Monday, September 09, 2002

The following is something I wrote in the aftermath of 9/11 last year. I have some hesitation about posting it here, both because of its inadequacy in face of the subject matter and because it assumes knowledge of two poems by Yeats that are not quoted in full. I cannot do much about the first problem without becoming a better writer than I am. As to the second, the first Yeats poem can be read in full here and the second here. (Thanks to Steven Riddle and his Flos Carmeli blog for the link to the poetry resources at Susan and I had the honor of helping in a small way at the Pentagon crash site in the days following 9/11. We were there in response to a call for folks with a ham radio license to provide communications support for the Salvation Army. For the one night and one day we were there, I witnessed the quiet heroism of the military, law enforcement and public safety personnel. The job was massive, harsh and mostly thankless, but it was done without hesitation. I am used to crime scenes as part of my daily work, but this was on a scale beyond my imagination. This piece was an attempt to process at least part of my own reaction.

Like everyone else gathered around a screen on Tuesday, I had the feeling that the world had changed, radically, while we watched. It was as clear as a curtain closing between acts or an orchestra turning the page from a movement marked "staccato" to one captioned "largo." What it means for all of us we will find out in the weeks to come. For me, the first, and greatest, surprise was to discover I was an American again. This, I admit, sounds absurd. After all, I have lived here all my life and I'm sure that in any other nation I would only have to open my mouth to remove any doubt of my nationality. What I mean, is that for the last few years I have felt an erosion of loyalty to any grouping larger than family, friends, neighbors and congregation. Just a few weeks ago, I was revisiting a poem by Yeats, "An Irish Airman foresees his Death." The lines that have struck me since I first read them are:

Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

Yeats' airman lives in that peculiar modern dislocation, where the glories of the brave new world draw you to strange places disconnected from the old places and values. The "lonely impulse of delight" in flying, of facing life and death in the clouds replaces the old reasons for fighting. He is not a mercenary, but neither does he fly as a patriot, for Britain, for Ireland, for anywhere. His is a life, and a death, disconnected from any place that any man born before this last century would recognize as home.

For many years I was convinced that home, in any deep sense, was something we had lost with advent of modern America. To have mobility, the ability to reinvent oneself at will, is a great thing at times, but it is the opposite of being rooted from generation to generation, in either a place or a tradition. We all, in these times, are subject to that "lonely impulse of delight" that can take us far away. The thing delighted in could be as simple as city lights and loud music, as complex as the marvels of science, art or literature. In any case, it leads us to a place where patriotism is not so much false, as irrelevant. Our true country is, at best, our callings, career and colleagues. At worst, our highest loyalty is to the products we consume.

These past eight years I have tried to run in the opposite direction. I live on land occupied by my wife's family for over a hundred years. (Longer, if the family story about a Shawnee grandmother many generations back is true.) In a time where mendacity and materialism have been the norms on both ends of the political spectrum, the acres I call home have seemed country enough. When Clinton was elected to a second term, my wife switched from flying the American flag to hoisting up the old secessionist banner of a white star on a field of blue, the "Bonnie Blue Flag" of the War between the States. I had a pretty good idea of what we were seceding from. Where we were seceding to was a little less definite. The combination of local land, relatives, neighbors and friends I felt loyalty to did not have a name of its own. In my own mind I have half-jokingly thought of it as the Republic of Gooney Run. Until Tuesday it was enough.

Now I fly the flag without hesitation. Chesterton, a great patriot, cautioning against an unreflective patriotism, once said "'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'my mother, drunk or sober.'" This land, right or wrong, drunk or sober, is my land and I owe it whatever I can give. Not in spite of its sins and failings, but because of them, for they are my own. When Susan and I were down at the Pentagon helping with the Salvation Army relief effort, we rode by a parking garage filled with refrigerator trucks borrowed from the local supermarkets. When I realized what those trucks were holding it chilled and angered me. Those were my people in those ad hoc mortuaries. And I thought of some other lines by Yeats:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned

I cannot quote the next two lines. The worst, indeed, are full of passionate intensity. But after seeing the rescue crews face to face at the Pentagon, men exhausted from back-breaking, soul-tearing labor, men struggling, not with the hope of finding anyone alive, but simply to fill a coffin for a grieving family, it is impossible to say that the best lack all conviction. Men like these were ignored and disparaged in this nation the last eight years, but they were still here when needed. One of the first acts of the rescue crews, both here and in New York, was to put up an American flag. They were not ashamed, and now, neither am I.

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