Window over Washington:

9/11, Coal Country, and what it means to be great

vol. 2 issue 43


You remember where you were if you’re an American in your mid 20’s or older. If you were from the Northeast, you remember it was such a beautiful, clear Fall day. If you were late to work, perhaps you recall seeing it broadcast live on television, and were confused by what you saw. If you worked on a trading floor in the Financial District, chances were you saw it play out on the televisions hung above you, and then you began to wonder, puzzling as it all seemed, was this really happening right there where you were…and if you wondered and then acted, perhaps you are lucky enough to be alive reading this right now.

That day, 9/11/2001, is a tragedy we all share. It was not just the nearly 3,000 dead, most of them incinerated, their microscopic remains glittering in the air New Yorkers breathed for days, it was the shock of being attacked in such a grizzly, crude and yet flamboyant way, on our own soil, in the spot on our national map that serves as our sigil of worldly success and power. All immolated, brought down by young men, part of a network of disenfranchised fundamentalists, many of whom come from places without running water or sanitation. The mighty laid low, oh, so low, by the furious.

The towers came down, but what went up? Our national admiration of the New York Police Department, the New York Fire Department, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. We loved our chaplains, such as the Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, the first named fatality of that day. Our estimation also went up of heavy equipment operators who daily cleared that eerie scene, now a burial ground, henceforth a sacred site. Hell, everyone even loved New Yorkers -- all of them, even the Yankees! --  that day, and for many months after.

Also immediately in the ascendant was our national demand for security and protection. We set up the Department of Homeland Security. We created the Transportation Security Administration and sparked a mess of a civil rights debate about search and seizure that I personally still see as unresolved and questionable.

Meanwhile, leaving aside the doors that were then flung wide for the grifters (Haliburton) and the conspirators (the controlled demolition theorists, and others) of many kinds and colors to enter, what also went up was our dander. How dare this happen to us. We couldn’t make sense of it because it didn’t fit our narrative as the world’s most formidable nation.

So, we opened up a can of our national brand of whoop ass and went in search of some butt to kick.

How effective has it all been, these past 19 years of global warring, mixed up as it has been with the world’s reasonable expectations that we will help keep peace and order on the planet, as well as the burdensome task of salving our wounded pride?

What has been lost should help us with our evaluation before answering that question.

Lost to us now is a national pride in our NYPD and the derision of the force by its own local citizenry who now call the force racist and violent. Gone is any national pass for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who to my own horror and disgust, seems to delight in his newfound role as a shill for Russian thugs.

And, name a person who lives in an interior red state who will willingly claim their love of New York and I will buy you a Nathan’s hot dog with mustard. Chaplains might be okay, but priests? Let’s not go there.

It took not the good will of Congress but the relentless outrage of a comedian, Jon Stewart, to make sure the heavy machinery guys got their well-earned due when their cancers set in from the chemical exposures they experienced as they performed what was, seriously and truly, the miraculous feat of clearing Ground Zero in less than a year.

And the “us” that was so angry at having been attacked at home, while we were just minding our own goddamned business, heading out to work, getting the kids to school, walking the dog, and taking in the trash bins?

That’s the loss that to me matters most.

Like most of us, I felt a sense of closure when we captured and killed Osama bin Laden, but I never felt like that somehow justified our greatness. I never felt like that made up for the loss, not just of the lives of unsuspecting people just doing whatever it was they always did on that day, but the loss of our innocence, a loss that had we allowed it to, could have propelled us into a place of wisdom.

I see it as us having lost our sense of selves as nation on this day 19 years ago. We have yet to purposefully and collectively grieve that loss, face that wound, and grow from it. Instead we’ve turned on each other the way parents of a child who dies so often can no longer stay married, their disappointment and anger for their fate too powerful to put aside. The sorrow takes over, and the shadows smudge the brighter lines they once relied on for clarity of purpose.

Our refusal to truly mourn, to re-assess what we’re really all about has allowed our wound to metastasize into something ironic and grotesque. We are disfigured as a nation, saddled by some of us so intent upon “being best”, with a president who venerates winning so much he cannot help but have contempt for us all, every single one of us, because in his mind we are all losers who must be made great again in his image.

But who are we if we are in his image, the one that insists we win at all times and apparently at all costs?

Are we the world’s ass kicker? Peacekeeper? Economic leader? Diplomatic standard bearer? The kindest and most generous in times of trouble?

We have been all these things at one point or another, but right now, we’re none of these things. We are just Us v. Them contained in the Us. In political science terms, that’s called a civil war.

