We stand in a line on the asphalt parking lot at three on a summer morning and watch the smoke pour out of the roof of our family grocery store, while firemen fight in vain to save the building. Fourteen motionless people: My parents and their dozen kids, the youngest, age three. I smell metal, oil, burnt lettuce, and wet wood. I feel a scraping in my throat, pressure in my lungs and my eyes sting from those plumes of grey and white smoke.
My always confident 6’3” tall father walked away from that day looking broken. A few days after the store burnt down, my parents announced that we would have a “family meeting.” We had never had one before, so we all felt skittish as we sat down quietly. My Dad sat at the head of the table, with six of us on either side and my Mom at the other end of the long rectangular kitchen table. Dad gravely announced, “We need your kids' help.” I had never heard this voice before. He sounded vulnerable. He was the patriarch, the leader of both play and work, but always in charge, invincible and strong. I looked at his face and met his eyes on a field of shared grief. My heart filled with love for him in his hour of need, my chest filled with pride at being asked to help, and my back straightened with purpose. That summer my parents and we older siblings got jobs to support the family.
My family was a patriarchal system. The parents in charge, the kids meant to obey. The USA is also patriarchal. This includes nationalism. We believe that our way is the best way and sometimes try to impose our version of democracy on other countries. The USA promoted colonialism, and in the South, slavery was rationalized as necessary for the economy. The denial of the dehumanization of slaves caused a Civil War that nearly split the country.
Yesterday, the USA commemorated the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, when enemy planes crashed into buildings and tore the fabric of the American soul. I went for a walk yesterday and a noisy plane passed over my head. I recalled how I used to freeze every time I heard a plane for that first year after 9/11. Current news coverage talked about the USA as a country, then – we were a people who shared in a horror that shook our sense of safety as a nation and took the lives of 3000 people. We were devastated by the attack on our soil and the attempt to destroy us. We held hands together in sorrow and in shared efforts to heal.
When I went to Ground Zero in New York a few years after 9/11, I peered down into the big holes in the ground and noticed how Muslims on the streets kept their heads down and looked terrified. I walked to a nearby mosque and said a prayer against the anti-Muslim movement. It was Al-Qaeda, a terrorist group, that attacked America, but angry people generalized to a group of people by ethnicity and religion.
But overall, there was a spirit of cooperation, camaraderie, and condolences from every country around the world, especially countries that had lived through similar attacks. They had empathy because they had been there. Even Russia (our "cold war" enemy) had created a sculpture of a tower split in two with a giant teardrop. The world cried for us. The world cried with us.
Newscasters mentioned the cooperative sympathy and rebuilding after 9/11 and contrasted it with today's atmosphere. They lamented our current lack of cooperation and asked why. People are at each other’s throats, with severe political divisions, and can’t agree on much, including mask/vaccine protocol, even though Covid has killed millions of people.
I can tell you why we don’t have the same cooperation as a nation. First, we don’t have an agreed-upon “foreign” enemy, who we can all join together as a nation to blame. Secondly, we aren’t all looking at the same image. When we looked at visual images of planes crashing into buildings, we saw people jump from windows and watched buildings collapse. The smoke could not obscure those horrific images. Where there was smoke, there was fire. Today, where there is smoke…everyone makes up their own mind if there is fire. And whether that fire is acceptable. Like the violent attack on the Capitol in January 2021. Because it was from a faction inside the country, rather than outside, it gets contained, rationalized, and minimized by those who supported it. We aren’t in agreement. You may not be able to see the fire from the smoke of the unseen coronavirus. That allows some to minimize and even deny its existence and power, even in the face of ongoing death. You see what you want to see.
That is the difference between today and twenty years ago. On 9/11 we were equally attacked, traumatized and we bonded together in mutual sorrow, horror, and then clean-up. Just like the fourteen of us staring at the smoke when our family store burnt down. We all grabbed a shovel and dug through the debris. Together.
Today in America, when we look and see smoke, there might be a fire. But we squint, and often only see what our hearts want to see and look away at what we can’t tolerate. What feels like threat and danger varies so widely in the USA today, that it is as if we aren’t staring at the same scene. If it does not fit our view of the world, we may see smoke. We don’t see fire.