The Man in the Tinfoil Hat

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it possible that Donald Trump has been president for a full 61 days and not once claimed that 9/11 was an inside job?

I’ve scoured the internet for possible examples of such a statement from the sitting commander-in-chief, and so far, I’ve come up with nothing.  (For our purposes, we will discount this interview, since it was given on 9/11 itself, before anyone knew anything.)  As it turns out, in the decade-and-a-half since the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Trump has been totally, weirdly consistent in his view that the World Trade Center was brought down by Osama bin Laden and his minions in al Qaeda—and not, say, by a controlled explosion orchestrated by George W. Bush.  As far as our dear leader is concerned, the basic facts of 9/11 are settled science and not worth questioning further.

In light of all the nonsense that this administration has forced us to confront on a daily—if not hourly—basis, let us take a moment to appreciate the grace and maturity exhibited by the 45th president, vis-à-vis September 11, in accepting incontrovertible evidence as objective truth when there are other options open to him.

After all, this is the same guy who glanced at the cover of National Enquirer and proclaimed that Ted Cruz’s father was an accomplice in the Kennedy assassination.  The guy who propagated the theory that millions of non-citizens committed voter fraud because a German golfer told him so.  The guy who pushed hard for birtherism based on sources he never named, and who just recently accused President Obama of illegally wiretapping him based on documentation he has never produced.  And on and on and on.

Given all of this irresponsible rumor-mongering—this obsessive-compulsive embrace of political fairy tales when empirical facts are readily available—we are left to wonder:  Why isn’t Trump a 9/11 truther?  If he can so easily be made to believe that Obama could surreptitiously “tapp” the phones at Trump Tower, what’s stopping him from buying into a Bush administration that could surreptitiously blow up the World Trade Center to justify a war in Iraq?  As the leader of the free world, shouldn’t he be chomping at the bit to expose the would-be greatest crime of his least favorite Republican president once and for all?

You’d think he would be, and if Trump’s rank gullibility and ignorance aren’t sufficient reasons for him to be suspicious, surely his ongoing association with avowed 9/11 truthers would eventually do the job.

That’s right:  At this very moment, there are bona fide 9/11 skeptics within the president’s inner circle.  No, not his chief of staff or secretary of state—I’m talking about people he actually listens to and whose ideas he regularly repeats.  People like Alex Jones—aka the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh—who uses his radio program to scream about how the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and the government is using chemicals to turn frogs gay.  (Google it, kids!)  Or people like Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News contributor who originated this week’s bizarre claim that the (fictional) wiretaps in Trump Tower were the work of British spies.

These men are cooks, yet Trump’s ear seems to hang on their every word.  The president has come to view their hysterical ravings as gospel, thereby nudging paranoid gobbledygook into mainstream political culture.

We already know how pointlessly disruptive the presence of conspiracy theories can be on the daily operations of the U.S. government.  As we speak, actual intelligence officials are being paid actual wages to “investigate” something the president tweeted several weeks back at 3:35 a.m.  Two days ago, the director of the FBI was compelled to discuss those investigations in front of a congressional committee, all of whose members—like every other person in America—already knew those tweets were BS and hardly needed James Comey to confirm it.

The question now isn’t whether anything substantive will be gleaned from these mad accusations.  (It won’t.)  Rather, the question is how Trump will react to being proved a liar in half a dozen different ways.  If his past behavior is any indication—and it always is—he will continue insisting upon the rightness of his wrongness right up until every member of his administration abandons him, at which point he will sheepishly concede that no wiretap took place, quickly adding that he’s proud to have stubbornly suggested otherwise, since the ensuing investigation was the only way for us to know for sure that President Obama isn’t a criminal.  (As you’ll recall, this was roughly how he handled being humiliated about Obama’s birth certificate in 2011.)

However this particular national embarrassment is resolved, we can take it as a moral certainty that life under Trump will only get dumber from here, and you can take it from me that the longer he remains president, the greater the odds are that he will openly question 9/11.

