A Patient Pause

Just a quick update on my apparent lack of posting: my laptop´s power cord has met an untimely demise, and while the replacement is on the way, it may be a little while. And while I am a patient person, tapping out posts on my phone keyboard just sounds a bit too trying. (To be honest, it was actually pretty timely. Better to have this happen when I no longer need it for frequent grad school duties, when I am busy settling in to a new job and car and living situation, and not during hockey season.)

Rest assured that I took pen to paper today as some thoughts about the election percolated, and am weighing my path of re-entry into commentary on Duluth area affairs. I also have the annual post on Duluth East alums playing hockey past high school nearly ready to go. Posting will resume shortly.

Before I sign off, though, I will pause for one little reflection, here on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. I was a sixth-grader when I got that news, and I’m not sure I have much to say that hasn’t already been said already: it’s a moment to honor the dead, to applaud the heroism that emerged that day, and to lament the ensuing geopolitical slog that has led us far from that initial unity of purpose and certainty of redemption. It’s hard to discount the impact of that day on the consciousness of my generation. It’s still there, lingering, even though it was over half a life ago.

On a run this morning, on a perfect September day–literally every day has been near-perfect weather-wise since I returned to Duluth–I stopped to cycle through some of those old memories, which culminate in a trip to the Pentagon Memorial the day after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden’s death seemed to close a chapter, and for my Georgetown classmates who ran to the White House to celebrate the night he was killed, it was a rare, liberating moment of victory in an often murky war. I didn’t join them, though. My thoughts, instead, were with the people who lost someone that day, for whom a retributive strike might provide some grim sense of justice, but could do nothing to turn back the clock on what had happened. Some wounds never heal.

JFK, 50 Years Later

Fifty years. I haven’t been alive for half that time, yet I can’t escape the shadow of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. A macabre spectacle that still rivets, judging by the number of books and TV specials that have come pouring out in the run-up to today’s anniversary. His celebrity and his promise still captivate millions, to say nothing of the mysteries surrounding his death and the conspiracy theories that cannot themselves die, no matter how many government commissions try to shoot them down. There is just enough question, just enough suspicion, that even hardened skeptics can be forgiven a moment of doubt. (A teacher at my high school enjoyed telling us of how he’d once taught a year-long course on the Kennedy assassination. I have no doubt he had enough material to fill that year.)

It is never hard to eulogize a charismatic man. His family’s legacy has made him a hero of the American left, one who asked us to commit ourselves to the betterment of our country. He was a war hero, promised us a man on the moon, a more democratic world, and managed to cut taxes and reach out to marginalized groups at the same time. A few on the right have even tried to appropriate him due to his stance on communism. (Indeed, a Marxist Mexican professor of mine once dismissed Kennedy as “very, very conservative” because of the Bay of Pigs…) JFK still resonates because he was everything we like to imagine this country is: youthful, vigorous, full of hope and optimism while firm in the face of crises. Not that he was without his failings, but they were of the forgivable sort, born of well-intentioned ambition and a love of life.

Kennedy’s legacy is linked to the dream—and, in all likelihood, a delusion—that a longer life might have altered the course of the next two decades. Maybe he could have kept the U.S. out of Vietnam, perhaps been able to guide the nation through the Civil Rights Movement and the other changes of the 1960s without the violence and unrest that burdens their legacies. It is all too easy to use his death as the turning point that separates the booming post-war era from the tumult of the late 60s and the 70s. As 9/11 is for me, so 11/22 is for my parents: the day when all our illusions of a well-ordered world dropped dead. A fall from grace exacerbated by his youth, his glamour, and his family’s march toward royal status. Once again, as this superb New Yorker piece shows, we have a Greek tragedy on our hands.

In realms filled with love and wishful thinking, the cynics will emerge as well. Some paint JFK as the George W. Bush of his day, desperately trying to re-make the world in America’s image. They note his botched invasion of Cuba, the brinksmanship of the missile crisis, his elaborate aid programs in Latin America that were followed by a bunch of coups, and a refusal to look “soft” on Vietnam: American foreign policy at its worst, the hell-bound road of enlightened intentions. They point out his failing health and his sexual exploits as counterpoints to the slick image we tend to remember. (In Georgetown, one can go on a walking tour to visit all of the houses of his mistresses.) They label him a mediocre president, now exalted only because he was made a martyr by a mad commie with a gun. (Yes, yes, and maybe the Mob and the CIA and LBJ…)

From a distance, both stances appear wanting: Kennedy’s grade as commander-in-chief remains incomplete, cut short before anyone could have truly known. (Pick just about any prominent president and try to imagine what their legacy would have looked like if cut off after just two and a half years.) We’re bothered by that doubt, that uncertainty, that what-could-have-been. We like crisp endings to stories, the heroes and villains made clear. JFK did not leave us with a definitive answer, and we’re left fighting over the scraps.

The JFK remembrances come in the same week of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of the few moments more important in American mythology. A speech by another president whose life was cut too short, though his legacy is a bit more secure. Most every president invokes American ideals; some live up to them, while with others, it’s empty talk. They emphasize a project, a plan for a nation that rises above all others because of what it allows its people to be. Whatever JFK would have become, he never got there, and it galls us to no end.

