Sunday, September 11, 2011


I am haunted by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In college, I had been a student leader of Amnesty International, and I had involved myself pretty actively in a number of international circumstances of injustice. I was not naive about the inhumanity that raged among the ranks of humanity, but still I watched that terrible mass-murder unfold over its hundred days with a mixture of astonishment and rage and horror and impotence. The Hutus were killing Tutsis in Uganda. Thousands of them, indiscriminately, to say nothing of the brutal ancillary violence against women. Every day. Until almost a million people had been butchered. A million in a hundred days. But nobody did anything. No jets were scrambled. Many days, it wasn't even a topic on the nightly news. And what was I going to do, big shot former human rights organizer that I was?-- Really, I was just a 23-year-old kid in a politically inconsequential section of the country, vaguely headed for grad school, with no money, no connections, no army at my disposal. I could only watch, futilely, dumbly. It still makes me physically sick to think of it.


When 9/11 happened, I was living in California. I had an infant. Every night I turned off the phones so no one could wake us early, sleep-deprived as we all were. I didn't really have time to watch television. By the time I knew that anything had happened in New York or Washington or Pennsylvania, it was after 10am Pacific time--1pm on the east coast. In other words, I didn't experience the events of that day in progress. I didn't have the jolt to the guts at the realization that something terribly wrong was unfolding before my eyes. I didn't have the transfixed numbness of watching the towers fall. I didn't know anyone who worked in any of those places. I didn't even know anyone who lived in those places. It was, in many ways for me, like a television show--a narrative I didn't feel I had any right to claim ownership over or sentimentalize, because I had and continue to have no more personal connection to the events of 9/11 than I had to the events in Rwanda. And if I allowed myself to grieve fully over Rwanda, the scope of it would incapacitate me.


Over this past weekend I attended a performance of John Adams' majestic piece "On the Transmigration of Souls." Adams was commissioned to write the piece after 9/11. It's a discomfiting and beautiful work, filled with city noise and lamentation and also anger and discord, and also transcendent hope. As I was sitting there in the great symphony hall, I thought that what that music resembled more than anything else in my aesthetic experience was a cathedral of sound. All echo and aspiring and sonic contradiction with a fundamental through-line of drone. It's not, at the end of the day, a work about 9/11. It's about the tension between the urge to monumentalize and the ephemerality of mortal life. It valorizes the cry without pretending to efficacy.



jw said...

I only add that the nearly one million Tutsis slaughtered in Rwanda now corresponds with the nearly one million Iraqi and Afghani civilians who have been killed since 2001. There is something so horrifying about the speed of Rwanda, but there is also something horrifying about the dispassionate, machinelike, corporate approach of Iraq and Afghanistan.

I bit my tongue all day yesterday throughout the nationalism on display, and will bite my tongue going forward, too. But damn, damn it hurts to see celebrated what should be considered a travesty. There are no winners, here or there.

KNP said...

Thank you, for putting beautifully into words what I could not.
In youth I was ostracized by classmates for my disconnection to 9/11 events; it stands in my mind as a page in a history book, pale in comparison to events such as the Rape of Nanking or the Killing Fields.
I am glad to not be alone in my personal separation from the event.

MJ said...

This raised hairs on the back of my neck. Forgive my lurking -- I just had to say.

Kristen said...

lovely prose. my heart is in my throat.

Sara Dunning said...

Have you read "A Ressurection in May" ? The main character is in Uganda helping a Priest she grew up with reach out to the Tutsis and the Hutus. It's a deeply moving fictional book, but I'm sure parts of it are based on facts. The author's name escapes me at the moment.