Remember:  Trump’s solution to any big scandal is to create an even bigger scandal, and at the current rate his presidency is unraveling, it won’t be long before he burns through every other shiny object in his playbook and all that’s left is the Hail Mary.  Yes, the pushback will be fierce, and yes, the calls for his resignation will reach a veritable fever pitch.  But what would that matter to a man who believes he can generate his own reality and dismiss all opponents as the instruments of “fake news”?

In other words, the nation is currently engaged in a staring contest with someone who has no eyelids.  For all the unpredictability baked into our 45th president, we can be absolutely sure that a man who has skirted personal responsibility for the first 70 years of his life is not going to change course by the time he turns 71.  As Newton might’ve said, a president under a delusion will remain that way unless acted upon by a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate.

Against All Enemies

The election of Donald Trump was arguably the worst disaster to befall the United States since September 11, 2001.  But if you ask what will keep me up at night once Trump assumes power, the answer is:  Whatever disaster comes next.

I say “whatever,” but really, I mean terrorism.  If not a large-scale, years-in-the-making cataclysm like 9/11, then perhaps a series of multi-city, mass-casualty suicide bombings like we’ve seen throughout Europe the last several years:  Barbarous, politically-motivated strikes that, individually, are not destructive enough to bring America to its collective knees but, taken together, have the effect of radicalizing ordinary citizens into seeking extraordinary, extralegal measures to ensure such death and disruption doesn’t become (to use the buzzword of the moment) normalized.

You can see it coming from 100 miles away:  Trump conditions his supporters to view all Muslims with suspicion as potential ISIS recruits.  Then one day, their worst fears are realized when actual radical Islamists commit an actual act of terrorism on American soil.  As a consequence, those citizens who for years have been fed a steady diet of revulsion and contempt toward the entire Islamic faith will feel emboldened to act on those worst instincts.

At the street level, this will inevitably take the form of countless assaults and harassment against any and all perceived “foreigners” by brainless white thugs cloaking themselves in the mantle of “patriotism,” cheered on by fellow white thugs waving the flag of white supremacy.

We know this is what would happen following the next terrorist attack because it’s happening right now in the absence of it:  Every other day, we hear about some Muslim-American or other being targeted by deranged white idiots for the sole crime of reading from the wrong bible and praying to the wrong god.  Never mind that virtually every major act of violence in America since 9/11 has been committed by white Christians; never mind that you’re more likely to be killed by a piece of furniture than a terrorist attack; and never mind that, within the United States, organized Islamic jihad isn’t even remotely a thing.

Nope:  We are now firmly entrenched in a post-fact environment, and there’s no amount of data or common sense that will prevent several million of our dumbest countrymen from viewing several million of their fellow citizens as avowed enemies of our very way of life.

It’s an insane, racist, destructive way to think, and the incoming commander-in-chief has been enabling it every step of the way.

Without much doubt, a Trump administration will be lousy for women, lousy for African-Americans, lousy for gays, lousy for Hispanics and lousy for Jews.  But for my money, it is America’s Muslims who are the most vulnerable group of all, because their “otherness” is so completely (and irrationally) tethered to a gang of murderers 5,000 miles away over whose actions they have absolutely no control.

Like German Jews in the 1930s or the young women of Salem, Mass., in 1692, Muslims have become the designated scapegoats for most, if not all, social unrest in the 21st century, and it is entirely up to us—the non-Muslim majority—to ensure they don’t suffer a similar historical fate.

As with all other heretofore-unthinkable scenarios, we have little cause for complacency on this front.  Never forget:  During the campaign—in response to no specific threat—Trump suggested a blanket prohibition on all Muslims entering the United States “until we know what’s going on,” and also insinuated—albeit in his characteristically slippery, incoherent way—that the government should create some sort of “registry” to keep an eye on Muslims already living in the U.S.  You know, just in case.

The point isn’t whether he really meant it.  As anyone with half a brain ought to know by now, Trump doesn’t really mean anything.

