In the weeks since the 20th anniversary of 9/11, sensory memories of that disastrous day -- things I haven't thought about in years – came flooding back.
In the hours and days immediately after the collapse of the twin towers, I remember the National Guardsmen posted at a nearby intersection checking ID, the police from all over the country rotating turns to guard our local precinct house, the post office a couple of blocks away closed "to all overseas mail."
I can see the steelworker lying across a row of seats on a Long Island Railroad train that weekend, covered in dust. His crew had been moved from a construction job at Kennedy Airport to Ground Zero and he had seen a lot. As he gripped a six pack of beer, he said there was no way he would go back there, NO WAY.
I remember the smells downtown where I live: the day after 9/11, walking up Eighth Avenue toward 23rd Street, when suddenly, there was the overwhelming scent of something electrical burning and then a day or two later, something else, something more fetid and organic. We all knew what it was. We lit candles to fight the smell. Depending on the wind, it came and went for weeks.
And I remember the sounds -- or rather, lack of sound. After the thunder of the buildings falling, there was the ringing of church bells and endless horns and alarms. But in the days immediately following, silence. Our streets were shut down except to emergency vehicles and soon even they stopped using their sirens. There was no one left to save, no reason to rush, no need to disturb the broken peace. Even the songbirds left my apartment building's courtyard, not to return for weeks.
In the aftermath of 9/11's brutality, there followed many days when we quietly worked together and supported one another as human beings. "Nous sommes tous Americains," the French newspaper Le Monde headlined in a famous front page editorial: We are all Americans. And for a while it seemed almost to be true, until war and a president who thought it better for us to shop rather than help each other intervened.
That was then, this is now. In the last six years especially, a sense of community, no matter the political stripe, seems to appear only sporadically as the two sides of a sharply divided country go at each other. Add to the mix COVID and the insane, even suicidal refusal to take vaccines or wear masks, as well as a presidential election that for too many remains in dispute not due to any real fraud but because of specious allegations with no basis in reality. These false charges of ballot theft are solely to create chaos and disrupt our fragile democracy, to cast doubt on election integrity, grease the skids of a descent into dictatorship, and to raise a lot of cash, much of it going into the pockets of Donald Trump, his family and autocratic cronies.
Most of their prevarications and nutty theories are screamed at the top of their lungs – like those nimrods who bellow at people who don't speak English, somehow thinking that with volume the words will sink in. Symbolically – here in my neighborhood at least – there's another way the noise is uniquely made manifest, a form of auditory aggression.
When the pandemic first hit and lockdown began, the streets here were almost as quiet as those first days after 9/11, with stores and schools shuttered, hardly anyone on the sidewalks and traffic at a minimum – interrupted only in the early evening when we rattled our pots and pans to honor essential workers.
Now, the avenue that runs beneath my windows is filled with noise – and not just the sounds you associate with a busy Manhattan thoroughfare. Motorcycles and illegal dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), sometimes two dozen or more at a time, roar down the street at all hours of the evening, disturbing the night, popping wheelies and recklessly running red lights. Meanwhile, cars souped up like drag racers – even the most ordinary looking models – are speeding through with modified exhaust systems tuned to a roar, mufflers removed and blasting music cranked up way beyond 11, without regard to anyone else.
This never has happened before. Reportedly, the New York Police Department is scheduled to seize and destroy some 3000 of the illegal ATVs and dirt bikes by the end of the year but if past evidence is any indication, it won't make much of a dent. There was a time when police responded more readily to noise complaints, even measured sound levels, and made arrests of occupants of vehicles that exceeded the decibel limit. But between employment shortages and what seems to be an increasing and deliberate indifference from police who believe themselves above the law, nothing much is being done.
There is a legitimate concern that people of color are being singled out for these confiscations. That certainly must be taken into account, yet it remains a fact that this is a massive amount of noise, plain and simple. Protestations to the contrary, this is done in part to annoy, disrupt and murder sleep. It screams, "Look at me now!" in a way not unlike the bullying egotism that infects the extremes of the political spectrum.
In any case, I'm using it as a metaphor so bear with me. Please don't mistake me for the old man snarling about "these kids today." Instead of calls for unity from those who have fallen under the sway of a mad, bitter orange grifter intent on a coup d'etat, we get nothing back but noise, recklessness and an embrace of conspiracy and lies. They fling insults and grievance, little of which are of any constructive use. Destructiveness is not a glitch in the system but the goal.
Increasingly, we see members of city councils and school boards, teachers and hospital employees threatened with violence for trying to ensure the survival of COVID patients and protect the rest of us from catching the contagion. They urge the safety of getting vaccinated. But political leaders and others who dare to speak such truth are smeared and put on a death watch with Trump and gang smearing their reputations, falsely accusing them of all the things for which he is genuinely guilty.
They are angry, frustrated, and afraid. Many of them are enraged by "the other" – anything or anyone that they do not know. They fail to understand such people and things because they have never been in proximity of all that's different and only learn about them through the blatantly biased, spittle- flecked rhetoric of Trump, other obeisant Republican politicians and the right-wing media that echoes its anger, especially Fox News.
In Mother Jones recently, Kevin Drum wrote:
The answer to the increasing amount of hate in our politics, then—the only answer that fits the data—is almost certainly Fox News, along with the increasing despair and commitment of conservative evangelicals. We saw it in the Fox-led tea party eruption of 2009. It's evident in the fact that white evangelicals are the most faithful viewers of Fox News. It was behind the months-long Fox coverage of "fraud" following the 2020 election. And we're seeing it right now in the endless Fox coverage of critical race theory and supposed anti-white bias in general.
Loudmouths and members of right-wing extremist and militias groups now feel entitled by the encouragement of Fox and other right-wing media, the former president and his Republican henchmen. GOP candidates and incumbents are so afraid of losing their base that they echo and fall back on lies and lame excuses, trying to rationalize Trump's – and their own --sociopathic words and behaviors.
We know where this leads. January 6 was just a taste of what these thugs are capable of. This past Friday, Joe Biden traveled to Hartford, Connecticut, to visit the Capitol Child Development Center and greet the kids there. Less than a block away, Trump supporters waved signs and flags, jeered, and screamed, "F**k Biden!" and "Traitor!" all within hearing range of the children. This kind of action is being replicated across the country, aided and abetted by those who would subvert a free and open society.
January 6 and all of the rest have the makings of a nascent coup. Don't let the beards and beer bellies in the crowds fool you into thinking otherwise. We know that their goal – and the goal of the Trump advisers and lawyers who egged their boss on -- is the overthrow of the United States government and democracy. Their screaming says it all, and if we let this minority take over, sadly, we'll deserve what we get. That's why the investigative work of the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack is crucial.
As novelist Joseph Conrad wrote more than a hundred years ago in The Secret Agent, such madness as we're seeing now, "is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it by threats, persuasion, or bribes." So what do we do? Stand together, stand up, raise our voices in opposition at every opportunity, especially when it comes to voter suppression laws, vote for every pro-democracy candidate from city councils and state legislatures on up. Do not let their screams and their madness go unanswered.
A red, white and blue sign that appeared all over my neighborhood in the days after 9/11 says it all: "With liberty and justice for all. You got a problem with that?"