Sept. 12, 2001 vs. Sept. 12, 2010

Crazy, but that’s how it goes
Millions of people living as foes
Maybe it’s not too late
To learn how to love
And forget how to hate

“Crazy Train” — Ozzy Osbourne

No matter where we were, Americans shared a similar experience on September 11, 2001. We agreed the attack was tragic. We felt a new vulnerability and outrage. And for the first and sadly, last, time in decades, we came together as one nation, under God, whoever God was to us.

On September 12, 2001, under still skies, I awoke numb and disoriented. I lived two miles from the Pentagon and five from National Airport, so helicopters and planes provided the bass riffs to my soundtrack. The quiet disturbed me. I headed to the grocer and on the radio, the usually frenetic DJ spoke softly, slowly, introducing mellow songs. As I heard the first strains of John Lennon’s, “Imagine,” tears warmed my face. Without any effort I started to sob, there in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s.

How could this happen?

Last week I learned how. We had a young teen houseguest. His nonstop chatter spanned three subjects: video games, hate speech, and decades-old paranoia about “the government.”

A 13-year-old kid from the Deep South may hear bigoted comments from his friends, provided he has friends, but the paranoid Cold War-Era statements about the government had to come from another role model. Likely the same role model who sent our toddler a fat-bashing picture book.

This kid insulted Mexicans, the remainder of the Spanish-speaking world, immigrants, fat people, old people, foreigners and especially “fairies.” We strove to give him the attention he so desperately craved, but the hateful sentiments wore quickly. My husband took him to the Space Needle, where a transgender assistant facilitated their souvenir photo.

“You would have thought this guy was going to tie him down and rape him, the way he acted,” my husband reported. Somehow our budding bigot survived the photo experience intact.

One night as we showed vacation photos, I told my daughter, “The hula dancers loved you!”

“Don’t throw around the word ‘love,’” our young visitor countered.

This was a new one. “Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s a strong word and it’s not good to use all the time,” he said.

“What’s wrong with ‘love’?” I asked.

“I’m just sayin’,” he said.

Ok, so the values instilled in this kid are hate=good and love=danger. How does anyone think like that? Oddly enough, I was raised in a bigoted household and I still don’t understand those sentiments. Even though my parents strove for me to embrace their “values,” something in me rejected them. Maybe it helped that my beloved first-grade teacher was black. Maybe it helped that being adopted separated me from my parents in my mind. Maybe it’s because my heart just wasn’t built for bigotry.

A few months after 9/11 I saw some children of extremists interviewed on TV. I can’t remember where they lived – maybe Afghanistan or Iraq – but they told reporters that the U.S. attacks were a huge victory for the Arab world, and they literally jumped for joy to celebrate the thousands of American deaths that we mourned. Those boys were nine years old. They never had a chance. Neither did our young visitor.

The current animosity’s not limited to bigotry or ignorance, though. Since the recession took hold, I’ve noticed that people exhibit more anger and hostility in public. All of my evidence is anecdotal but we seem to be enveloped in a cloud of anger. Just last week, as I shopped in my borrowed handicapped scooter, I bumped into a display and I apologized to the clerk. My condition is new and temporary and I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not very good at this.”

A random stranger walking by growled, “Then why aren’t you walking?”

Shocked, I turned around to see a white man in his 60s walking away. Stunned, I thought about catching up and slapping his face, but the scooter didn’t have the horsepower and I couldn’t walk, which was why was in it in the first place. To top it off, I was very obviously pregnant – nine months along, to be exact. The hormones took over and impotent to resist, I cried for the next 40 minutes as I shopped. I used to work in psychiatric hospitals with bona-fide sociopaths and that’s the meanest thing anyone outside my family has ever said to me.

