Clippings: On 9/11 anniversary, echoes of Hunter S. Thompson
I was in fifth grade on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a Tuesday, and that meant gym class. Wearing our standard school uniform (navy blue sweatpants and white t-shirts), we walked single file with gym sneakers gripped to our chests to the local recreation center in downtown Brattleboro.
We returned to our desks two hours later to find the nation in a state of emergency.
For a Catholic school, the day was marked with all-school prayers and a hoisting of the American flag. My father drove me home that afternoon and I spent the remainder of the day watching the devastation on repeated loop. Later, we learned other horrifying details: victims throwing themselves from towers, firefighters and emergency personnel running into what would be a deathtrap and more. To an 11-year-old, this kind of news defied reason and in those evening hours in front of the television, any notions of safety or national invincibility were reduced to myth.
Meanwhile, in Woody Creek, Colo., America’s weirdest journalist and writer, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, sat in his fortified ranch, watching the events unfold as well. It was just after dawn when the first jet struck, but he was awake, writing about sports for ESPN Magazine. His op-ed, “Fear and Loathing in America,” appeared the next day.
Every September, when the wreath laying occurs and the columns reflecting on the anniversary appear in the papers, I somehow find myself returning to Thompson’s words.
And I suggest you do the same.
Hunter’s writing is unmistakably his own; full of his signature caustic wit (those familiar with Thompson will know there was nothing even-keeled about his character or his writing) and inveterate hatred for the political establishment. His assessment of the day’s horrors is unflinching. The reason why I read it almost annually is for his projection of how the events of that September morning would change “Us” and how they would twist our national conscience.
Thompson’s warning was clear:
“The towers are gone now … along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.”
I entered the age of a newfangled variety of war that began when I was barely an adolescent and I have no doubt it will continue for the foreseeable future. Several high school friends left for basic training with the Navy, Marine Corps and Army after receiving their diplomas. I have not heard from them since.
The weird thing about declaring a war on a noun like “terrorism” is it knows no end and has no lines — no trenches and no lines in the sand. With an army as big as ours, you can pound any country into submission, but to actually vanquish a foe like “drugs,” “poverty” or “crime” requires some real imagination, and the latest target — terrorism — is no exception.
“We are going to punish somebody for this attack,” Thompson writes later in his essay. “But just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once. Who knows? Not even the Generals in what remains of the Pentagon or the New York papers calling for WAR seem to know who did it or where to look for them.”
Indeed, the national scream for revenge was loud and clear and was answered with cruise missiles slamming Afghanistan not 24 hours later. Not two years passed before the bombs started falling on Iraq, where they continue to fall today.
Aside from a two-front war paid for on credit, the ensuing chaos has extends to our own paranoia on the home front where only the most extreme views frame the discussion.
“It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides,” Thompson writes. “It will be guerrilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.”
That guerrilla warfare on a global scale has rationalized a variety of tactics unique to a new era of global conflict — targeted death from drones — and some old ones, like indefinite imprisonment of foreign citizens, have been codified. Meanwhile, the latest iteration of this enemy has murdered reporters, razed villages and slaughtered hundreds at a time. It goes without saying that we’ve paid for this dearly.
Hunter took his own life in 2005, leaving behind a collection of books and a long list of enemies including disgraced President Richard Nixon and the entire Hell’s Angels biker gang — quite an accomplishment for a working journalist. His ashes were shot out of a cannon, funded by actor Johnny Depp; funeral attendees included John Kerry and Jack Nicholson.
Things have changed in 13 years; some things from Thompson’s essay did not become a permanent part of our national landscape, I’m happy to say. But the tenor of the predictions he made in that awful week still resound when I look around at the world I have grown up into.
It has been 13 years since the events of that Tuesday morning. We can only imagine Hunter S. Thompson’s response to the state of things today.
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