September 11, 2011

Like you, I remember where I was when it happened.

It was a Tuesday, bright and sunny and just a little cooler than it usually was in northern Louisiana. Had it been the day before or the day after, or on a Friday, I might not have learned of the attacks until the aftermath. I was the Education Director at the Little Ambulance Service That Could, and since I taught an EMT class in the evenings on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I had extracted from my employers a compromise that would allow me to begin my work day at noon on those days.

Had it been a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, I'd have been sitting in a treeline overlooking a rice field, waiting for doves to wing their way into range. I'd have had my pager and cell phone turned off, and the world held at bay until 11:30 or so. The towers would have already collapsed. Word would have reached the news media about the Pentagon attack and Flight 93 crashing in Shanksville. I'd have been able to make some sense of it. It would have been 1:00 pm eastern time by the time I rolled into the office, and it would have been all over but the speculating.

But it was a Tuesday, and I was at my desk early, working on lesson plans, when my office phone rang, summoning me to dispatch. Everyone was gathered there, staring transfixed at the television displaying the attacks, live and in color. I watched as Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, my thoughts echoing Andy Card's whispered words to President Bush as he sat in that elementary school classroom in Florida; "America is under attack."

And I watched as the towers collapsed, first the South Tower, and then the North Tower half an hour later. I remember my boss saying, "I hope they got everyone out," and I remember replying, "They didn't. A lot of cops, firefighters and EMTs just died in those buildings. We need to figure out what we're going to do."

And then I walked back to my office, locked the door, and cried.

In the days afterward, public sentiment ran high for cops and firefighters. Everyone hailed them as heroes, even those cops and firefighters who watched the attacks on television from thousands of miles away like the rest of us. It was a great time to be a cop or firefighter, if you weren't from New York City.

It wasn't such a good time to be an EMT.

Our local government wanted to honor our "hometown heroes," as they called them, and they enlisted the Little Ambulance Service That Could in planning the festivities. "Of course we're willing to help," my boss informed them, "but what are you going to do to honor the EMS personnel that died in the attacks?"

"No EMTs died in the September 11 attacks," we were told. It was phrased as a rebuke, delivered with a withering look of disgust, as if we were poseurs attempting to steal valor from legitimate heroes.

I have never been so close to violence against another human being without actually delivering a blow.

But somehow I mastered my anger, and asked this tin-pot potentate exactly what he thought many of those cops and firemen were doing when the towers collapsed, if not providing emergency medical services? I went on to inform him that many of the FDNY firefighters who responded were doing so in their capacity as EMTs and paramedics, and a substantial number of the Port Authority Police were also trained as EMTs.

I may have also dropped an F bomb or three. I really can't remember, but he got my point, and EMS workers were honored along with the cops and firefighters. But the honor rings hollow when you have to demand it. It was a low point in my career as an EMT.

As much as I tried to avoid it, the attacks dominated discussion in my EMT class in the following weeks. I found myself telling fifteen impressionable volunteer firefghters that, despite what I had taught them in class, that some scenes are never going to be safe, and still we go in. 

That every time you put on a uniform, there is a chance you will not go home at the end of your shift. And that dying in the line of duty isn't heroic in itself, that posthumous adulation is of little comfort to a grieving spouse and children. Yet still you go in.

That, as safe as you may try to be, risks must sometimes be taken, and sometimes it is your life you put on the line. Yet still you go in.

That, even if your superiors do not require it of you, some things you do because a higher authority does. Call it the love of man, a moral code, altruism, whatever you will. Some things you do because you must, if you ever want to be able to face your reflection in the mirror again. And so, you go in.

Some things you do, if you want to retain the moral authority to teach your children right from wrong. So you go in.

And I taught them that no man – no EMT instructor, no supervisor, no textbook author – may make that decision for another. It is one they would have to make for themselves when the time came, and they'd likely have no warning or time to mentally prepare.

And to their credit, none of them dropped the class. They all finished. And that… that was a high point in my career as an EMT. They had 411 examples of what could happen to them, and still they chose to be EMTs. It was my honor to teach them how.

**********

It's the 10th anniversary now, and the politicians and pundits say we should look back and honor their sacrifice. We should look back and reflect on what the event meant to us, and how it has shaped our nation since.

To hell with that.

We've had ten years to grieve, and grief is a singularly useless emotion. Grief keeps us locked in the past, and blinds us to the future.

The time to grieve the fallen passed years ago, and it's time to stop wallowing in it. It's unseemly. If you want to feel anything about September 11, feel anger. Let it harden into resolve.

Feel anger that our politicians have played upon our fears and strengthened their hold over us. In the ten years since, they have lost sight of the fact that they are our servants, not our masters. Let it harden into resolve that the next time you step into a voting booth, you will support a candidate who understands that, or you will support no candidate at all. None of them – not a single, blow-dried, vacuous, morally compromised one of them, Democrat or Republican – is worthy of the sacrifice of the 343 cops and firemen who died in the WTC collapse, or the passengers of Flight 93, or the thousands of soldiers and servicemen who have died since, trying to bring freedom to people who neither value nor want it.

Feel anger that police powers have broadened to the point that the law enforcement motto is no longer, "To protect and serve," but has become, "Us versus them." And resolve to stand up to it, and never bow to authority exercised unjustly. Demand accountability. 

Feel anger about the erosion of our freedoms, and resolve that the Patriot Act must be repealed. It has not been exercised in the way it was intended, and has become the wish list of the police state:

Of all the delayed-notice search warrants issued in terms of the Patriot Act between 2006 and 2009, 1,618 concerned drug crimes; 122 fraud; and a mere 15 were for terrorism-related offenses.

Feel anger that the word hero has been bandied about so much in the years since that it has no meaning. And resolve that the next time you use it, you will do so in reference to an act that was actually heroic –  not as a substitute for role model, good guy, dedicated worker, or death in the line of duty. America needs its heroes, but not so badly that we need to create them ourselves. The only people who have used the term appropriately since then are the folks at Anheuser Busch: they changed the name of their Bud Light Campaign from "Real American Heroes," to "Real Men of Genius."

There are many things to feel angry about, and I suppose if you look hard enough, plenty of things for which we should be thankful. But the one emotion we should not entertain on this day is sorrow. That is not America, and to indulge in it grants our enemies power they should not have.

I don't know how you plan to spend today, but I'll tell you how I'm going to do it. I'm not going to turn on the television or radio, and I'm not going to read anything on the internet about 9/11. I'm going to look forward, not back.

I'm going to say a brief prayer for the lives we've lost, and for the future of our nation.

And then I'm going to go outside, take my kid jet skiing, drink a beer or three, engage in some rampant consumerism, and go shoot some guns. And tonight I'm going to eat at a decent restaurant, watch a mindless movie with a weak plot and lots of explosions and gunfire and gratuitous nudity and sex, and maybe go help make a couple of kilts.

In short, I'm going to go be everything our enemies hate: a vain, arrogant, hedonistic, naive and idealistic American, who views his country – despite all its faults – as the best damned place on the face of the Earth.

And I'll be damned if I'm going to apologize for it.

If any of you care to join me in spirit, then I'll crib a line from ten years ago: "Let's roll."