We think of a gift as a desired thing: a birthday present, a box of candy, a charitable endowment. But the word "gift" refers simply to the past tense of "give". A thing that is given is a gift, and we should not assume that every gift we are given is a thing we want to receive.
The word is sometimes used ironically in its negative sense. "He's got a gift for you," says a mother to a father when it's his turn to do the baby's diapers. A venereal disease is jokingly referred to as "the gift that keeps on giving."
Osama bin Laden gave the United States of America, and the entire world, a gift on September 11, 2001. It was a gift we didn't want or expect, a gift we could barely even stand to recognize. Many Americans refuse to admit that we received it, that we still own it. But we do. We're still carrying this gift around.
This is the gift of hate -- and hate is, indeed, the gift that keeps on giving. We've since handed it on to other unwilling and undeserving recipients in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now they suffer with the gift too. It's still with us today, and we see it everywhere. Look at the self-hatred so many Americans still feel, ten years after the horrifying day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. This knot of rage, this tar baby, this glutinous mass -- it is still inside us, whether we like it or not.
Some try to deal rationally with this gift of hatred that we don't know how to get rid of. For authors like Noam Chomsky, whose 9-11 has been reissued in a new edition, we can exorcise the hatred by confessing our own national sins. Other Americans consider Noam Chomsky's brand of self-criticism an insult to America's glory and honor, but they choke on the same self-hatred in different ways. It's a new meme among some angry Americans to hate the federal government itself, to declare that the only thing the Washington D. C. bureaucracy can do is go away, even if that means no more Social Security, no consumer protection agencies or business regulations, not even a federal emergency management bureau. The federal government has been poisoned, these new extremists say, infiltrated by suspicious agents. It needs to be purged of everything in order to rediscover its Constitutional purity. There may be some logic within this angry anti-government protest movement, but I see plenty of irrational self-hatred here too, and I wonder where the manic pitch of this self-hatred originates.
On this ten-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I try to honor what was lost on that sad day in a different way. I ask myself how I can stop carrying the gift that Al Qaeda brought us ten years ago, that mass of hatred that still infects everything it touches. As a pacifist and a Buddhist, I always try to love all people -- all of them, no matter how difficult this sometimes is. Hand me your hatred, but I will not take it in, nor will I hand it on to anyone else. You can hurt me, but you can't take away my right to love the entire world, and every single person in it.
There will be plenty of media coverage on this weekend's ten-year anniversary, so here are just a few literary-minded links you might not see somewhere else:
The singer-songwriter Patti Smith has just opened an exhibit of her September 11-themed artworks at the Leubsdorf Gallery in Hunter College in New York City.
Singer Tom Goodkind, onetime member of the great 1980s folk/pop band The Washington Squares, was among the many New Yorkers who lived next door to Ground Zero in 2001. He has since begun donning an old-timey Harold-Hill band conductor uniform to lead his Battery Park City neighbors in a new musical venture: the Tri-Battery Pops Orchestra.
In September 2001, Literary Kicks was mostly a message board community site. Here is the archive of our primary discussion board, Utterances, from that entire month, and here is that month's Action Poetry archive.
I was very proud to learn that the Library of Congress chose to include extracts from the Literary Kicks poetry boards in its September 11 digital archive.
Here is another archive of Litkicks poetry from ten years ago, put together by poet Mark Kuhar for the zine Deep Cleveland.
Ten years ago, ten years ago. Tell us, what are you still carrying around from that day?