Back to the Mountaintop

It’s about 11 in the morning and the phone is ringing. The crappy red plastic cordless phone is ringing, and the cheap digital sound fills my one-room cottage in Atherton, CA. I remember getting home around 4am. I remember the last thing I heard on the radio before I turned off the car engine and went inside to sleep. Now the phone is ringing at 11am, and I grab it to find out who is calling.

When I turn on the TV, I’m almost awake with the shock.


When they hit, jet fuel erupted in fiery vomit from both sides of the towers.


Amateur video, wandering through city streets choked with dust, something like the sound of electric crickets filling the air.


The skies become empty of planes. I think I cried – I can’t really remember.

A lot of us showed up at the lab because we had to, but we couldn’t work. This upset my supervisor. There is fear about going to Paris for the meeting. It’s likely planes won’t be flying anyway. We are told we don’t have to fly to the meeting because it’s canceled. I am relieved. I miss my fiancee. I ask permission to drive back to Wisconsin to see her. I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. I think my supervisor thinks I’ll be back in a week or two. I don’t care what they think. I don’t know when I’ll be back. All I know is that I am suddenly very lonely in California, that I miss my family, and that I miss my fiancee, and that all I want to do is be back in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin in September is beautiful. I think about it on the drive. Tahoe is beautiful. Reno is forgettable. I look for the prisons off the side of the Nevada highway. Salt Lake City is like a dream nestled in mountains and guarding the way to a salt sea.

Cars pass me on the highway with poems and sayings  painted on the back. I feel a sense of connectedness with these strangers on the road. We are all going somewhere. We all want to be with our families. Jobs don’t matter. Lots of things don’t matter.

But the things that should matter suddenly do.

I listen to the memorial broadcast from the National Cathedral. I cry while I drive; it’s not safe but I don’t care. I just want to be in Wisconsin as fast as I can get there. I’ve never really sung “America the Beautiful” that loudly before. I re-learned stanzas I knew in youth but forgot. The sun is shining. America is beautiful . . . for a brief time.

I stay in Wisconsin until early October. I am happy and sad. If I were in California I would only be sad and lonely. It’s one of the best times I have in Wisconsin until two years later when I am married and living there and finishing my thesis.


America discovers its new fear: Muslims. It doesn’t matter that our country was founded on religious tolerance. It doesn’t seem to matter that once there were extreme Christian sects that fled to a horrible wet and wintery continent to escape their own persecution and find a place where tolerance could be practiced. America forgets its history. America forgets its values. America finds a friend

[let’s call him Jack]

to help her fight in desert war. For the death visited upon us, we multiply that death upon the heads of others. Many are to blame for what happened to us; many more are not to blame. We are feared. We are loved. We are hated. The world is changed, not because of what was visited upon us

[remember the embassy bombings, remember the Cole]

but because of how we chose to enact our vengeance upon the world.

New language emerges.

Persons of interest.

Coalition of the willing.

Enhanced interrogation techniques.

America once looked in the mirror and was beautiful, a twin vision of justice and liberty standing like towers on a silver skyline.

Now she looks in the mirror and sees something like a painting by Gerald Scarfe. Blind Justice’s body twists toward the sky in waves of screaming secrecy, her scales pressing down upon a man as water is poured into a towel that covers his screaming mouth. Her other hand is raised, a single finger to her lips – SHHHHHH. Although a blindfold covers her eyes you feel her STARING at you with cameras and infrared eyes, your every move followed by sharp and pointed pupils that lie hidden behind folds of cloth. To her left, Lady Liberty has ceased her welcoming of new faces and cultures. Instead, she bars the way of the immigrant masses with her large book. The original words written on the book, which remind of us the day that liberty came to America

JULY 4, 1776

have been traded for a new date

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

that suddenly seems to inform more of America’s thinking. Liberty’s torch stands ready to strike those who would try to sneak past.

This grim painting is a terrifying vision of America, one so different from the soaring stanzas of America the Beautiful that we all sang in the days after September 11. Yet this was the twisted vision that came to pass. We traded liberty for security. We traded rights for restrictions. We traded responsibility for entitlement. We traded knowledge for ignorance. We traded science for lies. We gave Justice the power to torture and Liberty the power of restriction.

Ten years later, I still wonder if we’ll ever wander out of the desert of September 11 and find our way back to the mountaintop of July 4.

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