The Meaning of 9/11? It’s All About 9/12
What Cosmos, Abraham Lincoln, The Leftovers, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars Can Tell Us About 9/11
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse September 12, 2014
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE LEFTOVERS AND STAR WARS: CLONE WARS FOLLOW
Often, there are times in life when an experience is so overpowering, that life and art not only continue, as always, to imitate each other, but you find life and art continually imitate such an experience. 9/11 is one of those experiences. It has now become so a part of our memory and our living consciousness that the effects on our culture are broad and deep and ever present. And while is it natural for the anniversary of any event to lead to thoughts tying it and other things together, I have been deeply impacted by certain recent shows—Cosmos, The Leftovers, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, each among the best the television medium has had to offer in recent memory—in such a way that their connection and significance to 9/11 and our post-9/11 America should be clear on any day of the year.
In both life and art, people have an intrinsic tendency to want to ascribe meaning, and to have themselves attached to this meaning. This is a concept which Neil deGrasse Tyson tackles early on in Cosmos, in episode three: “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” when he talks of man’s unique ability for pattern recognition. In fact, it’s so strong it has created a tendency to find patterns when there aren’t even any there:
“The human talent for pattern recognition is a two-edged sword. We’re especially good at finding patterns, even when they aren’t really there, something known as ‘false pattern recognition.’ We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe.
To that end, we’re all too eager to deceive ourselves and others, to discern a sacred image in a grilled cheese sandwich or find a divine warning in a comet. Today, we know exactly where comets come from and what they’re made of.”
When it comes to 9/11, we must be especially careful for our tendency for “false pattern recognition.” For 9/11 is all about 9/12. It’s about whether we can look back at 9/11 one day and see it as a catalyst for our growth and self-improvement or, instead, for our ruin and self-destruction. When speaking about the Battle of Gettysburg and helping his nation to search for meaning amid incredible death, division, and destruction, Abraham Lincoln said, in his famous Address, that “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Likewise, the world will little note, nor long remember, what we said after 9/11, but it will never forget what we did and continue to do in response to it. Our actions over time, not our words, will give 9/11 its true meaning, at least on the macro level, anyway. In the meantime, we have to suffer through the grand pronouncements and baseless wishful or doomsday thinking of many an ignorant or devious person, but here, too, Tyson’s Cosmos offers us a road map for how we can analyze our own society in the wake of 9/11 using the scientific method as first formally conceived a millennium ago by Ibn al-Hazen in Basra, in what is now Iraq. He
…was the first person ever to set down the rules of science. He created an error-correcting mechanism, a systematic and relentless way to sift out misconceptions in our thinking: ‘Finding truth is difficult and the road to it is rough. As seekers after truth, you will be wise to withhold judgment and not simply put your trust in the writings of the ancients. You must question and critically examine those writings from every side. You must submit only to argument and experiment and not to the sayings of any person. For every human being is vulnerable to all kinds of imperfection. As seekers after truth, we must also suspect and question our own ideas as we perform our investigations, to avoid falling into prejudice or careless thinking. Take this course, and truth will be revealed to you.’
Tyson then adds that “This is the method of science,” but it is no less relevant to understanding our nation or ourselves, for we must look at the facts, results, and realities of our behavior for us to truly have self-awareness, we must be vigorous in separating myths from reality, and avoid seeing and believing what we want to be the truth as part of a natural tendency to seek comfort.
There is another great truth about 9/11 that Tyson’s Cosmos can show us: just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there, or that it’s not extremely powerful and affecting everything around it. The show talks about John Michell, an eighteenth century British astronomer, who
…imagined a star so big, so massive, that nothing, not even light, could escape its gravitational grip. Can you find the dark star? You can’t see it with your eyes, not directly, but it may leave a kind of footprint on the cosmic shore. Michell realized that we might be able to detect some of these dark stars because of their extreme gravity. If one happened to be near a smaller, luminous companion star, that star would appear to travel in a tight orbit around nothing. Even though we can’t see it, we know something with a lot of mass has to be right there. A dark star, or what today we call a black hole.