I couldn’t let it go. What was this guy’s problem? He was a complete stranger. Why would he even care if I was in a scooter? Why would he bother to expend the extra effort to assume I was faking? Why would anybody need to spew venom like that at all? And then I thought some more. My psych background told me this guy had seen some serious pain, and if, at age 60, his life included verbally harassing pregnant strangers in the supermarket, he must have been experiencing much more pain than I was. In the moment, I wanted nothing more than to add to his pain, but it was probably good that I couldn’t. We do breed serial killers in the Northwest, so we have to be careful who we mess with, but the bottom line is that while I could assure myself that my pain would go away, I knew his wouldn’t.

When I worked in the hospitals, the patients on the inside tried to get well. What scared me were all the inpatient candidates in the outside world, the ones who didn’t want to get well, whose path of emotional destruction would go on and on.

I never let negative vibes bother me before, because it always seemed that optimism would prevail. But now I’m not so sure. From what I’ve seen and heard lately, it seems that the Dark Side’s winning. Our society’s always included some social deviants, but thanks in part to the glorification of nastiness, via “entertainment” like “Bridezillas” and “Real Housewives,” mean people are losing their inhibitions and letting loose on anyone and everyone they meet.

Here’s a new development. I can’t trace its origins directly, but it’s a good example of rampant malice. We heard about a couple who endured a random attack on their marriage. The police told them that these attacks are part of a new trend, and it seems to be “regular people,” not professional con artists, that initiate them. A stranger will call a husband or wife, claiming the victim’s spouse is cheating. The internet-savvy attacker’s done his or her homework, and injects just enough details into the story to make it believable. The attacker’s objective? A “divorce sale” on the couple’s house, so that the attacker can get sellers to reduce their asking price.

These so-called “regular people” would destroy strangers’ lives for money? How can anyone think like that? Keep in mind that these people are already in a position to buy a house, so they already have money. They’re doing it to SAVE money. As the child of a classic Scrooge, I can relate to thriftiness but I save money by shopping sales and using coupons. Shoot, when we bought a house, we just bid low if we wanted the price to come down. Our low bids were rejected, but at least we didn’t destroy any lives in the process. And we bought a house we love. Fair and square.

What drives someone to become that mean and destructive just in the course of buying a house? What world convinces them that it’s ok to do it? In the wake of our tolerance of bad behavior, our glorification of hostility, and the negativity we practice ourselves, we have to take some responsibility.

Humans have always experienced anger. When we were cavemen, anger was constructive. We used it as a survival tactic. It’s natural and we can’t live our lives in the absence of it. But anger used to have its place. It was ok to blow up once in a while, but if you did it at the wrong time, in the wrong place, or with the wrong person, you suffered consequences. Abusive people got arrested, or thrown out of the bar, or slapped. But over the years and through tough times, we’ve learned to tolerate public abuse.

Times are tough, we say. He’s just blowing off steam, we rationalize. Don’t say anything, we warn, she could be a complete psycho. When we learned tolerance, it was about peace. Lessons of tolerance focused on accepting people, not unacceptable behavior. But it seems now the definition of “acceptable behavior” has expanded.

Is this the world we want to live in? Are tough times really an excuse for demonstrating hostility and disrespect? Where does it end? If we condone mean behavior, won’t we, as a society, just get meaner? It just makes me wonder, what do we think this will accomplish?

But how do we stop it? I can’t claim I have the solution, but what comes to mind is the success of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s zero tolerance policy to reduce crime. By refusing to tolerate small crimes, like littering and spitting on the sidewalk, Giuliani built the anti-crime initiative into a comprehensive policy that turned New York around.

I propose that we institute a “let it begin with me” policy, where we focus on our own positive behavior and refuse to tolerate negative behavior in others. We can start by consciously spreading kindness. Next time you’re in line somewhere, say something nice to the person in front of you. If you see someone drop something, pick it up for them. Let someone ahead of you in traffic. Keep kindness on your mind. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. If nothing else, consciously practicing kindness can never hurt. If you don’t think it’s worth it, ask yourself, as things stand right now, what have we got to lose?