My friend Tristin is the publicist at Lookout Records and the smartest person I know. One of her dearest and oldest friends was on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th. In the intensely grief-stricken aftermath, the indecent posturing of many spokesmen for the Left in America led her to embark on a serious self-examination and re-evaluation of her politics. She wrote a powerful and heartfelt letter about it, which she sent to all her friends and associates, and which got forwarded all over the place.
A punk rock magazine, Punk Planet, asked to her to expand it into an article that they planned to run in their upcoming War on Terror issue. As it happens, the editors of Punk Planet killed the article, saying it was no longer "timely." That is their right, of course; but I'm skeptical about their explanation. Most likely they chickened out, worried that this "alternative" view would not sit well with their usual crowd and its generally Michael Moore-ish view of the world. (Yes, folks: we're through the looking glass in punk rock world, as in Berkeley-- support for the war is heresy out here.) The cover of the issue in question depicts a bomber and the word "why?" Tristin's essay is as solid and eloquent an answer as any of these people would be likely to come across and it's a shame that most of them won't.
It's long for a blog post, but I'm putting it up here because I think the punk kids who read this blog at least ought to have a chance to see it; and it's well worth reading even if you're not a punk kid.
Moving Towards The CenterPosted by Dr. Frank at February 22, 2002 01:00 AM | TrackBack
Our Losses in the Wake of 9/11
by Tristin Laughter
It's hard to write an article about the events of 9/11 and the aftermath of those events. It's hard because the current political landscape seems to shift daily, with new speeches and interviews and military actions. It's also hard because one of my oldest and dearest friends was murdered on 9/11, and my own grief, though it comes in waves, is overwhelming. My friend Karleton Fyfe was killed when his airplane, American Airlines Flight 11, was hijacked and crashed into the north tower of the world trade center. He has been my friend since I was 17 years old. His widow is my lifelong best friend, Haven. They have a son, Jackson, who is 18 months old. This article is the story of my own gradual shift in political consciousness, which has been crystallized by the events of 9/11, as well as being about my personal loss. The humanity of each victim of 9/11 is an enormous story, too detailed, meaningful, and rich to even begin to be covered in a 2000 word article. To celebrate each life that was lost welds our politics to morality and to our humanity. I think any contemplation of the meaning of the events of 9/11 must begin with the recognition of the life lost, its preciousness, meaning, and beauty.
The morning of Sept.. 11th, I woke up when my cell phone rang. I didn't get to it in time. The caller ID said it was Christopher, who owns the company I work for. Oh, I will see him 45 minutes I thought lazily as I made coffee and turned on CNN, like I always do. CNN featured LAX airport which had been shut down. "Hmm, some kind of incident or crash," I thought. I couldn't figure out what the story was. I was running late so I turned off the tv, threw on my clothes and got in my car to drive to Lookout! Records, where I work. On the radio I heard the news that planes had been hijacked and crashed into the world trade towers and the pentagon. I was driving on San Pablo between San Marin and Gilman when I remembered that I had spoken to my friend Karleton the previous day, and that he had been planning to travel from Boston, where he lives, to California. "I'd better call them," I thought, "just to make sure he's ok." When I spoke to Karleton the day before, we had finalized my plans to come to Boston for Thanksgiving. It was our tradition to spend it together. He made the bird, Haven made the pies (yes, *multiple* pies for 3 people), I did the stuffing. I had said to Karleton, "I was thinking about maybe staying a week...would that be too long? Be honest." He had replied wryly "I don't know what you mean." It made me laugh. We had all gone to the beach together in July, and we had a running joke the whole time, Karleton and I, that he just couldn't understand what I meant whenever I tried to pay for anything or apologize for anything or ask if they wanted me to stay out of anything. "I don't know what you mean," he would say in the deadpannest of ways. Sheepishly I dialed the number they have had the entire 8 years they have been in Boston, knowing I was being a worrywart and bothering them needlessly. Haven's mother, Suzanne, answered. "Hi Suzanne," I said, "It's Tris." "Hi, " she said back. "I was just calling to make sure that everything is all right. I know that Karleton was supposed to have travelled today." There was a pause. "Everything is not all right, Tris." Suzanne said "Karleton was on that plane. He is gone."
