Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
Corbett Huntly Cummins is a force to be reckoned with. The 23-year-old writer grew up in “the National Park Service” and today lives with his girlfriend in Davis, California, where he manages a coffee shop called Ciocolat (chocolate). Corbett’s interests include art, the environment, justice and community. As a side note, he also knows Hayduke, the legendary rebel featured in Edward Abbey’s novels about the American Southwest. On the morning of Sept. 11, Corbett was in his bedroom listening to Godspeed You Black Emperor. He wrote his essay, titled “Grief and Debt,” on Nov. 24.
When I was about 11 and living in California, my baby brother drowned in my family’s backyard pool. The event was so tragic that I do not even know what day or month it happened. In typical response, we as a family all found our ways of grieving and went into debt.
My father began the trend by compensating for the loss by overworking himself and burning through armloads of money on useless stuff like Nintendos and wood-working tools. My brother went into theater. And I dove head first into the world of digital distraction, from television to video games and bad music. Meanwhile, my mother simply watched the bills pile up and yelled at us about it.
This trend went on for about two years. Then my father’s career took us to a small town in Arizona. The distance was therapeutic, but whatever therapy it offered was overshadowed by the culture shock. We were living in Petrified Forest, which is a small national park in Arizona about 30 miles away from the closest town of Holbrook, or as I liked to put it, 30 miles away from the middle of nowhere. My mother taught at one of the schools in town while my brother and I went to the others. We trekked through 30 miles of desolation each morning and each night. The isolation was like burning embers on open wounds.
For three years we trudged through until finally my father was promoted to a job in the Grand Canyon. It was after we had been there a while that we were able to feel good about things. My father’s job was one of the most rewarding of his life. My mom became an influential force in the teaching community. My brother moved to college to take over the drama department and I began working with the Inner Canyon Rangers on revegetation projects and the occasional search and rescue operation. And somewhere during that we decided to get out of debt.
I think that the positive expression of energies worked as a salve. By finding our own ways to make our world better, we rediscovered our confidence. It was and is still an uphill battle, though. Even as I write this, more than a decade after the death, my family is still feeling the repercussions and paying off the credit cards. I don’t even know the total amount of debt we have. I do know the bills are astronomical. However, my mother has taken the long view to them. She just sets up payment schedules and takes on one card at a time. They never even see the money that they are paying out.
It’s just time and responsibility, she tells me. She says the best way to look at debt is from a geological perspective. You just wear it down in small amounts over a long period of time, the way wind wears down a mountain. Grief is similar to debt in that way. They both require the same tools: responsibility, force and time.
That is a lesson that has been brought to many of us over the past months. When I see reports of bombs falling in Afghanistan, I ask myself: “Why?” And each time I get the same answer. We are not trying to annihilate the Taliban out of pure righteousness; they were evil long before the September 11th attack, hence righteousness would have required an earlier assault. Nor are we truly trying to avenge the deaths of our countrymen. Further indiscriminant killing will not appease the dead. Nor are we trying to protect the world from terrorism, because terrorism comes from the very climate of despair and chaos that we are creating.
Grief. What comes to mind is Timothy McVeigh, the runner up for the largest act of terrorism in the United States. Most of the investigation was a process of focusing the attention on him. So, few people will remember all of the accomplices that had been given light sentences for informing McVeigh. That is why my guess is that the truckloads of “misplaced” evidence discovered at the end of the trial would not have proved his innocence. Rather, it may have shown the trail of history that forged him, and shown a touch of his humanity.
There was a debate on whether to allow the evidence into the trial or not. Endless stories about the families of the dead were aired and printed. It was a showcase of human grief. From that stew came the public opinion polls, which all showed a deep sympathy for the victims and their families. All of this was compounded by a newly selected president who was eager to make good on a campaign promise and to start any discussion other than the one around the legitimacy of his office. It all created an air of urgency around the execution. This was contrasted with the possibility of a long and drawn-out process of going through the new evidence.
I should say now that I was begrudgingly in support of the death of McVeigh. During his icy examinations, he proved he wasn’t guilty of any wrongdoing. He was simply following his moral code – and that moral code needed to end.
Afterward, the media went back to the families of the victims. I remember buying the paper that day. The survivors, after all, were the ones closest to the attack, and thus those capable of the deepest insight. In my confusion of the events I blindly turned to them for words of wisdom and perspective on hard decisions. What I got was, “It still hurts …” in gigantic headline letters.
Well of god-damn-mother-fucking-of-Jesus-cocking-Christ course it still hurt! It was suddenly clear to me. The nation had demanded the death of a man for the purposes of therapy, not exact retribution. Our idea of coming together for our grieving countrymen was to give them more death. And we were surprised to find that it didn’t work? I was scared and angry. How far would we go before we realized that it wasn’t helping? The answers laid only in the future.
And here we are, in the future. We are reeling from a tragedy. We are symbolizing the work of a network with the face of a man. We are avoiding grief, going into debt and killing.
Grief is like debt, and we are caught in the spiral. The longer we avoid it, the larger it gets and al-Qaeda is just one of many creditors forced to come to our door. We are not that spiritually poor of a nation. Like my family, we just need to find our footing, stop wasting our time on meaningless things like chanting “U.S.A.” in stadiums, look ourselves in the mirror and decide how to deal with these new mountains.