On the Occasion of September the 11th, 2006: A Reflection on Power

Five years on, all of us remember back.

For me it is the sound of the sadly-NPR-departed Bob Edwards wafting up through my pillow speaker (a piece of technology that has vastly improved my marriage) saying in a very calm voice and not, apparently, as part of a breaking-in-to-tell-you-some-breaking-news sort of interruption, that a plane had apparently hit one of the World Trade Center towers. More info to come as soon as it’s available.

That has me kinda waking up, but mostly not, because it’s early, and because it sound like a little Cessna or something has hit the huge building that I had known well when I was spending a lot of time in Manhattan — it’s like a fly hitting a window on a three-story house; no big deal.

But then, after about five minutes, Bob is coming back into my slumbering consciousness, but this time, by changing the word plane to jet, he is getting a real rise out of me, so I wake all the way up and turn the tube all the way on (a piece of technology that has not vastly improved my marriage) and, within fifteen minutes or so of doing this I, and tens (hundreds?) of millions of other people witness, in realtime, a huge ball of fire — ten or twenty stories worth of fireball — engulfing the building. Initially the talking heads say nothing of this fireball, but I’m thinking, What just made that thing fireball up like that? That was not more of the same. That was something altogether different.

Then, within a minute or two, the talking heads are acknowledging the fireball, saying that it had apparently been another jet crashing into the building, and then, within another minute or two of that, most of the heads’ helpers are rolling videos of the second jet looking like a dark monstrous avenger thing in a bad sci-fi movie — hitting the second tower, not the first. So now there’s two jets crashing into two towers.

Oh my god.

Now I’m all the way awake — way awake. And I’m watching. Visually it’s quite awesome in the old sense of the word. How the hell they gonna get that put out?, I think to myself. Can a fire travel down a building as well as up? How’re they gonna fix that once it goes out? They re-skinned the Standard Oil Building in Chicago (a building that looked somewhat like a single WTC) because something went wrong with the first skin, but this is going to be a whole lot bigger than that.

Oh my god oh my god.

But never, not even close, does it dawn on me that both of these buildings have suffered a death blow, and are in their death throes — that they’re at life’s end.

So here I am, the son and grandson of architects, the husband of an architect, and a person who helped build big concrete things when I was young — and never in my wildest dreams am I thinking about the possibility of anything coming down. Thunderous death knells await each in a matter of moments, but to me and, I would surmise, to the rest of the world, the idea of all-fall-down is not yet within the realm of possibility.

Beverly is not here; she has something out in the Central Valley this morning, so she had gotten up early and was long gone. I call her but don’t get through (this is pre-Bluetooth; she had a clunky old Nokia that she never left on all that much).

Then, within another forty-five minutes or so, something very visually weird and incomprehensible happens. With eyes as bugged out as they ever have been, and hopefully ever will be, I crane my head forward toward the TV and say to myself did that fucking thing just fall down? Within another minute or so the talking heads come on, saying something that still seems unfathomable: we had indeed just witnessed the biggest building collapse in the history of the world.

I call my wife again. Voice mail again.

I watch more. I am not crying but I am mortified and numb and sad. Can the other one stand up? The first-one-down was the last-one-hit, so does that mean the first-one-hit will make it, or does that mean it’s inevitable that it’ll fall down?

And soon the other tower is falling. This one tilts a bit and then shrivels downward, like the Wicked Witch of the West, melting through the stage floor door, while the other had just shrivelled straight down. This time, with the tilt and with the new-found understanding of 100-story buildings being capable of falling down in toto, there’s not much doubt about what I’m looking at. I, and millions of other people, am looking at a lot of people dying.

I call my wife again and leave a voice mail: Those fuckers just fell down. Both of ’em. You would not believe what it looked like. They both fell down. There’s gotta be tens of thousands of people dead. Those fucking things just fell down.

*  *  *

Fast forward a couple of days. I have been glued to the TV. I, like billions of people, have a pit in the bottom of my stomach that won’t go away. I am supposed to be driving north for ten days to see my sister, but I am in no mood to be away from home. And then I see Bush with a bullhorn and I think, By god, he finally said something that didn’t sound idiotic and sophomoric.

Much like when I first turned on the TV on 9/11, never fathoming what I was about to witness, though, I now know that, watching that guy with the bullhorn talk about how the people who had knocked down those buildings were going to hear from us, I had utterly failed to fathom what we were all about to see unfold during the five years following the biggest sucker punch that’s ever, bar none, happened.

*  *  *

It’s been an absolute nightmare — not of Osama’s making, but of our own. Osama and Ayman and Atta and perhaps another dozen dozens or so of people pulled off an amazing feat. My guess is that they thought they would succeed, but were pleasantly surprised at how media-friendly the two-tower ah-one-and-ah-two (with apologies to Lawrence Welk) sucker punch proved to be, and how terrifying in an archetypal sort of way the made-in-America media presentation proved to be.

But I suspect that they never, in their wildest dreams, imagined how beautifully the past five years would unfold for them, as George Bush chose, time and time again, the kick-the-crap-out-of-’em, don’t-play-nice-with-others (allies and enemies alike) approach at every opportunity, and the whole thing just played in beautifully with Osama et al.’s agenda of growing their following.

