An American in Canada Explains
Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, Mr. Hooton is a freelance writer and editor based in Montreal, Quebec. He recently completed his M.A. in English Literature at McGill University and is currently Vice Chair for Democrats Abroad Montreal.
Last year on September 11th, I awoke with a mouth full of ash. I discovered this anomaly when, after brushing my teeth, I spit a chalky, dark gray stream into my bathroom sink. Stunned, I pressed my face close to the mirror, said “ahh,” and extended a tongue that was as black as chimney soot. At that instant, I remembered it was the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. Then I shivered with a strange epiphany. “My God,” I thought, “those attacks have made us all into cannibals.”
When the World Trade Center’s towers crumbled to the ground, nearly 2800 individuals disintegrated into plumes of smoke and ash. The dust that blanketed lower Manhattan contained not only the asbestos which seared the lungs of relief workers, but also the microscopic remains of our fellow human beings. In the middle of my blurry-eyed morning routine, this sudden awareness inspired a frantic ten-minute scraping session which restored my tongue to its natural color. Once my shock receded, however, I began to find comfort in this idea.
I realized that since 9/11 traces of flesh, blood and bone have migrated to the most remote corners of the world. Because these specks of humanity have inevitably slipped into our hair, our eyes and our mouths, countless people now carry an internal memorial to those lost individuals. This belief transforms seemingly innocuous occurrences—a sneeze in London, a cough in Cairo, a woman wiping dirt from her forehead in Kyoto—into moments when those victims silently implore us not to forget their unexpected sacrifice.
Three and a half years after that infamous day, and just a few weeks after the process for identifying the victims’ remains reached its conclusion in New York, such an intimate and nauseating image of our interconnectedness is becoming increasingly necessary. Regardless of how you may feel about America’s intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no denying that the international solidarity which followed the attacks has since disappeared. For a brief moment the world united in the glow of memorial candles; today it is divided into coalitions of the “willing” and the “unwilling.”
The Bush Administration’s declaration that the countries of the world are either “with [America] or with the terrorists” continues to demean the contributions to peace and safety that others have made. Such arrogance has irreparably estranged allies and left ordinary people feeling contempt for the United States and its citizens.
As an American living in Canada—a country that continues to play a vital role in Afghanistan but did not support the war in Iraq—I have witnessed the effects firsthand. I hear it in the mornings when I dress to the “we told you so” tone of the CBC’s war coverage, and it chokes me at night when I hesitate to mention my nationality in front of the strangers I meet in Montreal’s smoke-filled bars. If Canada’s decision not to participate in the proposed U.S. missile-defense shield still perplexes some American officials, they need look no further than the average Canadian’s overwhelming opposition to the project.
September 11, 2001 may have made us all into unwilling cannibals, but since that day far too many people have acquired a taste for blood. The need to respond has mutated into what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “descending spiral” of violence. For those who believe in the downward cyclicality of hate, the smirks of American soldiers at Abu Ghraib were not shocking; they were merely an eerie echo of the cheering Middle Eastern radicals who dance across the nightly news in celebration of pain, death and chaos. Ultimately, it is difficult to claim that the terrorists failed when America has entered into that cycle, its citizens killing and dying every day in foreign deserts. January elections in Iraq were a step in the right direction, but in reality there is no end in sight to the occupation and thus to the bloodshed.
Looking back on my bathroom miracle, what is most shocking to me is that I did not seek a logical, physical explanation for my tongue’s blackness. Instead I assumed I had been blessed, singled out for a unique moment of perspicacity. Later that afternoon, however, my wife informed me that the Pepto Bismol tablets I had taken the previous night were the source of the discoloration. She had read on the internet that this household remedy contains bismuth which, when combined with traces of sulfur in the intestines, can cause a harmless and temporary darkening of the tongue and mouth.
This dose of reality reminded me that a belief in our own exceptionalism is almost always an illusion, and in the post-9/11 world, these pretensions are not only misguided but dangerous as well. Nevertheless, as another anniversary passes, those tragic events retain an uncanny ability to reveal our interconnectedness in the most unlikely of places. Perhaps one day, they will help us to find peace amongst the ashes of the Twin Towers.
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HNN - 4/7/2005
I think Brett Hooton's essay on 9/11 is eloquent, and there is truth in his assertion that, as philosophers have said, "We are all part of one another." We indeed ingest particulates from great distances, and there is no measure of the composition of the air we breathe. It still has fallout from decades ago in it as well as all the pollutants rampant industry all around the globe contributes. (U.S.A.'s contribution is endorsed by the Bush Administration with the same enthusiasm they gave to Clinton's impeachment and their exploitation of a dying woman's situation.) I consider Brett's essay a real contribution to the literature of 9/11, which includes work of myself and others in anthologies like William Heyen's SEPT 11, 2001, AMERICAN WRITERS RESPOND, and Allen Cohen & Clive Matson's POETS ON 9/11 as well as magazines like THE HUMAN QUEST and FRIENDS BULLETIN. The only correction I would suggest for Brett's essay is the phrase about dying in the desert. Both Americans and the Bush-designated enemy are also dying in the ruins of cities we've turned into rubble, and the long term effects of scattered uranium from weapons will kill into the distant future.
