Trigger Warnings: September 11, COVID-19, and all they entail—death, suicide, etc.
I still remember visiting the Twin Towers with friends after school. We would go semi-regularly, with the Japanese restaurant on the underground level being our favorite destination. Between the massive riceballs and the generous helpings of udon and soba, it was always something to look forward to. Then 9/11 happened, and I never even learned if the people running that place even survived. I still wonder.
20 years is a long time, but there are still feelings and memories that stick with me to this day. No one among my friends and family were hurt or worse, so I have much to be thankful for, but I remember the panic of a friend whose dad worked in the World Trade Center. I remember the shudder of the school building as something happened—I think it was as the second plane hit. I remember the eerily calm evacuation, and me handing a half-full water bottle to a firefighter who was desperately gathering any water he could. I remember meeting up with my siblings in Manhattan—one of whom walked miles on foot, another who was close enough that day to see bodies falling. I remember having a dream that night in which the block where I lived was seeing invasion by futuristic caterpillar tanks, of all things.
I also remember how naive I was at the time, and how much I wanted this to be a truly unifying moment for the United States of America. I didn’t understand why one classmate refused to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. I wanted to believe that President George W. Bush would utilize all this good faith for the better. I was someone who didn’t really know or understand politics, and my greatest concern in that respect was trying to find a mental compromise that would reconcile the beliefs I’d been taught and the questions I’ve always had.
Now here we are, those hopes long since dashed, and facing a new problem in COVID-19 that makes those lives lost on 9/11 seem horrifically quaint by comparison. Thousands of bodies have made way for hundreds of thousands and counting. But while that sense of unity in 2001 was fleeting and illusory, it was still more than what we’ve gotten out of fighting the coronavirus. Sure, some of that could be explained by the fact that the US is more divided now, driven to the brink in part by the poison of disinformation. However, I think there’s something else: in the aftermath of 9/11, we had in Osama Bin Laden an enemy we could hope would be on the receiving end of a bullet. In recent days, as I reflect on the events of the past year but also the past 20 years, I’ve come to realize that the US (and perhaps human beings as a whole) are more comfortable with a flesh-and-blood target we can attack through physical violence.
Columbine was just two years before 9/11, and started two generations of kids on their path of customary active shooter drills. What’s a common refrain when it comes to the epidemic of gun violence we see in the US? “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” We actually think the solution is to just have more, better guns and to shoot harder. I truly believe this is because the US (or at least a significant portion of it) has an incredibly hard time dealing with problems that don’t just involve overwhelming them with brute force. But COVID-19 can’t be defeated by guns, glaciers will not unmelt if we bomb them…and yet, part of the nation keeps desperately seeking that living, breathing entity to vilify.
I recently read an article called “25 Essential Notes on Craft from Matthew Salesses,” which is an excerpt from a larger book by Salesses about the rules we construct around what makes good or bad fiction, and how this can differ between cultures. In it, he points out that Western critics often label Asian stories as “undramatic” or plotless” because of their lack of “conflict.” While I’m under no illusion that discrimination, intolerance, and scapegoating are somehow absent in Asian cultures (and in fact are often downright prevalent), I do think that this Western obsession with stories needing conflict also bleeds into how we as a culture approach so many other things. That includes the narratives that are built up in the news and in media—to create easily identifiable villains to vanquish. It’s the Chinese. It’s Dr. Fauci. It’s Joe Biden. It’s Greta Thunberg. It’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s Mexicans at the border. It’s a secret cabal run by Democrats who abduct children to create an immortality elixir. And I’ll even admit that Trump has made a hell of a foe to rally against because he is demonstrably a monster of the worst kind.
There’s a certain comfort in having physical, human obstacles to overcome instead of abstract ones. One of my favorite anime genres is giant robots, and that’s built on a basic premise of “big metal man punches monster to death and saves the day.” Sure, plenty might house anti-war or anti-racism messages (Tetsujin 28, Gundam, Voltes V), or even act as metaphors for the struggles of the human mind (Evangelion). But even those tend to depict physical struggles, even if they might be symbolic in nature. Superheroes are in a similar boat, more traditionally geared towards stopping an arch-nemesis than childhood malnutrition. It’s hard for stories like these to deal with systemic issues, especially those that would be better solved by policy and activism.
It’s okay to think weapons are cool. It’s okay to think fights are cool. Tanks, guns, lasers, planes, kicks and punches, mecha—I love seeing this stuff in fiction, and I think people do need some kind of outlet. However, in our actual societies, when we focus too much on punishing perceived evildoers instead of creating an environment that minimizes the likelihood of such people arising in the first place, we do ourselves greater harm still. An education system able to equip people with the skills to truly think critically and a healthcare system where people aren’t deathly afraid to find out what might be afflicting them would be a good place to start. While there are indeed always going to be bad people who need to be stopped, we have to understand that violence comes not just in the form of a terrorist with a bomb or a shooter with a gun; there’s also the harm caused by dehumanizing others, whether because of their race, culture, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of our beings. The collateral damage of 9/11 was more than just the lives lost, and I hope we can learn that lesson before it’s too late.