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William Rivers Pitt: The Day After the Day

The Day After the Day

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 12 September 2006

The anniversary has passed, and with it went an ocean of televised words and images to mark the day. I can't be sure, of course, because I marked the day by refusing to turn on my television. I didn't care to commemorate the occasion by wallowing in a lot of noise from TV people who maybe should have known better five years ago, TV people who have hauled oceans of water between then and now to help us into our diseased estate, simply because scaring people to boost ratings is a shortcut to thinking.

Rumor has it Chris Matthews on MSNBC accused Bush of hijacking 9/11 to push for an addle-brained invasion of Iraq. I saw this bit of Matthewsian wisdom unfolding years ago, and have been yelling about it every day since, so watching what I already knew get validated by a television pundit would have only made me want to break something. Having the television off was the safest bet all around.

No, I got on my bike and took a long ride down the path that runs along the Charles River. The sun was working its way down and the light was dazzling off the water, and the sky was as clear and blue as it had been on that day. I rode, and remembered.

I was a teacher when the day came, and it was the very first day of school. I spent the rest of that day attempting to soothe a building full of terrified children - "Mr. Pitt, is this World War Three?" - while tasting my own fear and bile in the back of my throat. My boss told me later that my face was the color of old cheese, and no wonder, because I knew what was coming.

I knew it. A lot of people had just died, and George W. Bush was going to undertake a program of making exactly the wrong decision at every moment it would matter most. I knew many more people were going to die, and that very few of them would deserve it. I knew our rights were going to take a savage beating, and I knew that the next two elections were dead-bang guaranteed to favor George and his crew.

I stood in my classroom that day, and soothed my students, and listened to the fighters doing racetrack patterns in the sky above us, and I knew.

There isn't much left to say about everything that has happened since. It is what it is, and will continue as such indefinitely, until people decide to elbow their way back into the process. There's nothing new to say, but only a process of repeating what has been said over and over again, until it sinks in, until it is axiomatic, until this hard-won knowledge crashes out of the incubator and actually causes change.

A few things occurred to me as I rode along the water. I asked myself what the five-year anniversary of Pearl Harbor must have been like. I realized, in asking this question, that World War II had been over for months when the fifth year after that attack came around, that victory had been achieved, that the victory had been decisive beyond any dispute. A Democratic president, engulfed in the greatest crisis the nation had known, pulled the country together and demanded sacrifice and stout hearts. He got it.

This made me consider the last few years. Bush stood with a bullhorn on a pile of rubble and promised to get 'em, and that one act bought him four years of breathing room, as it turns out. Then he asked us to shop. No great demands were made of this united nation, no sacrifice or even effort was requested or desired. Our job was to shop, and be afraid, and shop, and watch TV, and be afraid.

I also remembered, as I rode by the river, that five years ago letters laced with anthrax were wending their way through the postal system. These letters eventually landed on the desks of the Democratic leadership in Congress, and also arrived at several major media offices. Five people died.

As bad as the attacks in New York and Washington were, the anthrax scare somehow sealed the deal. As if the carnage weren't enough, now we had millions of Americans retrieving their mail wearing oven mitts. We had Bush saying, on national television, "No, I don't have anthrax."

And five years later, the perpetrator of that attack remains alive and free, along with Osama bin Laden. As I rode, it came to me that the fellow who mailed those letters could be the guy jogging in front of me. I was a little ashamed of myself that I hadn't actually thought about this in a long time. Maybe whoever mailed poison to Democrats and the media won too many friends in the administration to merit prosecution, but I kicked myself for forgetting.

The bike path by the Charles runs past a playground, and I saw a bunch of very little kids running and laughing while their parents watched. It came to me that thousands of children celebrated birthdays yesterday, children who were born on that day, or were born a year after that day, and so on. These children will never know a world where that day didn't happen.

How will this shape them as they grow? In one respect, at least, they have an excuse. Their world as they will know it always had 9/11. Too many of us, who know a world before that day, act today as if it has always been like this, as if fear and blind acceptance have always been the main threads in the fabric of our national identity. We've always been at war with Eurasia, you see.

I stopped by a bench and sat for a while, watching the sun dapple the wavetops on the river. I remembered a different country, a different world. We were not always governed by our basest instincts or our worst fears. Once upon a time, we were a nation united by an idea, by a Constitution crafted not from centuries of history but from the minds of statesmen, and this was unique in the history of the world.

You can't step into a river twice in the same place, because rivers are always in motion, like time itself. Time will tell what becomes of us as we pass through this crucible. Five years is nothing in the long view, and men like Bush will pass into history along with everything else. Will the idea that is America sustain itself? Will those children, whose country has always been at war with Eurasia, grow with enough strength to hold this fragile dream together? Will we fail them?

The river knew, I thought, but it wasn't telling.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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