Incidentally, in the chat responses to Brett's article I found the naive assertion that Bush's appeal was muted even before 9/ll. One might as well say that Hitler was discredited by the German people by 1935.
David Ray <www.davidraypoet.com>
T Fife - 4/5/2005
Finally, a place for everyone. Why didn't you say so sooner? Mr. Candlish has personally welcomed all the gays, lesbians, druggies, anti-democratics, murderers and those without religion into Canada. P.S. Don't pretend like you and George are on the same wavelength. He's dead and still wayyyy ahead of you.
T Fife - 4/5/2005
I am truly amazed at all the negativity these days between Canadians and Americans. I just don’t get it. I’ve always been taught to respect Canada and Canadians (and capitalize their nationality!… see previous comments, re: Really?) Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but let’s be real. Canada purchases about 25% of all exports from the United States and we, in turn, purchase 75% of all exports from Canada. We seem to have no problem doing business with each other, yet there always seems to be some sort of social riff.
I think the media puts way too much emphasis on the division and differences between Canada and the United States. The bottom line is Americans have a ton of respect for Canada. They have a beautiful country, are very respectful of the environment and pick and choose their battles with the rest of the world. Who ever implied it’s us against them is crazy.
Not everyone is going to agree with our politics and policies, but get over it. That’s why you live where you live and we live where we live. We’re neighbors. We barbeque together. We share the longest undefended border in the world. Where would I live if I didn’t think the United States of America is the greatest country in the world? The next best place, Canada!
William Candlish - 4/2/2005
I did not mean to make any inference about the inability of people who view the world through a Religiously-based filter, I just meant to point out that often Americans (and a lot of Canadians too, I am not trying to be discriminatory) argue against facts with religious arguments. It is true, we come from very different and completely incommensurable world-views. I also appreciate your thoughtful and intelligent response to my posting. I do want to say that in my writing I do not intend to offend others, rather, I often end up arguing for things more forcefully than intended. On that note:
When reading the Farewell address I actually thought it was more important that Washington listed Morality and Religion as separate though connected entities. For an interesting read about how morality can exist without religion I would point you in the direction of Kai Nielsen's article Ethics Without Religion... I do however concede the point that Washington thought that Religion was an integral part of public life. But when Washington writes: "Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice?" The role that religion plays seems to still be separate from state, or connected to state only through the individual. In essence, it seems that while religious obligation is part of oath keeping, that still falls to the individual rather than an entrenched sense of religious permeation in the justice system.
I do resent the implication that a loss of religion leads to Moral Relativism and think that it is entirely possible to have a strong moral and ethical understanding of the world without religion
A lot of my resentment stems from my (perhaps bisased view) that adoption of a religious world view (or any other point of view), leads people to adopt a very specific relativism namely, "mine is better than yours". Giving people a title to which the subscribe just leads to people labelling other people as either "with us" or "against us" that, I think, is much more dangerous than moral relativism.
I'll leave you with this thought from Washington:
Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, ..... In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments, as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard, by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country
While religion may be part of that experience for some, it is hardly a requirement for all.
Thomas W Hagedorn - 4/1/2005
Mr. Candlish, I think your second post is very much related to your first. We have two very different world-views at odds here. In a very real sense we don't understand one another (US and Canada) because we look at the world with different assumptions and different expectations.
A person that has a religiously-based world-view need not abandon logic and reason. I am currently researching Scottish Common Sense Realism, a very influential philosophy that dominated American thought from about 1780 to 1850. It quite comfortably accomodated Calvinism with observations of the material world. Even secularists like Jefferson and Franklin came under its influence.
Thomas W Hagedorn - 4/1/2005
You might be surprised to read Pres. George Wasington's Farewell Address, probably available by a Google search on the internet. Look at his strong comments on religion and morality. I have studied a lot of American Religious and Politcial history in the Revolutionary Era and I can assure you that his comments are very typical.
The Separation of Church and State in the early United States is a very popular myth that few historians can defend today.
William Candlish - 3/31/2005
A last thought, if I may.
Before I read the Religion post and got sidetracked, I meant to write about the roots of Canadian antipathy toward the united states.
Now, I don't speak for every Canadian, but it seems to me that the roots of the antipathy that Canadians feel towards our neighbours to the south is directly related to the american prediliction for taking care of themselves first. For instance softwood lumber tariffs, or the exporting of american style democracy.
There is also a feeling of paternalism and egotism that permeates so much of the relations between our two countries (Going both ways). We don't like when americans try to set our social agenda, you don't like when we call you petty names or don't take part in your latest military conquest.
The second major rift is caused by the seeming regression of american social policy. Canadians think they are a fiscally conservative but socially liberal people. Gay people want to marry, what is so wrong with that if they love one another, decriminalize pot, hey if 60%(or whatever the number is) of people have smoked it at one time or another clearly the law is following a trend rather than leading it. War, for the rights reasons, but couldn't that money be better spent on education, or feeding underprivileged kids? Abortion, do men have uteruses? No, so why should they decide and isn't it better to know that young women have abortions performed by doctors in a hygenic setting rather than in an alley with a rusty coat hanger?..and so on.
