9/12: The view from Italy on 9/11

Izzalini, UmbriaBy Robert Silvey

Six years ago, I learned about the attacks on New York and Washington a day late, on September 12. Ensconced in the Umbrian countryside, intentionally cut off from all electronic contact with the world, I was oblivious for 24 hours to the events that (as everyone insisted) changed the world.

In fact, the world did not change that day. Terrorism—the violent acts of those too weak to do anything else—and war—the violent acts of those too unimaginative to do anything else—have always been part of human history. It was only the United States that changed, driven to fear and frenzy by its lying leaders.

That week my wife and I had arrived in the village of Izzalini for two months of undisturbed writing and rambling. Our small apartment in the tenth-century stone castle had no phone, no television, no radio, so on September 11 we spent the day setting up a computer (in the arched room that had once been the armory) and enjoying a long walk through the countryside. It was a beautiful, peaceful place, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, fields of wheat and sunflowers, and a sprinkling of stone farmhouses and hilltop villages.

The region around Izzalini has not always been so peaceful. Hannibal and his elephants, fresh from their victory over the Romans at Trasimeno, rampaged over the countryside until they were turned away at the gates of Todi. In nearby Orvieto, Guelphs and Ghibellines battled for centuries, and the losers’ bodies were sometimes dumped down the municipal well. And the very castle where we were staying was the site of a horrendous fifteenth-century massacre. Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan, attacked Izzalini, and when the besieged villagers refused to surrender, he burned 200 of them to death, including many women and children.

But on 9/11/2001, Umbria seemed like the most peaceful place on a peaceful earth. One day later, the idyll was broken: friends returned from Spoleto with newspapers containing the incredible photographs of Manhattan burning. We were shocked, poring over Corriere della Sera and Il Messagero with our imperfect Italian, confused by the coltellini used as weapons by the hijackers—our dictionary translated the word as letter openers. We drove into Todi to find an English-language paper or a hotel with cable news. No paper, and by that time CNN was carrying nothing but reports on stranded travelers in Canada and the latest rumors of further attacks. No summary, no context, just fear and confusion and rage. We returned to the castle and figuratively raised the drawbridge. We predicted that day that Bush and Cheney would use these terrible events to further their reactionary policies. We had no idea of the extremes to which they would go.

For the next two months I continued to avoid television and radio, following developments by reading The International Herald-Tribune and Italian newspapers and by phoning friends and family. I was well informed, but my brain was not flooded with constant television images of the collapsing towers and constant bellicose speeches by the vengeful president. The printed words provided me with something like a Brechtian distance on the American political circus, allowing me, I thought, to place the very real dangers in a historical context, to think calmly about appropriate reactions to the technological leverage that terrorists can now exercise. There have always been terrorists, but there have not always been Boeing 767s.

Almost 3,000 Americans died on 9/11 as a result of the actions of 19 hijackers. Since that time, at least 300,000 people—perhaps as many as a million—have died in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of the actions of the American government. Almost all of them were as innocent as those Americans.

But we Americans are no longer so innocent, in either sense of the word. We are both less trusting and more guilty than we were six years ago. We are now unreasonably wary of those who are not recognizably brothers, and we are guilty of electing George Bush to a second term and allowing him to pursue his murderous course. That day did change us and our country.

It may take a generation to reclaim our soul. We can start by insisting that our too-reticent senators and representatives stop funding the Iraq War and bring the warfighters home. We can encourage them to impeach Bush and Cheney and indict Rumsfeld and Gonzales. We can begin to demolish the military-industrial complex that is undermining our democracy. We can elect a president who has more arrows in his intellectual quiver than hatred and greed and war.

There are real dangers in the world. And there are appropriate actions we can take to minimize those dangers, pragmatic policies that take account of the complexities of human cultures and human history. Perhaps by the time 9/11 rolls around again we can begin to grasp the nettle and seize the day.

[Cross-posted at Rubicon]

4 replies »

  1. Re Sam’s mark about perspective, Robert’s is wise.

    Just the opposite was the remark of someone I know who wasn’t from New York or Washington, DC: “9/11 wasn’t so big up here.”

    She was referring to Connecticut.

  2. Wonderfully thoughtful and insightful reflection, Robert – it is indeed good to have such perspective on this day when too many blindly wrap themselves in fear and hatred of the other.

    And it’s great to have you back, Robert. 🙂