Feed on

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Weeks, in fact.

About a month ago, a furor broke out across the Internet, as well as across the land where people listen to pundits, then get their panties in a wad over whatever outrages the pundit du jour is spouting. The knicker-twister I’m thinking of today was Ward Churchill who made the shocking observation that we, as a country, have generally spin-doctored the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings of 09-11-2001 into this grand justification for everything that has fallen out since, from bombing Afghanistan to selling Chevies.

Now to be honest, I agree with a great many of Churchill’s points, and have held similar thoughts for quite a while. In short, there is considerable justification out there for a lot of nations to hate the US and to wish to act out on a deep-seated grudge. We pretty much shit in Iraq’s granary, to use a concept from the computer game “Black and White”, we enacted severe economic sanctions upon them, then, once we ousted their leader whom we (not unreasonably) disapproved of, we helped to instate a government and leader essentially of our choosing. Yay, go US.

So, as I’m saying, I agree with a lot of Churchill’s base assertions, and the commonsense assumption that the US is not this blameless angelic lamb, preyed upon by vituperative foreigners, but is as complicit as many other nations of humans, in acts of atrocity against other nations. What I object to, however, is much of Churchill’s intentionally incendiary language, hyperbole, and what essentially amounted to a massive anal-plundering of Godwin’s Law wherein he essentially called anyone and everyone from our country who had any connection to the WTC and Pentagon bombings Nazis.

Many people argue that Churchill had to use insulting and inflammatory language to get his message out there over the ambient “white noise” of commentators and pundits and to shock people into considering an alternative viewpoint. I can accept that.

My problem is with the broad brushstrokes that tar workers whose importance to the grand scheme of our Wars for Oil is negligible. I argue, with personal and anecdotal evidence, that there were a lot of people who died at Ground Zero, especially, who were not intentionally driving the evil military/financial/technological/industrial juggernaut, but who were if anything, incidental, nearly insignificant bit players and bystanders. I should know; I’m one of those sorts of people.

I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Clerks, where Randall and Dante are talking about their favorite Star Wars movies and Randall is musing that the Death Star getting blown up the second time is less morally satisfactory, because the Death Star is likely to be full of all sorts of contract workers, as well as other civilian service providers, such as an in situ daycare and so on. That in turn, brings my mind to the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing of 1995. The common ground I’m loosely drawing between these three bombing events, plus the fictional space-station bombing is that there were a lot of innocent parties harmed. Innocent in that they didn’t have much choice in being there, and innocent in that their being there did not contribute significantly to any dirty doings that the organizations housed within each structure may or may not have engaged in. There were phone jockeys and nework admins in the World Trade Center buildings. There was, notably and poignantly, a daycare in the Oklahoma City Federal Building. There are likely dozens of ordinary file clerks in the Pentagon, whose jobs revolve around nothing more than putting up paperwork, not covering up human rights violations, not developing bigger and better bombs.

You get out of school, and you get a job. That’s how the world works. It doesn’t matter which school you go to or how long you go, it is an inevitability that you’ll get some kind of a job at some point. It might be making photocopies, it might be slinging pancakes, it might be answering phones, and it might be writing e-business security software. In September of 2000, I got out of school and came back to the USA. I got a job, as one does. A friend of a friend of mine worked for a mutual fund company and tipped me off that they were needing a business correspondence clerk, and suggested I should apply and use him as a reference. I applied, got the job, and went off to what turned out to be one of the sole lousiest jobs in my working life to date. So, I was a small, nearly insignificant, and highly interchangeable cog in a low and obscure level of the financial services industry.