The point—chilling and undeniable—is that, in Trump’s mind, absolutely nothing is out of bounds.  To him, there is no limit to what the president can do for the sake of “national security”:  The ends justify the means, even when the ends themselves are unclear.  Having never read a word of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions or, for that matter, the Old and New Testaments, he believes himself immune to the institutional checks and basic ethical norms that every other democratically-elected official takes for granted and that serve as the societal glue that holds this crazy world together.

Fundamentally, our next president possesses the mind of a dictator, waking up every morning thinking, “If it can be done, why shouldn’t it be?”

Hence the profound unease we should all feel about how he might behave in an emergency—particularly given our country’s abysmal track record in this department.

Remember:  In response to World War II, Franklin Roosevelt systemically violated the Constitutional rights of 120,000 American citizens in the off-chance they were Japanese sleeper agents—and he is considered the greatest president of the 20th century.  Eight decades earlier, Abraham Lincoln reacted to the Civil War by unilaterally suspending habeas corpus—a highly unconstitutional move that was roundly condemned by the Supreme Court, whose judgment the president then promptly ignored.  And Lincoln was the greatest man in the history of everything.

You don’t think Trump’s advisers have studied up on those cases and are prepared to use them as a pretext for rounding up Muslims en masse in the aftermath of the next big national calamity?  More worrying still:  Are we at all confident that, in a 9/11-like situation, Republicans in Congress will summon the courage to defend America’s core principles and prevent Trump from assuming dictatorial powers from now until the end of time?

They won’t if they live in competitive districts and fear being “primaried” in the next election.  They won’t if they expect to be labeled unpatriotic and “soft on terror” if they dare suggest that not all Muslims pose a national security risk.  And they certainly won’t if there is a groundswell of support from America’s basket of deplorables to turn the world’s greatest democracy into a perpetual police state with the sole objective of making white people feel safe.

It’s a central—and oft-repeated—lesson of world history:  Republics cannot be destroyed except from within.  In 1787, our founders designed a system of government—subject to layer upon layer of checks and balances—that could withstand every imaginable challenge to its viability save one:  The failure of all three branches to uphold it.

On January 20, Donald Trump will raise his right hand and swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  If his public statements over the last 18 months are any indication, he will probably violate that oath midway through his inaugural address, at which point Congress will need to decide whether it truly values country over party, and whether the principles established in that very Constitution are still worth defending against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Particularly when one of those enemies is sitting in the Oval Office.

It’s Pronounced Fronkensteen

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was my original favorite movie.  Like every former child, I remember vividly the first time I saw it.  My parents were out and the babysitter popped the VHS into the VCR.  Hip to my apparently short attention span, she fast-forwarded through the boring bits—i.e. the first hour or so—picking it up just as we enter the marvelous candied fun house itself and meet its whimsical, bizarre, borderline psychotic chocolatier-in-chief.

The one particular thing that stands out from that initial Wonka experience is the ominous, psychedelic boat ride through the chocolate tunnel, during which a series of random, unnerving images flash across the screen as Wonka pleasantly sings, “There’s no earthly way of knowing / which direction we are going.”

Did I say pleasantly?  Sorry, I meant menacingly.  Predatorily.  Sadistically.  By the time that short ride was over, I’m not sure whether I was more in need of a lollipop or a shrink.

Indeed, reflecting on it now, I realize my first impression of Gene Wilder was one of abject terror.  His Willy Wonka—a character so idiosyncratic that not even Johnny Depp could handle him 34 years later—was the stuff of nightmares for six-year-old me.  That Hollywood executives in 1971 thought a movie about a moody, enigmatic sociopath would be perfect for kids is a testament to the respect that the film industry used to have for children’s intelligence and sophistication.  That Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory remains one of the most beloved of all films suggests there may be hope for the human race yet.

