By Patrick Sullivan
Looking back over this year that's about to pass mercifully into history seems like a dangerous thing. Maybe all memories have fangs, but 2001 is surely the year that bites.
You could describe it in general terms--as a time of layoffs, rip-offs, and death from above. But our modern world is a visual place, and most of us could sum it up in one image, whether it's a plane smashing into a building or something closer to home, something more personal--something with teeth, something sucks the air right out of your lungs. Something you'd prefer not to think about.
"You're writing 600 words about 2001, the year that sucked?" my brother said. "You should just write 'mom died' 300 times.'"
Very true. After staring at a little white box holding my mother's ashes, Sept. 11 felt less like a surprise than a strange confirmation of something I already knew.
But for many Americans, I think, the events of the last few months--the suicide attacks, our war in Afghanistan, the world's apparent ongoing economic collapse--packed such a wallop because we'd been riding so high for so long. Even those who weren't benefiting much from this long period of peace and prosperity were at least getting high off the fumes.
Being punched is one thing; getting sucker punched is something else.
Of course, the first half of 2001 wasn't all beer and Skittles: It wasn't only Al Gore's campaign staff that was left feeling a bit queasy about the less-than-clear resolution of the presidential election confusion. And ominous signs of our coming economic woes were everywhere--we could all hear the cruel cackle of the poltergeists loose in those little houses on Wall Street.
But we were urged to forget. Forget the election controversy, never mind the economy, full speed ahead. The subtext? Looking back, dwelling too long on the past--these are dangerous things. They kill the momentum. They sap the will.
Those calls have started again, after a barely decent interval following the events on that black September day.
During the holiday season, nearly every city in the country was covered with posters showing an American flag with shopping bag handles attached. The not too subtle message? America is open for business, so get on with your life--and your shopping.
It didn't work, of course: For Christmas, most retailers got a lump of coal in their cash registers.
But the "forget about it" attitude lives on in the way 2001 is described. There are some who employ the soothing euphemisms of the talk-show nation, the narcotic narrative of Oprah-speak. They call it "the year of challenges" or "a time of testing."
If you think that sort of description does justice to those forced to jump from the upper stories of the World Trade Center (or to the Afghan children maimed and killed by stray American bombs), raise your hand.
Didn't think so.
It's often said that Americans hate history--that we prefer to live in the present rather than dwell on the past. And it may be especially tempting to throw a blanket over this traumatic year. But let's not try.
For one thing, it won't work. Why not? It's those grim images, those indelible mental snapshots, that keep returning to haunt the mind's eye.
For you, it might be collapsing buildings or falling people. For me, it's that newspaper photo of the small boy hunched over the coffin of his mother, who was killed on Sept. 11. For that kid, 2001 was not a time of testing. For him, 2001 will not be over until 2020--or maybe longer.
And for another thing, coming to terms with horror takes time. It's not something you can multi-task, processing the grim effluvia of the subconscious and coming to terms with the existence of evil while chatting on the cell phone and updating your website.
It's popular to say that Sept. 11 changed the world; it's not so quite so common to say we all ought to take a good long time to figure out exactly what that means.
But that's exactly what we should be doing.
From the December 27, 2001-January 2, 2002 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.