In college, I declared myself a socialist. I read Trotsky and Chomsky and endured endless crates of half spoiled cauliflower being delivered to my house for Food Not Bombs. I even attended a conference in Detroit for young socialists, where we learned about identity politics and union organizing. I was committed. The only problem was that I was studying Chinese history and coming into daily contradiction between the romantic idealism of Marxism and earnest study of the atrocities its realization in China wrought upon the people. The total destruction of their personal freedom was noble, I attempted to reason, because it was in the name of ideals higher than the individual, namely, equality between the classes and sexes, the highest goal there is. The phrases "freedom" and "democracy" had become meaningless Republican-appropriated catchphrases to me, devoid of impact or content. Although I could never have articulated it then, my entire political philosophy could be summarized in two horribly false truisms: Individualism is wrong, and Morality is relative. When Haven and Karleton came to visit me at college, we had never been more different. I always think of friendship as these two strands of something, like reeds, that are growing, parallel, but are flexible. As each person grows and changes the reeds can bend away from each other, towards each other. Sometimes when you are lucky, you can stay relatively close to the same person in the long run, no matter how you both change. Even at our farthest point of distance, I still loved them. They were going to UNC, and planning for careers in business and psychology with their college studies. At the time, I judged them as apolitical materialists. I didn't find out until Karleton's funeral that while I was working at a rape crisis center in Portland, Karleton was organizing all his friends to join the UNC safe walk program, to make sure women were safe on campus. He never told me that once, even though I am sure he knew it would have impressed me. Karleton's morality and commitment to right went much deeper than any political posture or identity. I wouldn't have understood then anyway.
When Suzanne told me that Karleton was gone, I started crying right away, screaming, sobbing, shaking, all while driving. I immediately called my friend Frank, but it took me a long time to able to even tell him what happened. He told me to pull over so I did, and I just held the phone and cried. He asked if I was closer to work or home, and when I said work he said to go there and to concentrate on driving, not talking or crying, so I would be safe, and that I should call him back from work. I said ok, but then I couldn't stop crying. When I got to Lookout!, everyone was very loving and supportive, in their own shock and sadness. I made a few phone calls before going home, where 4 of my closest friends met me and stayed there continuously until I went to sleep. We sat around my little apartment, eating grapes and drinking tea. A contingent was sent to Albertson's to get junk food. I pulled out old photos, Karleton at our high school graduation. Beach vacations we had taken at 20, 25, 30. Me looking ridiculous as maid of honor at their wedding after all my hair fell out from bleaching. The first time I met their son when he was only 2 weeks old. I finally reached Haven. "Tris, " she said, in the same quiet voice she has used when she was sad since were 14 years old, "I was gonna call you today anyway. I'm pregnant again." she said, as we both cried and cried on the phone, 3000 miles apart.
The first crack in my connection to the kind of Leftism that most punks embrace came in the form of Nafta, right after I graduated from college. Nafta raised important issues about environment, capitalism, the role of the wealthy nations in regard to the development of the poorest ones, the legacies of colonialism and imperialism, the power of multinationals. I understood what I was "supposed" to think: US multinationals, like the US Government vis a vis the CIA, were only capable of bringing cultural destruction and economic enslavement to the people wherever they went, that they would chop down the rain forests and pay the people a penny and overthrow the government if it dared oppose US interests. The examples were plentiful, Guatemala, many others. I was *almost* on board, except for one thing, the part about employment opportunities being dismissible because they would necessarily be exploitive rather than fair. From what I understood about poverty in the third world, especially in the countries to our immediate south, the opportunities of employment that free trade could offer would be the difference between starving and eating, between medical care and no medical care, between children living and children dying. A job is a life, and I could not advocate depriving the poorest places in our hemisphere of employment
opportunities. It just wasn't in keeping with my other politics. Especially when I considered that the climate of American intellectualism is so different now than it was in the CIA's heyday of atrocities. The left has done a lot of good in bringing its critique to bear, so much so that now it is more difficult for the US to engage in foreign engagement of any type, overt or covert. We have become, in the post-Vietnam years, a profoundly isolationist nation, whose vision of our own role in the world is to avoid or minimize conflict, and especially avoid American lives lost, (anyone remember the pre-9/11 Powell Doctrine?). American intellectuals, Leftists in particular, see themselves first and foremost as critics of the state. In the post 9/11 era, this, obviously, is a problem.
