Sunday, September 11, 2005

9/11 Then and Now

I am old enough to know what duck and cover means. I also get a tight chest whenever I hear a fire-station alarm or anything that sounds like an air-raid warning. That's a real legacy of the Baby Boomers –– terrify your children to make them feel safe.

For those of us in Boston after September 11, 2001, another sound recalled those anxieties. Night after night, the only sounds from above were the guttural and threatening growls of fighter jets. While our part of town is far from Logan, the white noise of the occasional, high evening jet headed to fun and sun in Europe or elsewhere is part of the city. When it is replaced with the sounds of warships patrolling the skies, the September attacks are always flying with them.

Our town was where the uber-bad guys left to destroy the Twin Towers. They weren't interested in terrorizing Boston, just using it as their launching pad.

Right after that day of horror, I wrote We build `em, but they don't come (28K PDF). Editors seemed to think it wasn't funny and would never be funny. See if you agree.


Uncle said...

Well, Mike,

I read "We build `em, but they don't come" and I can see the editors’ point. It seems to me that the proper answer to Bostonian snobbery and distortion is comprehension and a softer form of ridicule, not more of the same.

Growing up in a tourist area of northern New England, we found "Boston people" very nearly as irritating as you do. After a certain point, one should just take the annoyance for granted and go on with one’s life. Maybe it’s my overall sense of alienation, but I’ve found I’m as much at home in Boston as I was in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region. To name just a couple of places I’ve been lately, I could do as well in the New Mexico mesalands or rural Ontario. The older I get, the more troubling I find it that people can expend so much of their energy disliking the more petty disagreeable features of the places they happen to live. Where we live, after all, is one rather small, remote planet.

The overreactions of Bostonians in the aftermath of 9/11 were of course ludicrous. Were they more absurd than the administration’s hints (not long after) that some very modest rural Virginia town was also a terrorist target? Panic brings irrationality: I’m not sure one can or should distinguish between degrees of absurdity.

Your suggestion that Boston history offered precedent for the black comedy of the time detracts from the main point, which is the black comedy itself. An allergic reaction to Bostonian pettiness sailed the narrative past exaggeration into factual error.

A little historian’s analysis is in order, and I concede in advance that not all editors have this sort of thing at their fingertips.

I don’t know whether the Colonial-era fort at Castle Island was "crude": I haven’t seen the evidence. I have studied one Colonial-era fort in some detail, and can say that if Boston’s was crude, it was an exception. Castle William was part of a chain of fortifications designed by British engineers and erected throughout the eighteenth century. The motivation was defence against the very real threat of commerce raids (not invasions) by French and Spanish warships during the World War of the eighteenth century.

Fort Warren was built to meet the same threat when the new republic’s international relations got out of hand. (Fort Lee was built to defend Salem, which at the time returned customs duties that provided something like five percent of the entire national revenue...not much less than did Boston. There was a damn sight more reason for someone to attack either place up to 1815 than there has been ever since.)

The national defence dictated Fort Warren’s expansion and eventual abandonment. Only the original earthwork, in 1634, was solely the work of Bostonians. In every subsequent case, the interests of the wider government, not Boston egos, drove fortification policy.

About the "skirmishes" around Boston at the start of the Revolutionary War. This is a topic close to the heart of a British-American. What is collectively called "the Concord Fight" of 19 April 1775 cost nearly 300 British casualties. That the British forces inflicted more than 100 in return is seldom mentioned in American popular histories. That’s the privilege of victory and British historians have done the same. This was not a first-class battle, but it was the first time in modern history that amateur insurgents bested a professional military force. That merits a grudging nod from the defeated.

Bunker Hill is another matter. The light companies of the 23rd, Royal Welch Fusiliers, for example, sustained more than 80 percent casualties in less than ten minutes at Bunker Hill. That was a small part of the nearly 1100 casualties (50 percent of the force) suffered by the British Army that day. Bunker Hill stands as one of the bloodiest contests of the Revolutionary War. Overall British losses were the third highest of the entire war, with the highest number of combat deaths. British arms had seen no such casualty rates since the time of Marlborough, and the fight forced a major reassessment of the British conduct of the war.

I used to annoy Bostonians (with some success) by pointing out that any ancestors I had in that battle wore the red uniform, and that I was raised to think of Redcoats as the good guys. I learned very early a solemn pride in having a direct link with troops who prevailed despite sustaining such horrific losses. Belittling a moment like that has a momentary satisfaction, but it comes at a price.

Of course, the tendency of Bostonians to place themselves on the same pedestal with New York, Los Angeles or London (or one slightly higher) is laughable at times. The trick is to laugh gently at it, kind of like the old Maine man.

A Bostonian said to him as he stood in front of his house: "Say, there are some very strange people around here."

"Ayuh," the Maine man agreed, "but they’ll all be gone come Labor Day."

massmarrier said...

What I left out that you didn't mention was the provincialism of smaller towns after 9/11 and the realism that THEY could get to US. Boston just doesn't have the excuse of the large number of isolated towns and cities scattered around the nation. Many have instituted all manner of defenses. They are convinced that their wonderful town must surely be a target of the terrorists.

Boston's version is simply the most irrational and amusing, in no small part because they have been waiting for so long. Frankly, the terrorists don't give a damn.