Philosophy Weekend: September 11 and the Gift We’re Still Carrying

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.

The novelist Roxana Robinson, author of the shattering Cost, dealt with the death of her ex-husband in the North Tower of the World Trade Center ten years ago. She speaks about him in this recording.

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.

Here’s my own account of how I spent that insane day in New York City, and here’s another tale about “gifts” that I sometimes like to tell.

Ten years ago, ten years ago. Tell us, what are you still carrying around from that day?

10 Responses

  1. Levi, thank you for this
    Levi, thank you for this beautiful and thoughtful article. While nobody with any moral grounding can condone or justify the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I think that, unfortunately, Noam Chomsky (and other critics) are right to say that the United States lost some of its own moral ground when it began to tolerate torture as a national defense policy and when it killed so many innocent civilians in Iraq and other countries we’ve invaded in the name of freedom. Claudia

  2. I remember, being here in
    I remember, being here in California, thinking about you, Levi, there in NYC. Then you were silent for a few days. It was great to read your account when you got back to the board.

    And by the way, one isn’t allowed to use the term “tar baby“.

    I think it might be illegal.

    10 years ago I was sitting around trying to translate poems by Li Po. I was working pretty diligently at it, trying to keep the lines the same number of syllables as the Chinese characters and keep the rhyming pattern. Not so easy, but it was fun and I thought I was getting somewhere.

    I’ve never gotten back to that project since.

  3. TKG, speaking of misanthropy,
    TKG, speaking of misanthropy, Dostoievsky’s character, Ivan Karamazov, said something similar: “But it always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.” Somehow though, the kind of people who lash out so brutally against the innocent, must really hate both individuals and humanity.

  4. Ah, Levi
    You’ve cut me,

    Ah, Levi
    You’ve cut me, Brother. And today is not the day for that–or this! What’s with the etymological dodge? If you want to remind us filthy bastards that we brought this on ourselves and deserve the grief, why not just come right out and say it?

    Instead you make reference – only – to one (Chomsky) who does, and you spin a good yarn about the true meaning of “gift”, that only sophomores will buy. (Regardless of the etymology, gift means what it ALWAYS has meant: something given in a spirit of friendship, love or celebration: that’s why it has its own place in the dictionary.)

    Death is not a gift: nor is hatred: Osama bin Laden did not invent Hate and AlQaida is not behind the Tea Party. How can you fit these four noble truths into your 9-11 pastoral?

    It is always difficult to render big matters in little quips, be they limericks, slogans or koans. This one won’t pass the smell test. Anyone who thinks it might should ask themselves: If a loved one gets cancer, would your consoling words be “You’ve been given a gift”? (If they were, and you got smacked upside your damned fool head, would you be surprised?) Now ask ‘Why?’ and answer honestly.

    Today is not a day for platitudes, though I am sure we will hear many.(It is especially hard to love politicians, isn’t it?) It is also not a day for white-washed finger-pointing disguised as Buddhist equanimity. Please button up, my friend, your spleen is showing.

    Please don’t assume I am angered by this. I am however disappointed that the politics just won’t make way or give space to simple matters like grief and remembrance. Politicians will take their shots and ‘hijack’ the occasion; do you have to do the same?


  5. Hi Levi,
    I’m on the west

    Hi Levi,

    I’m on the west coast and the images of 9-11 made me sick. I can’t imagine how the victims and friends and relatives of the victims felt, and still feel today.

    What could we have done to provoke such acts? I think human beings are more animal than we may want to admit. We’re born helpless and totally dependent upon our elders for our survival. I believe we grow up unconsciously feeling indebted to them, to the extent that, without question, we tend to accept their traditional ways of interpreting life.

    We clan together for protection and allow the most aggressive and ambitious ones to take charge. We’ll agree to their rules if they seem to enhance our security. When threatened, we slip into the “fight or flight” mode where there’s no room for rational thought; only action: reflexive, decisive action. We’re naturally suspicious of strangers and not above exacting a preeemptive strike on a suspected enemy if we think they endanger us.

    It’s not natural to trust strangers; trust isn’t part of our instinct for survival. But only trust can ward off mindless fight or flight behavior. We’re more alike than we’re different and I believe it’s worth trying to eliminate differences so that trust can bloom. Maybe I’m naive to hope we can realize global peace within the framework of the United Nations. We must not be afraid to examine our lives and discard what’s not working.

  6. ___Somehow though, the kind
    ___Somehow though, the kind of people who lash out so brutally against the innocent, must really hate both individuals and humanity___

    Hi Claudia, I fully agree.

    It’s hard to understand how people can be like that.

    Kevin, I really couldn’t tell what you are trying to say.

  7. I was in Paris on 9/11. My
    I was in Paris on 9/11. My first impressions of that day were how much sympathy and solidarity the French people felt for the US. There was a great outpouring of support on the part of the Europeans. At first.

    When I returned home, people were driving around waving American flags out of their cars. They started singing God Bless America after every ball game.

    And then George Bush and his administration used the whole thing to invade Irak, commit torture, and try to destroy our civil rights.

    What can I say about 9/11?

    The response could have been a lot different, and so would the world.

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