Well, that’s what 9/11 is, especially in lower Manhattan: a black hole, an invisible star of massive, undeniable size and power, pulling on everything that is in its orbit. Today, there is no smoking, rubble filled-crater; a truly inspiring memorial and museum fill the void left by the Twin Towers, and the new Freedom Tower stands almost in their places. I remember the first time I saw the Freedom Tower, from a distance, and as beautiful as it looked, it felt almost as odd to see a new anything in place of that void as it did when I saw that former gaping void for the first time a few months after 9/11, a void left by the destruction of the Twin Towers. This void may have been partially physically replaced, though the sites of the towers are building-free waterfalls ringed by the names of the victims set in bronze, but it is still very much there: an invisible dead star, pulling on history, pulling on hearts, pulling a city and a nation into its orbit. It is massive and huge and there—you can feel it, if you knew New York before 9/11—and it is a part of us, our very own black hole.
Which brings me to HBO’s The Leftovers and a major point that all should realize about 9/11. The Leftovers is a truly unique and remarkable program, different from anything I’ve ever seen on television. We are taken in this series to a small town in suburban New York State, when all of a sudden, people disappear. They simply vanish into thin air, and are never heard from again. No explanation, no message from above. Just disappearances. Globally, about 2% of the world’s population in an instant, to be more exact. Some lost their entire immediate family, one character loses her unborn child, others lost no one. Nearly three years later, we begin to follow the lives of people in this town as they cope with and attempt to understand the loss of these people. On the one level, most people try to continue to go about their daily lives, but everyone knows things are different. As people everywhere search for meaning, many cults spring up and try to make this point about things being different in very provocative ways, to the degree that the small town we come to know is truly ripped apart at the end of the first season, and descends into anarchy. The catalyst for this is a cult deciding to break into the homes of the people who lost loved ones in the vanishings and to place life-like replicas of these disappeared people in the same dress and positions they were when they disappeared. Even after three years of time to recover and heal from these losses, the reaction is swift, base, primitive, and very human: after many months, perhaps years of this cult obnoxiously harassing the whole town, the town becomes a mob, all semblance of law and order gone, that descends on the cult members and their compound, motivated purely towards death and destruction. All along, over the course of three years, the wound of losing loved ones for these people was always there, perhaps not as raw, but always there, ready to be reopened and to become just as raw if ripped open too harshly. That is what the cult did: open those wounds so harshly that young and old, meek as well as strong, became animals wailing in grief, animals bent on violence and destruction. The pain, sorrow, and loss of suddenly and unexpectedly losing a loved one, especially when it happens to so many people at the same time, is not something that ever does go away, and it is not something you “get over;” there is no “moving on,” no future where that black hole is not a part of you, pulling on you no matter how hard you try to escape its gravitational pull, for as Tyson notes in another episode of Cosmos, “one thing never changes: gravity.” In the finale of the first season of The Leftovers, this was made perhaps most clear in the moment when one character who lost her husband and two children, who all vanished from the breakfast table while she was looking in the fridge, sees the life-like dolls the cult set up of her whole family at her own breakfast table, dressed in replicas of their own clothes (the cult had broken into people’s homes earlier and stolen pictures so they would know how to dress the human replicas). Three years of progress in trying to move on from losing her entire immediate family is shattered, and she lets out a primal scream of despair and pain, anguish and grief. She’s right back to that moment of the vanishings; soon we hear her voice reading what sounds like a suicide note to one of the other major characters with whom she has become romantically entangled:
Dear _____ [trying to reduce spoilers here], I need to say goodbye to someone I care about, someone who’s still here, so I’m saying it to you. You were good to me _____, and sometimes when we were together, I remembered who I used to be before everything changed, but I was pretending. Pretending as if I hadn’t lost everything. I want to believe it can all go back to the way it was, I want to believe I’m not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization, I want to believe it’s still possible to get close to someone. But it’s easier not to. It’s easier because I’m a coward and I couldn’t take the pain, not again. I know that’s not fair, _____. You’ve lost so much too, and you’re strong. You’re still here. But I can’t be, not anymore. I tried to get better, _____. I didn’t want to feel this way, so I took a shortcut. But it led me right back home. And do you know what I found when I got there? I found them, _____, right where I left them. Right where they left me. It took me three years to accept the truth, but now I know there’s no going back, no fixing it. I’m beyond repair. Maybe we’re all beyond repair.