The sober part of my mind tells me that Kennedy’s allure is all wishful thinking; that our fascination with his unfulfilled promise and his troubling death lingers over something that should have been buried long ago. But burying the past comes with the danger of forgetting its lessons; lessons that we should be able to assess without too much pain, fifty years after the fact. And while the debates over the political lessons may never end, there is something else that should not be lost: the emotion. The rawness of the moment, the shock of death, the eternal struggle to make sense of what has transpired. That we cannot forget. As Roger Angell wrote in the aftermath of 9/11:

Now we’re all the same age together. None of us is young this week, and, with death and calamity just down the street, few of us vicarious any longer.

While that moment will fade in time, in turn overrun by the next great tragedy or shock, it lingers as one of those moments that made us react viscerally—and, hopefully, search our souls before thinking of the best way forward. This is what it means to belong to a nation, however much or little we may like what it stands for. We hope these moments are rare, but when they do come, it’s worth asking not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. A nation is its history, but that history lives on, and can be bent in any number of ways. Our choice, then, comes in how we respond to tragedies that take people from us before their time. Whether it’s the loss of a president or someone a bit closer to home, that time will come, and those choices can be the ones that define lives.

Boston and Emotional Response

I’ve always been fascinated by my response to national crises. I try to be as detached and rational about bombings and death as is possible, and indeed, the big picture is never quite lost on me: on the same day as the Boston Marathon bombings, thirty people were killed by bombs in Iraq, and no one batted an eyelash; on Friday, the U.S. government shut down an entire city of several million people in an attempt to hunt down one person—one person!—and most everyone accepted it as necessary. When viewed from an extreme critical distance, our responses to such events can seem nearly as absurd as the initial act of terror.

And then I go and watch something like this:

And then, in spite of my alleged detachment and cynicism, in spite of my inner stoic, hockey-bro-wannabe persona, I am reduced to tears.

I have a similar reaction to 9/11, even though the effects of 9/11 on my own life are limited to a few airport security annoyances and a visit to Ground Zero back when I was sixteen. 9/11 is often described as the moment when my generation lost its innocence, yet not even that really applies to me; my illusions about the world were shattered by a jarring personal tragedy some three years earlier. So, what gives? Why do I abandon reason when confronted with a national tragedy, even though I’ve been trained all my life to never do such thing?

My clearest thoughts on this conundrum came out in the immediate aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death two years ago. I was a junior at Georgetown at the time, and the memories of that night are still crystal-clear: a text message breaking up a night of halfhearted study, barreling down the stairs of my house seconds after one of my housemates to turn on the TV, vaguely wondering if I should join the herd of Hoyas racing off to the White House. Still, I couldn’t quite settle on a sensible response, and wound up just debating the night’s events on Facebook, of all places. “Justice reigns,” I wrote, and someone quite rightfully called me out on this point. If I may be allowed the pretension of quoting my response:

Many of my friends in this city are storming the White House as I write this, and that part of me that lives in the moment–which I do value greatly–is sorely tempted to join them. But I’m not. Instead I’m sitting here, writing on this note, blathering more literary thoughts in a document, and facebook chatting, trying to give this some sense of order. In questions of justice, there is always a question of whose justice we really are serving, what is truly worth fighting for, and what means are worth using to attain some distant goal. As I sit here, I try to balance my efforts to judge from on high as an intellectual, my dreams for what can become, and figure out my own place in this world as a child of a country born of a messianic mission but trapped within the moral morass of reality. I don’t have an answer yet. In the past, I’ve even paused to ponder whether “justice” as an idea really even has any value. But tonight my mind didn’t turn to questions of moral relativism or geopolitics. It turned to the kids in New York and DC who grew up without a parent, with some awful hole wrenched in their young minds. Tonight, they found some form of justice. If that conclusion is a sign of my moral failing, a sign of my blind nationalist or liberal (in the broader sense of the word) pride, then so be it. His death is not cause for blind celebration, but it does affirm a certain set of values to which, for better or worse, I have some measure of loyalty. For all America’s faults in this “War on Terror”–a concept whose complexity many fail to grasp–the guiding vision has never fallen back on blind hate. That is an achievement, and tonight we can note a victory over blind hate. Onward, to however history may challenge us next.

It has become fashionable in some circles to disown one’s roots in the interest of detached reason, and while I understand the impulse, I cannot adopt it. It strikes me as a luxury available only to those who have never understood what it means to lose someone, to endure a cycle of grief, to confront those bitter thoughts in the dead of night that call us to revenge, or invite us to imagine What Could Have Been. There are many things I do not particularly like about modern America, just as there are things that annoy me about Minnesota or Duluth or the details of my own upbringing and (most importantly of all!) my own choices in life. But for better or for worse, they are me, and no amount of self-delusion can make it otherwise.

Acknowledging these blind passions is not an excuse for acts of hate or incredible stupidity. We must always hold ourselves to the highest standard that we can. But only by recognizing them can we begin to understand why this world of ours is so imperfect, and why people feel so deeply for certain things—be it a country, a faith, an ideal, or a loved one—that they are willing to defy all other logic to defend them. As dangerous as those passions can be, a world without them would be a far poorer place.

In the coming weeks, we may learn whether one of those things motivated the Tsarnaev brothers. If it was indeed a deep love or sense of duty, then they are little different from any of us in their motives. They simply went to such an extreme that they lost all perspective, and that made all the difference.

But there is another possibility: they acted not out of passion, but bitter indifference toward life. Their alienation left them so detached that the emotional response to the bombings felt by so many of us lost all meaning to them. If so, more than anything, they have my pity. Either way, they were dangerous: either because they loved too much, or they loved too little. The middle ground may not be the most alluring, but it is, in the end, the only safe refuge.