Karleton loved being a father. He was really good at taking care of people, very loyal, very supportive, and someone who had the power to inexplicably make you feel more capable and confident due to his unshakable belief in you. Karleton was the kind of person who is so good at being good that he is almost invisible. He was funny and warm and extremely smart. I realized how profoundly I had taken him for granted for the last 13 years of my life. I watched the footage of the planes over and over. I tried not to think about what it was like for him on the plane. Mostly I tried not to think about his 2 children, born and unborn, who would never know how much he loved being their father. It is still the saddest and hardest part. At my house, for the next few days, all my friends figured out what I needed and did it. Molly called the airlines to confirm his name for me, because I couldn't bring myself to ask Haven which of the flights he had been on. Haven called and asked me to start making arrangements to come to Boston. American Airlines had assigned a "care team" to help fly the entire family to Boston to be together and so I flew as her sister. I finally got to Boston on Friday, after flying all over the country as airports closed and opened, eventually driving there from Albany in a Cadillac that American Airlines rented me. American's rep at the Albany airport had handed me $20 from her own pocket in case I needed snacks on the drive, with tears in her eyes. As I drove across Massachusetts, America was holding a moment of national silence at 7 p.m., and I could see rows of candles flickering by the Pike. I still hated Massachusetts.
After my internal conflict about Nafta, I watched my punk acquaintances develop the anti-Nafta strain into a whole new core raison d'etre with the No WTO protests and the candidacy of Nader. I could not support either. I could not oppose trade because I believe that the poverty of the third world requires immediate relief which only employment can afford. I also believe that the vague idea of "fighting globalism" is meaningless. Corporations are already global and have been for decades. It is not a matter that "the people" have any control over, or ever could. It is a rallying cry of futility. And if offers no alternative to the impoverished, unemployed people of the developing world who, frankly, need that 5 cents an hour much more than the white elite protesters could ever know. Monitoring environmental and employment issues is the correct approach. In Nader I found no discernible real politick. His views appeared to be an amalgamation of various laudable causes like environmentalism & women's rights, but with a central philosophy of "fighting globalism" which he appeared to have no real plan to do. Nader certainly did not have the background in economics to blithely write new policies, preventing trade and doubling the minimum wage without causing disastrous results. I went to his green party website and saw that he was advocating a $14 per hour minimum wage. With unemployment at its lowest, I could not believe he could advocate a move that would likely create depression-era levels of unemployment and small business bankruptcy. And if Nader was an unqualified economist, he was totally unacceptably inexperienced in the realm of foreign policy. He proposed shutting down most of our military. While many progressive people say that they would want this to happen, it is only the luxury of knowing it never will that allows them to feel this way. His candidacy was not based on anything real or substantive, and I watched in awe as so many of my friends embraced it feverishly. To support a set of ideas that you like but would not actually want enacted is the worst kind of political posturing. It is amoral. When you vote, you must consider the good of all people, not be charmed by radical chic. Nader's claims that there was no difference between the candidates and the punks and hippies buying it have cost this country and especially our environment a great deal.