Obviously these views are much more complicated than I make them out to be, but I think that contained somewhere are at least a few of the schisms between our two countries.
William Candlish - 3/31/2005
I must admit that I am bemused everytime I read comments about a moral compass being lost with loss of christianity.
Religion at best, stands as a snapshot of the morality which existed at the time of its founding along with alterations brought about by major figures (think Martin Luther). I suppose you can say religion is a moral compass, but it is one whose direction indicator points firmly backwards.
I find it deeply amusing that so many of the attacks on Canada and Europe leveled by Americans have religious overtones when your founding fathers recognized the inherent dangers of including religion in state.
Further, I find that often americans find relgious attacks are the way to refute an argument they know they cannot defeat using methods like logic.
Edward Siegler - 3/31/2005
We're taught to believe that all Canadians, Europeans and just about everyone else hates America because it's an evil empire. Turning Iraq into another colony (along with Hawaii and Puerto Rico) proves this. How refreshing to hear what common sense would dictate in the first place - not all Canadians think in lock-step with their state-run media. Any real conflict between America and Canada is the most ridiculous thing in the world, in my view. It's like North and South Dakotans bickering with each other. I'm glad that Canada has its own identity and does things its own way. But let's put this rhetorical conflict thing away.
Dylan Sherlock - 3/31/2005
Don't mind anything you hear on CBC. The basic fact of the matter is that it's a government owned and run media monopoly and the government that runs it is a left-of-centre (notice the British spelling of center) Quebec run party that has won the last four elections and has a half dozen scandals on it's back. Most Canadians may have disagreed with America's decision to go to Iraq (I didn't, but perhaps only because I know Kurds, the peer pressure would have gotten the best of me, like everyone else) but now opinion on the war is not much different than in America.
Again with Missile-Defense, it's really hard to gauge what the average Canadian thinks because the average Canadian doesn't know what to. State-run news brings on a host of ill informed "experts" and the socialist party (the NDP) as well as the left of centre Liberal's both waged massive misinformation campaigns that tried to put this missile defense deal to be Star Wars where Canada would have to burden the entire cost and the system didn't even work (when in truth it was a ground based system, we wouldn't have to pay more than a few million [to protect our shores from nuclear missiles for christsake!] and the system had been tested successfully).
Canadians were treated to an immense propaganda effort and all we got for our troubles was a polite "well you know we are going to use the defenses without your say-so, because we actually give a damn about your citizens" from the American government.
This Canadian would just like to say: "God Bless America".
Thomas W Hagedorn - 3/29/2005
Much of the western world has lost its moral compass - Christianity. Europe and Canada have not replaced Christianity with any effective institutions to teach and encourage moral conduct. The result is a moral relativism that is self-centered and situational. A world-view where there is no ultimate truth, only a gray, dull, "what's in it for me?" attitude. I shudder to think what the world would be like if "red state" America ever falls. As the song says, "God Bless the USA".
Michael Holm - 3/28/2005
I won't even comment on your "high noon" analogy. To serious critics of American politics and history that would most likely say it all, and it is hard to take you that seriously.
However, it is fair that other nations should stand down. Washington cannot count on them to do its dirty work. After all, you also asked for help in Vietnam - and nobody came (except a tiny number of forces from the Asia/Pacific region) - they were right then. The evil Mr. Heisler talk about fighting back against. Well then, we were it.
If other nations are right today is a different matter of course, but it certainly indicates that being the master of justice is not something that by the law of nature belongs to the Americans. Either way, the Bush administration had lost its support around the world long before the towers fell. Surprisingly enough, even since then it has seemed uninterested in regaining that support. The policies they have followed have been unilateral beyond belief and this means that today they stand largely alone. Nobody can be blamed for refusing to follow them into battle, in fact selecting not to better than anything represents the choice democracy was meant to be about.
Charles Edward Heisler - 3/27/2005
Why is it that every Bush critic starts with the assumption that there was worldwide "solidarity" with the United States following 9/11 when it is rather obvious that that solidarity either did not exist or was meaningless.
The "world" loves to display its exceptional ability to wringhands and lay wreaths, get caught on television mourning publically but is woefully short of doing anything but whining and weeping.
As we have learned from good old Gary Cooper and "High Noon", when the bad guys come to town, the sheriff is often caught standing alone to face the evil.
I think we need another conceit to find a lesson in than all that "solidarity" with America following 9/11--it had all the sincerity and seriousness of world's concern that followed the death of Princess Diana at the hands of a drunk Frenchman--let's drop a tear, put a teddy bear next to a fence, throw a few bouquets, and get on with our lives.
Obviously Brett, the "world" wasn't at all determined to do a thing about international terrorism following 9/11--Bush and America was. Any blackening of the tongue and bad taste in my mouth has do do with countries like our fine neighbors to the north who manage to enjoy a safe and secure snottiness precisely because of their proximity to a democracy that fights back against evil.
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