Monday, September 12, 2011

September 12th

  Ten years ago I happened to be in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., doing some research.  (Plug: if you have never been there, I should tell you the Libary of Congress may be the most beautiful accomplishment our country boasts.  It's a marvelous place to do research -- or sit staring up at the ceiling when one ought to be doing research.) 

  On the morning of September 11 someone spoke, and announced that we all had to leave -- just an hour into our work.  We did, with some dim idea that something was going on.  I've never seen quite a traffic jam of people trying to get out of downtown D.C.  If I hadn't had a motorcycle, I might still be trying to get back up to my house.  For days, helicopters were over head constantly.

   The Library is connected by tunnels with the U.S. Congress.  If a plane had hit the Capitol Building, I'd probably still be alive, but I'd have felt the impact and smelled the burning gasoline.   I've always felt a personal gratitude to the heroes of Flight 93, because at least some early reports were uncertain whether that plane was headed for the Capitol or the White House. 

    At supper that night we could see the Pentagon buring.  For days helicopters roared overhead above my house, at all hours, as if it were a war zone.
    I take pictures, as you may have noticed.   So early the next morning, September 12th, I went out to do that.  The streets were deserted, of course.  Near the monuments, soldiers and tanks were everywhere.  I  had to park a good ways from the Lincoln Memorial.   Once there, though, I was able to take a photograph in the dawn light that could only have been taken that day, when pretty much anyone who had a choice stayed home:

   Soon afterward, contemplating the janitor at work in the photograph, I wrote this to accompany the print:

His step looks almost jaunty. One might even imagine defiance in it. More eloquently, more sincerely, and perhaps at more personal risk, he says what the suits and ties in the White House say: let’s live our damned lives, and the hell with some fundamentalist in a cave, with his threats and suicidal dupes.
No one else is on these steps. No runners jog up them before turning toward home. No tourists stand around with guidebooks and polaroids. I am snapping pictures, not thinking. Later I will contemplate Lincoln’s wonderfully reflective posture and expression, the figure of a firm and strong man who dares to think and act outside the box, a man who sat many, many mornings alone working on the Emancipation Proclamation and watching the spiders building their webs above the borrowed desk where he went to work on it. 
If I were Osama bin Laden, I would destroy this statue, because Lincoln symbolizes our humanist freedom of thought. If I were George W. Bush, I would help destroy it, because the more people recall Lincoln, with his ability to contemplate deeply, think independently, and treat enemies with a wise mixture of the firm and the humane, the more "W" looks like a comical child in a chair so big that his feet dangled short of the ground.

Ten years have passed.  Osama and "W" have left the stage.   A century and a half from now, no one will write best-selling books about either of them, as they do about Lincoln.   One can only hope the world will also have forgotten by then the kind of narrow-minded religious fundamentalism that let Osama slaughter thousands without losing sleep over it. 


  1. nice contrast--Bin Laden and Lincoln. Great, too, having what is probably a Black janitor sweeping the steps on this day.

  2. Great photograph. And, given the day you took it, a great reminder of the resilient American spirit. And what I also like about this image is it moves from just representing a moment in time to a symbol of something larger and more powerful.