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Sorting the War Dead into Winners and Losers

When the first plane struck, I was in my Pittsburgh apartment writing a conference paper on images of failure in popular music. My mother phoned: big jet crash, turn on CNN. “I’ll have to skip this one,” I said. “I’m working.” Minutes later, I cut off a neighbor and then a colleague who rang in quick succession. When my spouse called with news of the second plane, I finally clicked the television and quit dylanloser.doc, “The Loser Now Will Be Later to Win: Bob Dylan and the Epiphany of Failure.” By mid-morning on September 11, 2001, we knew that thousands were dead in unfathomable horror. Yet, part of me fretted that I really should be getting back to work.

Five years later, I am still ashamed of my gross self-absorption on that incomprehensible Tuesday morning. I felt guilty for even thinking of work at such a time and guilty for not even trying to be productive. The Federal Aviation Administration suspended the nation’s air traffic, but who had the authority to suspend our work ethic?

Despite the fallen towers, the Pentagon strike, and the crash near Pittsburgh, my paper still had to be done for that weekend’s music conference in Iowa City. Although airports were reportedly closed until at least noon on Wednesday, surely they would reopen before my scheduled departure two days later. And so, the unfinished paper gnawed at me for 48 hours – until the meeting was cancelled and I was certain there would be no trip to Iowa.

By sundown on 9/11, a whiteout of poisonous ash and office paperwork made lower Manhattan resemble the epic blizzards of my Iowa boyhood. School closings were gifts from the sky, but I was grown before I understood the real significance of a “snow day.” With little warning, almost everything stops but our hearts; no travel, no meetings, no guaranteed overnight. The calm after the storm reminds us that our work is neither as urgent, nor even as essential, as we wish to believe. No conference papers (and few books) have ever been written that the world could not do without. Snow swirls, screen savers dance, deadlines slide, and – nothing. Amazingly, life goes on and the walls do not come tumbling down.

Until the blizzard of 9/11. Digging out from death and debris so overwhelming that they might have forever buried “business as usual,” no wonder many citizens believed that the terrorists would win if the nation stopped. Workaholism was patriotism. President Bush’s glib call to keep “working and shopping” was more redundant than inappropriate, but it could not keep the smell of death from triggering introspections about how to live. On-the-street interviews and letters to the editor voiced second thoughts about devoting one’s life to making money in tall buildings. Actually, some students at my university (renowned for business and technology) had been airing similar feelings for more than a year. The dot-com bust of 2000 hit them as an unthinkable event that made it thinkable to follow one’s bliss. Their epiphanies that failure was an option (in the sense of not living by others’ definitions of “success”) inspired me to send off a paper abstract about Bob Dylan. “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more” was less a rejection than a revitalization of the work ethic.

Whatever individual or collective soul-searching ensued in the fall of 2001, many found it easier to think of 9/11 as metaphor as well as mass murder. Officialdom fed the perception that “our values” had been targeted (the terrorists rationalized their atrocities by citing American foreign policy, not values), which elicited reaffirmation and reembodiment of those values. On November 11, the New York Times Magazine ran a cheerful “manifesto” by best-selling author and investment banker Michael Lewis. He argued that lower Manhattan had always been the turf of “exceptionally greedy young men” and should ever be – “if you want New York to remain the place where people come to make money.” Without irony, Lewis urged the rebuilders of Ground Zero to “Make a Playground for the Rich.”

That phrase sent me digging through paper piles in my office on Sunday afternoon, to recover a forgotten postcard that I had picked up in Manhattan in 1998. As a historian researching the experience of failure in American culture, I was always coming across ephemera of winning and losing. This was a funky advertisement, grabbed off a free card rack in some café, for the employment service hotjobs.com. The graphic evoked an Andy Warhol portrait in primary red and blue – of the Twin Towers. Big yellow letters screamed: WELCOME TO THE PLAYGROUND OF THE FEARLESS.

Talk about “change over time” (as historians refer to our stock in trade). In the X-treme culture of the 1990s, the postcard had looked like one more example of “masters of the universe” bravado, the latest update of the American credo of compulsory ambition. Pick one: be a comer or else be a loser. But 9/11 had transformed this advertising into effigy. There could be no sneering at the playground of the fearless after it caved into Ground Zero and its dead arose as unforgettable individuals in the New York Times series,“Portraits in Grief.” Readers did not have to presume that all were heroes to appreciate that each was a human being. The fearless would not be faceless, much less hidden behind masks of success and failure. Among them was many a comer but nary a loser.

Ultimately, the fallen ended up no more equal in death than they had been in life. The ennobling rhetoric of individualism conceals structural inequalities, and the playground of the fearless turned out to have doubled as a workplace of the powerless: women and men without full employment, contracts, green cards, insurance, pensions, bonuses, or career ladders. People without promise, who worked hard but not smart. Thus, when Congress passed an unprecedented law creating the “9/11 Victims Compensation Fund,” it stipulated that net worth, career trajectory, and expected lifetime earnings be computed into a dollar award befitting each decedent. Not only would a broker’s heirs get more money than a janitor’s family, but calculations across all occupations would assess, as the New York Times wrote, “whether the victims were rising stars or complacent plodders.” So much for equality before the law, but how sad the realization that Americans are neither born equal nor die equal.

When I saw America begin the grisly work of sorting its war dead into piles of winners and losers, I knew it was not true that our lives would “never be the same” after 9/11. That day changed us far less than we feared or hoped it would. The twin towers of success and failure still loom over the playground of the fearless, where all must play to win and the winner takes all. I decided not to finish that Bob Dylan piece; “the loser now shall be later to win” now sounded like a lot of postmodern nonsense. But I completed my damned book. I wrote in the epilogue, “Failure is not the dark side of the American Dream; it is the foundation of it.” Until the aftermath of September 11, 2001, I had never fully understood that.

Related Links

  • 9/11: Five Years Later

  • Teaching About 9-11