Monday, September 12, 2011

Thoughts on 9/11

Watching the CBS update on the documentary about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I got a sense of the frustrations and heroism of the New York Fire Department company near the towers. The company was the subject of two brothers who are filmmakers, who had spent considerable time on a daily basis with the firefighters, and just happened to be out with them near the towers when the first plane crashed. The company responded as the first rescuers to arrive at the scene, and one of the brothers went along with them, camera in hand, photographing the scenes from inside the building for as long as he could stay, and from just outside the area as the towers collapsed.
The film was stunning, but, like any extremely close view, it gives a limited perception of the day's impact. We see it in the lives of the firefighters as they deal minute-by-minute with death and the fear of their own sudden deaths, on through the days of searching for remains, and how destructive that process was to the health of many of them. What's missing, though, is the impact of the events that day and their aftermath on the country as a whole.
 For a contrasting view, read George Packer's essay "Coming Apart" in the Sept. 11, 2011, issue of the New Yorker. Packer introduces his thesis through the the life of a former Navy Seal working for the then Blackwater private security force who realized at how poorly the country was prepared to fight a war against insurgents using improved roadside bombs, and began a company to improve the survivability of military transports. The ex-Seal, Chris Berman, ultimately built an armored vehicle that could withstand the impact. Packer tells how Berman set up shop in Mount Airy, N.C., which had been losing its manufacturing jobs for years, and how the chance to bid for a military contract to build sturdier transports was denied by the way Washington works. The struggles are emblematic of the general decline of the American economy since 2001 -- jobs disappearing, the wealthy accruing more wealth, the political divides widening as the years pass until today we see a vast difference between the post World War II America and the modern day America.
Then,  calamity was met head-on and America emerged stronger. Today, America is weakening, given the attention that resolving the budget deficit has taken from the effort to restore the economy. Attention to the wars now is too draining to be a sustained focus in the civic conversation. Conservatives who had rallied support for the wars now are blaming President Obama for reckless pursuit of adventures as he commits support to the NATO efforts in Libya with no certainty that a government friendly to human rights will emerge there or anywhere else in the countries seeing revolts against longstanding tyrants. Abandon the wars now and he is surrendering; continue the fight and he is wasting America's resources in their eyes. Thus, the war becomes just another tool to leverage public distrust of one side and to gain power on the other.
Packer's assessment is sobering in a fashion similar to seeing the bravery and undaunted courage of the New York Fire Department. Their bravery though, was representative of what brought us together. Packer's assessment is the aftermath of power politics has torn us apart.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The adventure awaits

With less than a week to go, I am starting on a fresh course – teaching freshman composition. My focus will be on developing their skills for academic writing, which they will need to earn a degree, and introducing them to the fundamentals of effective writing. The secondary expectation is that they will learn that writing can be enjoyable and a valuable tool in understanding the world. I don't expect anything profound from them – few will have had the challenges in life that spark insights worth sharing, and if they have had such experiences, they have not yet seasoned their senses to distill wisdom from what they have encountered. Part of my job is to encourage a love of learning, for college is no different from any other institution of modern life: what happens today is meaningful in five years only if you shape that knowledge into a useful tool. Otherwise, the knowledge first is covered with dust, then it gets pushed aside by something new, something different. The love of learning teaches us to keep our eyes, ears and minds open, and to evaluate what we see and hear. Simple enough to say now.

The added bonus of teaching is that I will once again experience an age-old wisdom. That is, if you want to improve your ability to do something, teach someone else to do it. I will not be teaching anything about journalism or creative writing, the two venues that I have sought refuge in to ply my trade as a writer. I'm not quite certain that teaching the basics of academic writing, the intellectual honesty that the work requires, and the desire to write persuasively will afford me improvements in my own writing. Still, the adventure of helping young minds develop their paths of reasoning and expression is reward in itself.