And it’s all thanks to Wilder, a thoroughly warm and decent man who, in Mel Stuart’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s trippy book, created a candy magnate who is endlessly charismatic and charming even as he behaves like a shrieking, irrational tyrant, merrily skipping through the halls one minute while allowing his guests to float up into a giant fan the next.

In the few interviews he ever gave, Wilder explained that Wonka’s first appearance—a cane-aided limp followed by a somersault—serves as a metaphor for his entire persona.  “From that time on,” said Wilder, “no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth.”

And we don’t, do we?  I’ve seen his performance billions of times and I couldn’t tell you whether he’s on the level at any given moment.  A slave-driving CEO by trade and a recluse by habit, he makes a point of not letting anyone know—until the very last moments of the film—what he’s really thinking.  He’s a mystery wrapped in a chocolate bar.

It’s for that very singularity that Gene Wilder will forever be associated with Willy Wonka in the mind of everyone who was ever a frightened child.  Just as Judy Garland never escaped the shadow of The Wizard of Oz, Wilder’s Wonka first appeared to us in our most vulnerable, impressionable period, branding our memories with a visceral, almost supernatural force that few movie characters are able to do.

If Willy Wonka is a signpost from my own adolescence—a bridge between innocence and guile—then Wilder’s other great leading role, as Frederick Frankenstein in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, carried me across that same chasm in an entirely different way.

By age 13, I had already watched Young Frankenstein more times that I could count and, if prodded, could recite entire scenes from memory.  But as it happened, I decided to pop that particular disc into my DVD player on the evening of September 10, 2001.  As ever, the next hundred-odd minutes were an embarrassment of comedic riches, from Igor (pronounced “eye-gore”) telling Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced “fronk-en-steen”) to “walk this way,” to Dr. Frankenstein getting crushed by a rotating bookcase (“Put…the candle…back”), to the good doctor not only creating a living, breathing monster from spare parts, but teaching him to sing and dance (and eventually, by accident, to rape and pillage).

I imagine I went to bed that night utterly carefree, with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.  Then I woke up the next morning and witnessed the world turned upside down.

Now, there’s no point drawing more symbolism than necessary from this arbitrary sequence of events.  The September 11 attacks didn’t happen to me personally—although I lived close enough to see the billowing smoke from a nearby hilltop—and I can’t say my own life was changed as swiftly and dramatically as the nation’s as a whole.

Nevertheless, 9/11 was certainly eye-opening to a 13-year-old suburbanite who had never given any thought to concepts like terrorism and religious extremism and who probably couldn’t locate Afghanistan on a map or explain how any of the above were related to each other.  (Admittedly, some days I still can’t.)

And so—at this moment—I think it’s worth mentioning how I spent my final evening of relative ignorance about the real world—the world beyond my house, my family and my values—in the company of Gene Wilder, with all the frivolity and gleeful fright that comes with it.  If 9/11 was the turning point in my generation’s conception of reality, it seems fitting that an actor who could so finely juggle the wonders of childhood with the cruelties of adulthood would happen to be in the forefront of my mind at the very moment I needed him the most.

The world needs him still.  That he remains so beloved, despite having not made a single movie since 1991, suggests it was the depths of his humanity—not just the heights of his acting chops—that made him such a special part of our lives.

He was the man giving out golden tickets.  Little did we know that the shiniest ticket of all was him.

Solving Islam

More than 14 years after the September 11 attacks, why are Americans still arguing about whether Muslims are people?

In 2001, the country suffered an act of terrorism carried out by 19 men, all of whom were Muslim and claimed to be acting on divine orders.  Even then, however, cooler heads occasionally prevailed when it came to assigning blame.

Consider the following statement from September 17 of that year:

“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.  […]  When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world.  […]  America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country.  Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads.  And they need to be treated with respect.  In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”

That was George W. Bush.  In a special address to Congress three days later, he added, “[T]hose who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.  The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”

In other words, even President Bush in 2001 understood that a war against Islamic extremists was not the same as a war against Islam.  It’s a fairly simple concept to grasp, so why are we having so much trouble with it now?  Why can so many Americans still not distinguish a gang of murderers from the billion-plus peaceful folks whose religion they happen to share?  Why are we scapegoating all members of a particular faith for a problem caused by some of them?