I got to Boston in a daze, and I stayed in a daze for the several weeks I was there. I couldn't eat or sleep, and I would go on these walks for hours in the night, walk to Fenway, walk to downtown, walk through Brighton. I got blisters under blisters under blisters and I could not stop wanting to see Karleton. Spending the days in his house, looking at his UNC baseball cap on the knob of his closet door, holding his baby who has his same smile, I spent my evenings reading the newspapers and watching the news at a neighbor's and my nights wandering around. I felt totally helpless and useless. Coming all this way to help my best friend, I couldn't help her at all. She was enveloped in her own darkness and sadness and I couldn't reach through to her. Jackson wandered the house calling out for his daddy. We all needed each other yet could not quite reach each other. The darkness of the grief around us was so profound that it completely isolated us all. Haven, her mother, father, their partners, Karleton's parents and sister and brother in law, me, we were each completely alone in our grief, sitting together around the table, in the kitchen, on the couch. After the funeral, I went home to California, convinced that my presence was no longer helping. Since then, I have called and written very frequently, and plan to return to Boston over the holidays. If you are wondering how they are doing, I can only say, they are surviving, even though, at times, they do not want to be.
Immediately after Sept. 11 I started reading outrageous statements from prominent leftists that shocked and saddened me. The Left does not speak for me on this issue. I find Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, Katha Politt, Susan Sontag et al's attempts to blame the U.S. for this mass murder ideologically weak and morally absurd. I have never felt more clearly my alienation from political movements in this country than I do now. To analyze the causation of the terrorists' actions is to accept their violence as a legitimate political expression. I do not. I feel the Left grasping at the idea of anti-Americanism which is its only core now that Marxism has been discredited by history. But this Anti-Americanism is not an appropriate reaction to the murder of 5000 Americans on Sept. 11. It is clear to me that the cornerstone of the American Intellectual's entire identity is dependent on his position of "critic of the state." In a situation of moral absolutism, of mass murder, as my friend Frank says, terrorism, not "terrorism", it is heartbreaking and deeply disillusioning to see Leftist political leaders attempt to justify and explain that which the human heart is not meant to be able to comprehend. Searching U.S foreign policy for the reason that 19 men hijacked jumbo jets and crashed them into public buildings is madness. Moral relativism in the face of mass murder is sickening. And I guess, even more to the point, bin Laden's Leftist apologists, like the Nation, and all the Leftists I have already namechecked, Moore, Chomsky et al , who would like to lay blame for his actions ultimately on US support of Israel & sanctions against Iraq, have the wrong analysis. Bin Laden is ambivalent about the Palestinians, and about Hussein. In fact he offered to send his men to Saudi Arabia to defend them against Iraq when Hussein invaded Kuwait. His real agenda relates to politics of the U.S's regional presence, first within his home country of Saudi Arabia. He wants the Muslim world free of non-Muslims. He is just an ethnic cleanser. So much for tolerance, diversity and the Rainbow Coalition.
My friend's murder has snapped me out of my dogmatic view that the U.S is evil, and all our political opponents must be good, must be right, must stand for justice and the deserving third world people, and tolerance and diversity. It has brought my years of thought into a crystallized place. The people who killed Karleton are not my people. I can't and won't listen to their concerns and beliefs. I won't condemn the U.S as responsible for their actions. I won't pretend that if the U.S. fights the supporters of this terrorist act, it's only for control of resources, or an articulation of American racism. Now I know, in a visceral, human way, that the United States has enemies in the global arena, enemies capable of a brutality and a barbarism which marks their depravity. If being an American Leftist today means being defending that, then, I can't be a Leftist. Fortunately, outside of youth culture, outside of punk rock world and aging baby boomers, there is a stabler and smarter Left which recognizes and contains the complexity of a truer vision of the U.S. I hope the appalling rhetoric of the Left's culture heroes in the wake of Sept. 11 gives other politicized young people pause, even if they did not lose a friend.
I support the war in Afghanistan because I believe the Al Qua'eda network is an enemy that must be eliminated. I stand almost alone in my community and in my family in this belief. I do not write this to attempt to persuade any readers to share my beliefs, but to illuminate that a life a of political engagement and thought can engender change, and clarity. A dynamic life of the mind is not one of static political thought. I know more at 30 than I did at 20. The most important thing I know, perhaps, is that I miss my friend, and that the world without him is nothing like the world with him was, and could have been.