I was only yesterday watching the ceremonies at Ground Zero—the former site of the Twin Towers—and even after thirteen years, the raw pain was still amazing. The ceremony is very simple: family members and friends of victims stand in pairs, and each pair reads a small portion of the nearly 3,000 names of the victims. String instruments, or a flute playing “Danny Boy” or “Amazing Grace” or the like, fill the background, along with the rushing water of the reflecting pools in the spots where the towers once stood. A uniformed member of the NYPD, the FDNY, and other local uniformed services who tried to rescue people and had many of their own perish on 9/11 stand behind each pair. After each pair reads the names, each member of the pair says the name of his or her loved one, usually with a brief message about how missed he or she is, or something about his or her Yankees, Mets, Jets, or Giants, or about the son or niece he or she would never know. Sometimes the readers are totally calm and then break down right when they utter the name of their loved one. Sometimes, you can see the police officers or firefighters standing right behind them struggle to keep their emotions in check. The readers they read and people in the crowd as they listen often hold pictures of their loved ones, holding them up for all to see. But it is clear for many of them that the pain is very much there, is with them even now, all these years later, like an invisible star that surrounds them which they continually orbit. Like the people in The Leftovers, they, too, are unable to let go. Like the sudden rapture-like vanishings in the series, the real-life deaths of 9/11 were also very sudden, leaving a black hole in the lives of those who orbited them that is impossible to fill or escape.
The damage is clear on the individual, micro level, but what about the macro level? That is what The Leftovers season finale does such of great job of showcasing: the falling apart of many individuals converges on one point in time, from micro to macro, and we see an entire town fall to lawlessness and anarchy, certainly provoked but choosing to be this way nonetheless. Star Wars: The Clone Wars shows such an occurrence brilliantly over the course of its five-and-a-half seasons. It may be CGI animated, but it’s also one of the most underrated shows in recent years, dealing adeptly with a number of difficult, deep, and pressing issues, from emotional ones to political ones, from terrorism and loyalty to war and peace. Set in the era when Anakin Skywalker is fighting side-by-side with his best friend, mentor and master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in the Clone Wars, it is the tale of how war and manipulation undoes an entire Galactic Republic of a democracy, how the moral-bedrock-of-the-Republic Jedi Order loses its way, how an Emperor rises to destroy democracy and create an Empire. And, of course, it is the very human story of how Anakin loses his faith in the Jedi and the Republic and how the war consumes him, the Republic, and the Order. We steadily increasingly see Anakin being put into uncomfortable positions, where the war pushes him and his relationships with the Order, his padawan (trainee), his master Obi-Wan, and his secret (and against the rules!) wife, Padmé Amidala, to the breaking point, and not without good reason. The whole show does a great job of showing how the Republic is crumbling on the inside, and how the Jedi Order gets caught up in the politics of the day and makes questionable decisions, all in a mature, well-written, believable way that shines a brilliant, morally ambiguous gray. It is a show, written and produced while the U.S. was itself at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where both sides are shown to have heroes and villains, and where even the cloned soldiers who make up the bulk of the Republic’s army question why they are fighting, wrestling with their identity as warriors bred and engineered for war. This show is about how a hero can fall, how good can lose, how evil can win, how those closest to you can unintentionally and intentionally betray you, and how good intentions are not always enough. It is very appropriate for both kids and adults in our post-9/11 world, this show that was called one of the most political shows on television several times and causes us to question some important things about our own society and actions.