The explanation for this can roughly be traced to three separate but occasionally interconnected sources:  Ignorance, bigotry and a few unfortunate facts.

The first two require little explanation.  Regrettably, a sizable minority of American citizens are just plain dumb when it comes to understanding people who are different from them.  Either because they don’t bother to educate themselves or because they reject the information that is staring them directly in the face, these people are impervious to reason, sensitivity and intellectual growth.

In the present context, this would include those who look at someone wearing a hijab and immediately think, “Terrorist!”  Or, more explicitly, those who see Muslims committing atrocities overseas and bellow, “Let’s not allow any Muslims to enter the United States!”

Not even Mark Rothko painted with a brush that broad, yet that is precisely the mainstream view among nearly all Republican presidential candidates and their supporters.  Donald Trump surprised no one this week by suggesting all American Muslims should be “registered.”  (Whatever that means.)  Ben Carson has said an observant Muslim should not be elected president.  Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz gave the game away by advocating preferential treatment to Christian refugees over those who, shall we say, pray to a slightly different god.

Against all of this xenophobic nonsense—betrayals of such foundational American values as multiculturalism and religious freedom—there remains a profoundly uncomfortable question:  Why , at this moment, are ISIS and its ideas so goddamned popular among certain members of the Islamic faith?

In 2013, Pew released results of a survey of Muslims around the world.  Among other things, the survey found that 72 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Suicide bombing in defense of Islam is never justified.”  That seems reassuring—until you realize that it means 28 percent of respondents didn’t agree with the same statement.

In fact, 11 percent of the world’s Muslims explicitly endorsed the view that suicide bombing in defense of Islam is either “often justified” or “sometimes justified.”  That leaves 17 percent who either refused to answer or didn’t have an opinion on the merits of murdering large amounts of civilians.

I don’t know about you, but I find these numbers slightly alarming.

If one out of every nine Christians were in favor of blowing themselves up in a crowded marketplace because someone said something disparaging about Jesus, would we not be correct in saying that Christianity had a problem?

We can bang on and on about how Islam is a religion of peace and that an overwhelming majority of Muslims reject violence in all its forms—the latter being an incontrovertibly true statement, particularly in the United States—but we are entitled to look at that minority and conclude that Islam itself might have something to do with it.

There’s a popular refrain that says the problem isn’t religion; it’s people.  That is, there’s nothing in religion to turn good people evil; rather, it’s that certain people are already evil and will cling to any philosophy to justify their actions.

It sounds convincing and is largely true—in the end, each individual is responsible for his own behavior—but it does not resolve the question of why a disproportionate number of these murderous psychopaths belong to one faith is particular.  If suicide bombing doesn’t have to do with religion, why do virtually all suicide bombers belong to the same religion?  If Islamic texts don’t instruct adherents to resort to violence in response to blasphemy, why is one in nine Muslims so convinced that they do?

These are the sorts of questions we ignore at our peril.  However, they are ultimately mere window dressing for the only question that matters:  What do we do with this information?

As we have found, there are two general approaches to addressing this issue.  One, we could decide that because 11 percent of Muslims are sympathetic to Islamic terrorism, we are therefore entitled to stigmatize and openly discriminate against the other 89 percent.  Or two, we could stop acting like children and recognize that two separate and seemingly contradictory facts can be true at the same time.  Namely, that Islamic holy books provide justification for holy violence and also that most Muslims have the decency and common sense to ignore what those books say.

We can all recite verses from the Christian and Jewish bibles that condemn certain people to death for all sorts of offenses, and we can equally recite the names of people—in America and elsewhere—who take those verses to heart.  Why, it was just a few weeks ago that several GOP presidential candidates spoke at an event hosted by a Colorado pastor who openly advocates the murder of all gay people on Earth—as explicitly recommended in Leviticus 20:13.  In many countries in Africa and the Middle East, of course, this commandment is actually carried out.