You can think of Bush’s approach as the cram-down approach, as in, you’re going to do this because I’m going to cram it so far down your throat that you don’t have any choice. It is an ultimate use of unilateral power: the other side has no choice in the matter. You can also think of this in the Marlon Brando, tissue-in-cheek vein, and envision Bush saying I’ll just make them offers that they can’t refuse. As in, I’ll bomb them and everything nearby.

*  *  *

The first time Bush used the cram-down he used it against the Taliban in Afghanistan, immediately following 9/11. From my admittedly limited knowledge about Afghanistan, that sounded to be well within the margin of error of appropriate usage of the cram-down. After all, any group that knowingly blows up huge (175 feet tall) ancient (circa ~200 to ~ 400 A.D.) cultural artifacts of Buddha set into huge stone cliffs (the actions in March 2001 that first put the Taliban into most people’s consciousness) comes off as, to my way of thinking, pretty dern psycho. I mean, if someone/somepeople before you spent years building a huge statue to their god, and it was 1500 years old, would you purposefully beat the crap out of it by blowing it to smithereens? Now, that wasn’t enough to make us go to war with the Taliban, but then when you add in the oppression of the people and the support of Osama it seems like a pretty clear call (though you can always wonder if capture would have done better than annihilation) (and I would not be at all surprised if the wisdom of the initial Afghan skirmish is a lot more gray than usually portrayed in the media — even the progressive media).

And wielding that same kind of power against the real crazies, Osama and Ayman, seemed like a good idea too (though clearly something went wrong there because both are still free, both are still easily getting their message out, with Ayman, in fact, putting out a video press release today in honor of the date . . . ).

And indeed, conventional wisdom is that, all the way from 9/11 through the initial scrap in Afghanistan through to the failed Tora Bora, the world was a safer, healthier place. Al Qaeda was in tatters, spread all around, somewhat homeless, and they had few friends.

Power, then, had been wielded well. In the first blush of response, something at least not totally terrible had come from the use of power.

*  *  *

But from then on, the kick-the-crap-out-of-’em approach went woefully awry. Osama got away in Tora Bora and, by some news accounts this past week or so, anyway, is being given safe harbor in Waziristan in Pakistan. We took someone else’s bait and proceeded to alienate not only most of the Middle East but most of the globe as well, as we bull-in-a-china-shopped our way into Iraq, generating one of the most degenerated social contexts the world has seen in decades.

Power, the way Bush wielded it after the initial flush of post-9/11 success, has, then, exacerbated the situation, making us less safe and our place less healthy because beating the crap out of somebody/somepeople works in some contexts, but not all.

In this context, beating the crap out of pretty much the entire Middle East (Iraq, Lebanon, Iran-in-the-works, etc.) is making the Middle East all the more violent. That, in and of itself, should be reason to not do it. But, for those who need a selfish reason, it should suffice too, because that violence will work its way back to here.

Seeing it play out all over again in the Lebanon/Hezbollah war a month ago made it all the more clear: this administration still thinks it can fight its way to peace in the Middle East.

$300 billion has bought us a couple of hellishly nasty wars that have served mostly to escalate the hate, which, in turn, by the administration’s thinking, requires more exertion of power.

How about if, instead, we had showered the area with, for lack of a better word, love? How about if we had spent that $300 billion on, say, helping the children of the Middle East have brighter futures? Sure, there are lots of things that can go wrong when you try to be nice to people — unintended consequences and whatnot — but surely there’s less that can go wrong via the love route than via the cram-down route, isn’t there?

*  *  *

So what does all this have to do with financial health?

Just as Bush has chosen to relate to the Middle East by threatening everyone with I’ll-kick-the-crap-outta-you, so too do we have a choice about how we relate to the world out there.

We can interact with the external world via cram-down, or we can do to it via something more akin to love.

More narrowly, we all relate to the world, at least in part, and for some in great part, as financial beings — through our economic selves, and we can do that via cram-down or via love as well.

Does that seem like a shocking idea? Well, think about it: do you have a greater number of commercial relationships with businesses than you have social relationships with people? Even if its one-third/two-thirds, that one-third is still a big chunk of how you relate to the world out there, isn’t it?

And what if, rather than trying to maximize your advantage every time you did a commercial transaction with someone, that you tried something else?

There’s a question of scale here. When we buy, say, electricity from a utility, we can shove all the love we want into that transaction, but it isn’t going to register anywhere. But when you talk to someone at the utility, now you are getting to a scale where being kind and/or loving is more feasible and register-able, and when you buy something from a local, one-store only merchant, you can definitely interact as two human beings.

From what I’ve seen, that kind of transaction can be one of the most human, one of the most loving transactions around. Why, come to think of it, if every business transaction we all did was imbued with something other than maximization, we might be happier and the world might be a better place.

Or we could just go around beating people over the head with our ape’y ways and our bone-clubs.


About 2300 words (maybe a twenty-minute read sans linked-to content)


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