I have been thinking of this for a few days now, ever since visiting the coal country of central Pennsylvania last week. The polls might suggest that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is up by double digits over the incumbent in the White House, but you would not believe that in the least if you were to drive through Schulkyll and Lycoming Counties. More yards than not sported some form of Trump/Pence paraphernalia, including jumbo American flags with P45’s face shaded into them. Unsettling was one sign declaring, TRUMP/PENCE 2020! No More Bullshit!

But what really unnerved me was when we came across an outdoor facility – a garage of some size – that had been painted entirely with a mural of Trump as Rambo, complete with a ripped bare chest, six-pack abs, a semi-automatic weapon, and a bloodied headband, flames and smoke all around. Who was he off to kill, and who had he just obliterated? In our current Us v. Them climate, I felt a chill knowing which side the artist of this mural would have seen me as being on.

My daughter-in-law had the shrewd insight as to the homo-eroticism of such imagery, and I agreed. This creepy fetishism is what got me thinking about being made over into the image of a nation that can’t lose, that can’t ever be weak, that our manhood depends on it.

Except we have lost and we are weak. That is precisely what we should have seen and accepted on 9/11 if we’d had the maturity to consider it. Yet, rather than own and burnish our adulthood, we’ve reverted into little boys playing whatever war game that fiery mural was supposed to represent.

This was not the crux of my coal country experience, however. I was about to be reminded that, as I wrote last time, we are none of us all one thing.

It was the last train into the coal mine of the day. We nearly didn’t make it, having come across the little Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine museum at nearly closing time. Initially, I didn’t want to take that train – why would I willingly enter into a cold, dark, crowded place of danger and death? Add to that, the docent who was to lead the tour didn’t give two craps about social distancing, and smushed three separate groups of people into the creaky wooden trio of cars. But I tightened my mask and went.

I suspect few Americans outside of coal country have ever entered a coal mine, much less travelled clackity-clack over the tracks most likely laid in the mid to late 1920s, felt the cold droplets of iron sulphate drip on their head, and listened as the docent warns not to fall into the black pits on either side of the small area where it is possible to stand and listen to his tales of lost limbs and worse, lost lives, so common in that black place.

But they should.

Even though the industry is greatly diminished, coal miner kin still live on, and there are still those who work in the mines. These are people whose lives essentially equate with danger and darkness 5 to 6 days a week, who when they emerged could never fully clean the soot from their skin and nails, and who every day said good bye to their loved ones who would feel the sun on their face, while they went to work in the cold belly of a mountain, not sure if they would ever emerge again, the risk of explosions, collapses, and carbon monoxide poisoning was so great.

When you have a firsthand appreciation for how these people made our lifestyle possible, words to explain it are not necessary. For me, the respect and awe was automatic, because there is no way in hell I would ever have been able to live that way: cold, dark, isolated, and relentlessly endangered.

Our guide was himself a coal miner, as had been his father, brothers, grandfather, and uncles – at least three of whom he said had died in the mines. Our guide was also a war veteran. That he didn’t need to tell us directly, as his vest, tattoos, hat, and pins all emblazoned with “Vietnam vet” already made it clear.

Weighing these details, I guessed he was a MAGA man, and would bet you back that Nathan’s dog that he was. I contemplated asking him, and wondered about engaging him in a conversation about the story that had broken the day before that the president considers anyone who’d fight and die for the country a “loser”, but I decided against it. He was on his last shift of the day, and while he was courteous and patient with all of us, even those who talked the whole time he was giving us the tour, why risk upsetting anyone, including myself?

While our group awaited some stragglers to emerge from a side cave, the guide —he never did give his name --  listened as a family of Indian tourists spoke.

“Are you from India?” He asked them.

The father said yes.

“Namaste,” the miner said. “I love India and Indians. I love to climb in the Himalayas. You people are so nice.”

This set off a round of head bowing, hand folding, and whispered namastes from the family sent in the miner guide’s direction. The guide bowed back.

And in that moment, I nearly cried in that god forsaken coal mine.

Namaste roughly translates from the Sanskrit as “The Godliness in me recognizes and bows to the Godliness in you.”

We are good, even if we act badly. We are weak, but we are not cowards.

Our spirit has been sapped, perhaps even broken. As we should have learned on 9/11, we are in fact not invincible, we are not impenetrable, but in our weakness we are still great, and could prove to be even greater if we will own the power waiting for us in the admission that we have been hurt.

In the meantime, I love you, America.


Photos: Pixabay.