Yet somehow, the balance of the world’s Jews and Christians manage to overlook these prehistoric injunctions, living, instead, according to the laws of man and the good old Golden Rule.  If we Judeo-Christians can pat ourselves on the back for pulling this off, why can’t we extend the same courtesy to others who have done the same?

As ever, the tonic to religious fanaticism includes such concepts as secularism, pluralism, rule of law and—when all else fails—treating one’s fellow human beings with dignity and respect.  This necessitates seeing people as individuals rather than members of a group—even when they identify as both—since applying labels to each other tends to produce hatred and discord at the precise moment when common ground and reconciliation are in order.

We might agree that love, respect and empathy will not solve a problem like ISIS all by themselves.  On the other hand, there is no instance I know about in which they have ever made matters worse.

Can You Keep a Secret?

Sometimes everything works out exactly as it should.  At my folks’ house on Sunday, everything did.

You see, my dear old dad had a big birthday this week, so the rest of us threw him a surprise party over the weekend.  The idea was hatched sometime around Thanksgiving, plans were finalized in the first week of February, and my mom and I acted as principal planners and co-conspirators all along the way.

This being the first surprise party in which I played a significant role, it proved a novel and enlightening experience in the fine art of duplicity.

All told, somewhere north of 60 people were invited, then promptly commanded to zip their mouths shut.  We took care to meticulously choreograph the birthday boy’s schedule without him realizing it, while also devising a strategy for handling the many things that could go wrong.  Not to mention the dizzying prep work of preparing and ordering (and hiding) all the food and decorations, and then only having an hour or so to set them all up.

With all the moving parts that were involved, it was quite impressive that our diabolical plot went off without a hitch.  Nobody spilled the beans, everyone arrived on time.  Even Mother Nature cooperated, for a change.  The guest of honor was surprised and delighted, and a good time was had by all.

As a group, we proved wholly up to the task of carrying on an open deception for an extended period of time and executing the final “reveal” with clockwork efficiency.

Indeed, so good were we at pulling off this playful con, I wonder if we didn’t miss our calling to work for the feds in Washington, D.C.

As everyone knows, whenever disgruntled American citizens are not condemning their government for being lazy, incompetent and generally feckless, they are accusing it of conducting secret, evil grand plots of near-superhuman ingenuity.

The Kennedy assassination.  The Moon landing.  The September 11 attacks.  President Obama’s birth.  Conspiracy theorists contend that none of these events occurred as the official record says.  Rather, they were somehow staged, altered or otherwise effected by elements of the American government for one nefarious purpose or other, and done in the utmost secrecy so that no one, to this day, has any smoking gun evidence to prove any of them.

While not all government-related conspiracy theories are created equal, and some have even proved correct—what else would you call Watergate?—there is an inherently low probability that any such plot is real, precisely because of how unlikely it would be for that many people to be entrusted to such a titanic secret, and then for all of them to keep quiet after all these years.

No, what actually happens is exactly what you would expect.  Whenever some governmental entity attempts to pull something over on the American people—particularly with a high number of agents involved—not all of the holes get plugged, and eventually, something or somebody cracks.  Watergate is a classic illustration, but so, too, is the ridiculous plan by the Christie administration and the Port Authority to inflict gridlock on the George Washington Bridge.  Sure, the truth of these schemes was kept under wraps for a certain amount of time.  But then one day, it wasn’t.

The thing about a surprise party is that the period of secret-keeping is finite:  You only need to clam up until the actual party occurs.  After that, you can relax and congratulate yourself on a job well done.  As well, revelers are given only so much advance notice, lowering the probability that someone’s guard will drop.

To wit:  It’s entirely possible for 60 people to stay tight-lipped for a month, as my family proved last weekend.  But what if we gave our guests a full six months’ or a year’s warning?  Would the surprise still have succeeded?  We certainly weren’t prepared to take that risk.

