Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 and What We Could Become

In the post below I discussed how I've been dealing with intense feelings about terrorism since I was 19. In many ways, 9/11 took America to a place where I had already been. I tried to cover my own situation in the post below, so today I'm going with my observations about America since 2001. Wow, 2001. Remember when it was supposed to be so futuristic? Anyway, this is going to sound pretentious but I felt a little like an older sibling during those times, simply because I had been through what we were experiencing as a nation. You know what else is strange? Everyone who loses a great friend or family member to terrorism, says pretty much the same things. It's a form of education that turns you into an expert on handling a very specialized type of grief. Think of the random nature of it. The terrorists don't even know who they're killing. In fact, America only learned in the weeks and months afterwards who exactly was lost. It's so weird when you know right after it happens. You want to scream out, "This isn't some random stranger to use to make a wretched political point. This was my friend." There's a tremendous mind-boggling mathematical inequality about killing strangers just to make a statement. It's the worst kind of lottery. Then to have the entire world discussing it, while you're going through an intense personal loss, is beyond surreal. Oh well, that was yesterday's post and today I'm going to try and keep it light. Great start, huh?

A few months ago "60 Minutes" did a piece on Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central show host, and I was startled when Morley Safer said that many people who go into comedy have something tragic happen to them when they're very young. (Stephen lost his father in a hideous plane crash.) Call me an idiot, but I had never heard that before. I had been working under my own theory: The reason I went into comedy writing was I have a quirky gift. In fact, it was a damn shame something tragic happened to me when I was young, because I could have been a lot funnier. I also explored the thought of comedy as penance. This theory came up when I was driving home from seeing the movie "Munich". To me that was the most important film of that particular year, because it covered terrorism and how being a victim of it can change your soul. America doesn't seem to realize this but 9/11 put us at risk of crossing to the dark side and losing our way. The terrorist incident the movie describes - the murder of the Israeli Olympic wrestling team - was only a year before my friend, Walker Heywood, was murdered in another terrorist incident in Rome. You want a really poignant detail? Walker, me, and a few other American kids who had grown up together in Arabia, were all watching that Olympic telecast at my parents' farm in Massachusetts, the year before he died in a similar attack.

Needless to say, the movie had a tremendous impact on me, so much so that I pulled the car over on the way home and shed a tear. I thought it was going to be a lock to win the Academy Award. I felt America would learn so much from it about terrorism, and what we are in danger of losing if we're not careful. Unfortunately, America shunned the film and it was the Year of the Gay Cowboy.

Why did I relate to the Israeli men who hunted down the terrorists at Munich? See, I had crossed to the dark side after my friend got killed - you almost can't help it. I'm sure there are some saintly turn-the-other-cheek types out there who do better with this, but I didn't. You find yourself - especially back when I drank - just fantasizing about revenge. It's really quite sick. You spend hours wallowing in what you'd like to do to these bastards and the end result is that you sort of disgust yourself. Then you go through it all again. Drinking and thinking violent thoughts. The ugliness terrorism causes is not good, and here's a news flash: This is the cycle that creates more violence. Somewhere there's a young man in Iraq who lost someone and he's crossed to the dark side, too. We might have to deal with him later. At least I was targeting specific individuals, but if you cross over too far, you just want to hurt someone - anyone. Even if they're not involved with the actual incident. See how it works, people?

Fortunately for me, I didn't have the opportunity to strike back. I admit, for the world's sake it might have been better if I had. The terrorist who masterminded killing my friend was Abu Nidal, early in a long career of horrific violence. Sometimes retribution is a good thing, but I didn't have a way. So instead I concentrated on getting myself over it, and it took years. That's what "Munich" is about - how violence can be a real answer, except that if you go there, you might not come back from the dark side.

I came back, and I eventually went into comedy writing. I'm not sure if it was because of the theory with Stephen Colbert, but I wanted to keep it light. I know that. I wanted to be on the fun side of the ledger. I was no saint but I wanted to do good - I wanted to add to the joy in the equation and fight the misery index. When I hit 500 jokes on the Tonight Show, it was a big deal for me. I called the Oregonian and it was in Jonathan Nicholas's column. It wasn't till later when I was driving home from "Munich" that I realized what the importance really was. I had been paying off - doing penance for what I had become after my own private 9/11. I realized 500 jokes on the Tonight Show meant something big to me in this area. It meant my penance was done and I forgave myself. I had crossed to the dark side, but I had crawled back, and now I was virtually healed. And it had only taken 32 years. My fear is that America is bogged down on the dark side right now. I understand why we went. I understand the urge to lash out. I've been there. But you have to realize we're in danger of becoming something completely different as a nation. It's not like in my case. We have the means to do a lot of damage in the world - that's for sure. But we better not linger on the dark side or we might not be able to get back.


At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicely said, Billy. What you describe applies to many provocations that can lead you to the dark side of things, and to a willingness to do violence to make things better. I also thought Munich was a very nuanced study of the process whereby a pretty normal guy slowly but surely becomes the very thing he's fighting against.
Your near (and as yet unmet) brother,

At 6:47 AM, Blogger Frank Dufay said...

My daughter worked blocks from the World Trade Center then...and still does. That day I finally heard from her as she called me from the Brooklyn Bridge, walking home. "The City's on fire, Daddy," I remember her telling me.

I'm not even close to putting aside my anger at an administration that failed to stop that attack, has failed to bring those responsible to justice and has made the threat of terrorism far worse with stupid and dysfunctional policies. I worry about my anger if something happens to her.

Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts, Bill.

At 6:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill, Laura and I lived through the horror that you describe. There is no forgetting. And ever so often someone reminds us again of what the world lost when Walker died.

Doris Heywood Lowery


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