Fast forward a year. I was working for Mutual Fund Company X, and hating every minute of it. One Tuesday in early September, I dragged ass out of bed, got dressed, got on my bike, and pedalled to work. I sat down at my desk, logged on to the computer, switched on my phone line, and I was off to a typical day of work, jumping to the commands of financial planners across the country, moving funds here and there, updating addresses, changing the amounts on Mr. Perkins’ autodraft, all the while chattering with my nicer co-workers, guzzling coffee, and hoping the boss didn’t call me up on some arcane offense or another. We peons didn’t have Internet access at our desks, but the bosses did, and one of the bosses reported that he had just read on CNN.com that an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center buildings. “What a weird accident,” everyone was saying. “Someone must be drunk up in the air-traffic-control tower.” A lot of wiseass quips were made, and a number of us, who were used to hollering “Snopes” at our co-workers who had bad habits of forwarding awful e-mails were muttering that this must be some kind of a hoax.

I’d been on the phone with one of my favorite CSRs at MONY in New York, and had just hung up when the buzz in our office began. About half an hour later, the buzz became a roar–another plane had hit the other tower; this wasn’t some kind of freak dispatching accident, this was intentional.

I debated with myself for a few minutes, then I decided to call Eduardo back, just to see if he was okay, if their office was okay. I phoned, and got through, he was just fine, they were across the bay, and were getting ready to leave for the day. I hung up so he could get a move on, and just sat back in my chair, flabberghasted. What the hell? What the hell? That…that didn’t just happen, did it?

The New York Stock Exchange closed, of course, and therefore our company closed its doors, too. We were sent home at around 2:00 p.m. Many workers had been sent home earlier, others had yet to end their work days, and I pedalled home on streets which were usually packed and nerve-wracking, and they were bright, hazy, and empty, the overcompensating autumn sunlight beating down at an angle to which I wasn’t accustomed.

As I rode, the realization started sinking in, that two very large buildings were just then in flames, collapsing, that there were people who were certainly unable to escape, who were dying right then, as I was riding home, whole and healthy. That on that morning, hundreds of other office peons like myself had awakened in their apartments in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, wherever, had grumbled their way on to the subway, had slouched down in office chairs, sucking down bad coffee and yearning for the weekend, that people just like me who didn’t particularly like their jobs, who just were trying to earn a paycheck and get on with their lives were dying right at that very moment. This kind of a sudden, large-scale death is tragic in any circumstance, but as I strove along the street, it seemed to me even more tragic that a lot of those people died while doing something they probably didn’t like much at all. And I got to thinking about how much of a waste most of our work lives are, and how little what we do for a livelihood has to do with what we live to do.

Churchill seems to be writing off all of those people who worked in the Pentagon and WTC, from the high-flying CEOs, the connected, ranking Officers, down to the kid who hauls the cafeteria trash out every night, as integral parts of the vast machine of evil function that forms the US military and financial services industry.

Churchill speaks from a privileged position. He’s working in his own dream job, he daily gets to engage in things which are meaningful to him, which he feels can and will help effect the world and improve it. Not everyone can be so lucky. Ideally, everyone has a choice as to what they do for a living, but realistically, some poor schmuck can’t find an attractive job that pays the rent, and ends up working telemarketing or shovelling cowshit out of the sale-barns at livestock auction houses. I’m willing to bet there were dozens, if not hundreds of people in the WTC, and in the Pentagon who didn’t grow up and say “I’m gonna work for the man,” but who found themselves out in the world and needing a decent job, and allowed as how $10.50/hour for answering the phones wasn’t a bad deal whatsoever. Those people weren’t “little Eichmanns,” administering the evil plans of the Hitlers above them, they were just ordinary folk, most of whom shut down their computer at the end of each day, and left their work at work, and didn’t think particularly deeply on it one way or the other. Is this good? Well, no, not particularly, but is it evil? Not particularly that, either.

I’ll agree and admit that it can be a slippery slope, determining who is absolved of complicity, who was tangentially attatched to a corrupt organization, but seriously, is the dude down in the mailroom, or the CSR who routes incoming phonecalls as complicit as the CEOs and members of the Boards of Directors? Are the retirees who draw on IRAs held by a mutual fund company greasing the wheels of the Great American Corruption Machine? Where do you draw the line, and which of us is the bad guy?

Here is the “Some People Push Back” essay again, with links to reviews at the end.

The online discussion that even made me aware of this essay in the first place.

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