If we might reduce all of this to a general formula, it would be that the probability of a conspiracy remaining a secret is inversely proportional to the number of people involved, as well as to the amount of time elapsed since the conspiracy formally commenced.

If this seems all too obvious, it is nonetheless an essential insight into why conspiracy theories at the highest levels of government tend to be so idiotic, and why they should be taken with multiple grains of salt.

In the long run, human beings in large numbers are just not that great at keeping secrets.  Sooner or later, somebody blows the whistle or sends an incriminating e-mail or tweet.  Whether by accident or by design, some people just can’t help themselves.

Not every conspiracy can be as top secret as a birthday party for your dad.

Not About You

I am an uncommonly selfish human being.  My interest in history is, in part, an antidote to this.

To study the past is to understand that the world does not revolve around you.  That American and international culture existed before you came onto the scene and will do just fine after you have gone.  That while you can certainly make an impact on your physical and social environment in the brief time you have on Earth, you are nonetheless a mere blip in the broader space-time continuum.

Today, September 11, we observe the 12-year anniversary of the event that swiftly became this generation’s “I remember where I was” moment.

If asked, anyone over the age of 16 or 17 can, without a moment’s hesitation, tell you precisely what he or she was doing when word came that two airliners had plowed into the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, and how many seconds it took to sprint to the nearest television set and realize the situation was even worse than it sounded.

On one level, we engage in this act of collective memory-mongering as a coping mechanism—a means of making an unfathomable event fathomable by framing it in more personal, human terms.  To this extent, such a practice is acceptable and perhaps even necessary in order to keep ourselves sane.

At the same time, there is something distinctly unattractive in reducing a great tragedy like the September 11 attacks to a personal anecdote.  The way many people recount it, the point becomes not the fact of 9/11 itself, but rather the excitement of having watched it unfold, as if there were something unique or courageous about passively observing something from which one could not conceivably have averted one’s attention.

We have fashioned ourselves as having been active participants in an event that, in point of fact, we had absolutely nothing to do with.

As I rant, you can rest assured that I know from what I speak.

For the past 12 years, I have regularly regaled others with the tale of how, late in the afternoon on September 11, 2001, I hiked to the peak of Turkey Mountain, the highest point in my hometown, and faintly witnessed the massive plume of smoke hovering over Lower Manhattan some 40 miles south.

As memorable as this little adventure might have been for yours truly, what I have slowly come to realize is that, to everyone else, it has not a shred of interest or anything in the way of a point.  It illustrates nothing except the cosmic accident that I happened to live in the New York metro area on the day the city was savagely attacked by a gang of terrorists.  Why should anyone else care?

My advice, to myself and those in like circumstances, is to shut up about it.  To recognize that 9/11, like past historical flashpoints to which I alluded at the start, is not about you, and you shouldn’t try to make it so.

Obviously, this plea does not apply to everyone.  For the 3,000 who died, their friends and families, and the scores of rescuers and bystanders literally caught in the eye of the storm, 9/11 was very much a personal trauma that altered their lives in fairly profound ways.  They can bang on forever about what the attacks mean to them.  No one has any cause to stop them, and we might even learn something along the way.

For the rest of us, however, this is simply not the case.  For us, who lost no loved ones in the attacks and whose lives were not immediately and violently disrupted by them, 9/11 is nothing more than an historical occurrence that we happened to see on live TV.

For whatever reason, a great number of us have trouble accepting this.  We figure that if we conflate our memory of a significant event to the event itself, we can make ourselves feel significant as well.  We see this in sports fans who refer to their favorite team as “we” rather than “they,” or in baby boomers who talk about the thrill of Woodstock and Monterey Pop as if they were there when, in fact, they were not.

We should all knock it off.

We should have the humility to distinguish between being a participant in a great drama and being a mere witness to one.  Who, after all, are we trying to impress?