At the end of the fifth season, a major character is accused of sedition and of committing terrorism against the Republic. In one of the most powerful scenes of the series, just when the leader of the Republic, Chancellor Palpatine (later the Emperor in the old Star Wars movies, and at this point voiced by none other than Tim Curry) is about to read the verdict of a military tribunal, determining the fate of this character, Anakin breaks in and saves this character, to whom he is extremely close, by presenting the real culprit, a young member of the Jedi Order who is actually the accused and on-trial character’s best friend and who can barely contain bitterness in exclaiming
I did it. Because I’ve come to realize what many people in the Republic have come to realize. That the Jedi are the ones responsible for this war. That we’ve so lost our way that we have become villains in this conflict. That we are the ones that should be put on trial, all of us! And my attack on the Temple was an attack on what the Jedi have become: an army fighting for the Dark Side, fallen from the Light that we once held so dear. This Republic is failing! It’s only a matter of time.
And, for those who don’t know the story, it is very close to the time when the Jedi will be wiped out by their own Clone Troopers in Order 66, when Palpatine will turn and twist the good man Anakin Skywalker into the evil shell of a man, Darth Vader, and when Palpatine will transform the democratic Republic into an autocratic Galactic Empire ruled by fear and oppression. No one listens to the young traitorous Jedi, and we don’t know how much that Jedi knows, but the words spoken ring ever so true: the Republic has become hopelessly corrupt and it has given up much of its power to Chancellor Palpatine, who is preparing to use the war to assume dictatorial powers and to wipe out the Jedi, themselves being used by him to further his nefarious purposes and to increase his power and control. The Republic very much was failing when those words were spoken. Early in the Clone Wars series, Jedi Master Yoda troublingly observes that “In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are,” though he probably did not know how right he was at the time. And even though Anakin saved his friend, who was also a member of the Jedi Order but had been expelled by the order prior to being put on trial, this friend saw the Order and the Republic up close in a new light and did not like what was revealed; this character rebuffs an offer from the Jedi Council to return to the order, leaving the Order and Anakin after five seasons of both being this character’s “life,” crushing Anakin and his belief in the Order and the Republic. He tells his friend, just before the friend leaves, “I understand. More than you realize, I understand wanting to walk away from the Order,” to which the friend replies: “I know,” and walks off into the sunset. A shattered and battered Anakin is now perilously close to becoming consumed by his own black hole, which will soon transform him into Darth Vader.
Do I think the U.S. is about to become the evil Empire in Star Wars? Hardly. Is it too late for us? I don’t think so, but I have written about how we’ve already lost a decade to the disasters of our decisions after 9/11. We, too, have been provoked by 9/11 into less-than-stellar reactions and we, too, ultimately chose these actions as a society. Clone Wars shows how easy it is even for the best of us to get wrapped up in the momentum of war and politics to the degree that we lose sight of why we are fighting or campaigning and whether or not we’re having the effect we wish to. These were questions the Jedi Order and the citizens of the Republic should have been asking during the Clone Wars, and they are questions our leaders and we should have been asking over the many years we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, which I’ve also previously expressed.
If there is any discernible lesson yet that we should take from 9/11, it is that we need to avoid falling for easy answers and solutions and that instead we should be asking ourselves tough questions in the method of Ibn al-Hazen as shown in Cosmos, and that our own black holes of death and loss can pull us in the wrong direction, for, as Yoda told Anakin in Episode I (the movie), when he first met him, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you,” and also later when he told him “Careful you must be when sensing the future Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.” In both The Leftovers and Star Wars, we see how our fears and pain and loss can bring out the worst in us, one of Cosmos’ black holes constantly pulling us and keeping us in its orbit, and how there is no fully recovering from loss. Clone Wars reminds us that if we don’t rationally and critically examine our decisions carefully, we risk losing ourselves in war and scorched-earth politics. By asking tough questions, Cosmos-style, we can avoid having our pain consume us like certain characters in The Leftovers and Star Wars. But each show also leaves open the possibilities of new hopes, new beginnings, and redemption. May 9/11 always motivate us to keep those options available to us and help us to avoid falling into the black hole of fear, grief, despair, and anger, which truly are paths to pain and the Dark Side.