felt that the horror of the day was alleviated by my direct experience showing that intelligent thoughtful people overcame their differences.

Now here we are on September 11, 2009 and the US is starting to look more and more like the Middle East. The national evening news sounds less like Walter Cronkite and more like Al Jazeera, our own Jihadists rave about birth certificates, death panels, socialism, fascism, and all the other buzzwords of fear.

Intelligent conservatives are drowned out and tainted by association with the neocons who themselves have been too easily seduced by the insanity fringe whose core beliefs are that diversity of opinion is wrong, that government should be a theocracy but only if it is their church in charge.

What has it come to when we hear people proclaiming publicly that letting the president address schoolchildren about the importance of education is just like Lim Il Jung's control of North Korean education, when we hear (as I did a few days ago) people talking openly whether it would be better to impeach the president or just assassinate him.

I'm a great believer in free speech, but I must admit that I am taken aback by the bile, the lies, the disinformation, the viciousness, and ... frankly the traitorous language that seems to be so pervasive. I am repulsed by the smearing of lipstick on the theocratics of Rushdoony and Chaitkin (whose only perceptible positive trait is that he dislikes ex-President Bush just as much as he dislikes everybody else) in an attempt to pass their prejudices as rational approach to governance of a diverse country.

It saddens me that we seem to have fallen so far, that instead of seeing Al Qaeda as the enemy we have taken them as a model.

The good thing, though, is that this is not (despite what the neocons try to say) a "grassroots" movement. It is a well-orchestrated and vicious attack by a few nuts and the sheep that follow them.

Most of us citizens voted for one of two candidates, neither of whom had outrageous ideas or megalomanic tendencies. Far from it! The two presidential candidates in the last election agreed more than disagreed. They were both intelligent thoughtful men, and either would have been acceptable to a majority of us.

I cannot help but think that the vituperative attitude of these conservative spokespeople is a result of embarrassment at the failure of eight years of control resulting in the current mess that our country finds itself in, coupled with jealousy over the loss of power. The tools they use are language loaded with kneejerk terms that their audience knows to fear but cannot define, a delivery that asserts the absolute undeniable correctness of a single viewpoint, and (I'm sorry to say) a kind of racism disguised as political thought.

The problem, is that crazy people are far more interesting than reasonable people. A quiet intelligent discussion is always trumped by someone being hit by a chair. William F. Buckley has been replaced with the political equivalent of professional wrestling. When I (rarely) watch some of these shows on Fox News I can't help but think that the participants should be wearing tights and screaming about their upcoming cage match. In my bleaker moments I sometimes imagine that substituting "Rowdy" Roddy Piper for Bill O'Reilly and Jesse "The Body" Ventura for Sean Hannity would result in a more intelligent, reasonable and entertaining discussion.

Maybe what we need are some spokespeople for the rest of us who aren't loonies but still have a killer instinct ... but I guess it's hard to find rabid attack dogs that will protect the middle of the road.

The fires of September

It was a bright clear fall day as I drove over the Tobin Bridge and into Boston. I commuted in the early morning to avoid rush hour. I was in a good mood. I had some Doo-wop on the radio and a four-shot Americano in the cup holder. I drove through the maze of twisty downtown streets, pulled into my space in the parking garage, grabbed my coffee and my Land's End briefcase and took the elevator up to my office.

Humming "Cara Mia Mine" badly, I booted my computers, adjusted the blinds against the glare of the early morning sun, turned on some music (Bela Fleck this time), sat down and got to work. I answered the overnight crop of email and checked my schedule for meetings and approaching deadlines.

I was just settling into a rat's nest of verbosity disguised as a chapter of a software manual for automated backups on enterprise networks, when there was a knock on the door and Kate from QA opened it and stuck her head in.

"Got a radio?"

"No just a CD player."


It was an unusual request, so I called after her, "What's up?"

"Just wanted to listen to the news," she said turning back. "There's a weird story I heard on the car radio, something about a plane hitting a building in New York."

"One of those little private planes?"

"Must be."

"Let's find out."

I accessed a streaming news feed. As we listened, the door opened and someone else came in. I waved them to a seat without turning.

"Be with you in a minute."

But of course it wasn't a minute ... it was September 11th.

We sat quietly listening as things progressed getting worse and worse.

Finally over-saturated I turned down the volume and turned from my computer.

My office was full of people, and there were more people grouped outside the door in the corridor. Friends and rivals among my co-workers were sitting on the floor or had pulled chairs from neighboring offices. Many were crying, some were hugging each other for support, but all of them wanted the volume back up.

For hours we listened in silence, until security came and told us that the office building was closing and we had to leave. We were in a tall office building in downtown Boston, and paranoia had begun to emerge.

The streets were jammed. I called my wife to let her know what was going on and that it would take me some time to get home. She was shaken and asked me to detour to Mission Hill to pick up my daughter and bring her home.

On the way up Huntington Avenue. I watched crowds of students, brightly-plumed, or raven-moody Massachusetts College of Art students, somewhat more preppily garbed Northeastern students, piling off the trolleys and flowing across the street. None of them seemed to notice the increased traffic around them. None of them noticed as a plane flew overhead and drivers ducked.

My daughter wasn't at home, so I drove to where she worked to pick her up. It took hours to get through the clogged streets and back up to the North Shore. We didn't talk much during the ride. Just listened to the news on the radio, switching back and forth between WBUR's NPR coverage, and WBZ's CBS feed.

At some point during the drive something occurred to me. Among the people sitting in and around my office, aghast and horrified and frightened and angry, had been a veritable UN. There were people from every corner of the earth ... people of every religion; Moslems, Sikhs, Coptic Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Wiccans, Atheists, Agnostics, even an eccentric who claimed to be a Jedi practitioner.

And there we all were, sitting side by side in shared disbelief, horror, and communal sympathy, rivalries forgotten, failures unimportant, and, in my microcosm of an office, peace reigned. It's an image that I keep with me, an image that lets me hope.

All these years later, I still feel deep affection and a surge of pride in my fellow geeks and nerds who, in a work environment that prized logic and scientific thought, spontaneously formed an emotional community that ignored differences of culture and spirituality.

And I guess what makes me proudest is that I wasn't surprised, that I knew that there was a commonality, that respect for others' work, understanding of common goals, can lead to an environment where differences are less important than humanity.