We Forget

Five years after 9/11, Cornel Bonca finds your memory wandering around Vegas

Vegas in the summertime, a few weeks back. It was 103 degrees on the Strip, where my sons and I walked in shorts and flip-flops outside the MGM Grand, through the mist machines set up on the sidewalks every few hundred feet, past the doorways of shops gushing air-conditioned air, stepping over the confetti-litter of thousands of business cards advertising girls who promised to come to your hotel room and fuck you (some of them take credit cards). Men lurched by with 3-foot-tall plastic containers filled with strawberry margaritas, contemplating who knows what: what they were going to do now that they'd been cleaned out at the Bellagio, or if what happened to them in Vegas last night would really stay in Vegas, or who that woman was they'd just told their whole life story to at the bar?

And just to our north loomed the great big fake Statue of Liberty nestled among the buildings of the great big fake Manhattan skyline that serves as the outer skin of the great big energy-sucking mecca of greed called the New York New York hotel. Whose architects, incidentally, were lucky or prescient enough not to have included as part of their original design any fake World Trade Center towers.

Now I know Vegas is Vegas, and it's way past moral commentary—it drowns out anybody's attempt to make a moral point by dint of its audacious blare, the cheerful parading of its own bad taste, its upfront premise that, while you're there, you can forget about anything that doesn't involve the promise of entertainment, money, sex, or inebriation. You're in Vegas, right? So shut the fuck up and enjoy it. And that fake Statue of Liberty? Kitsch. Or, hey, it's for people who've never made it out to the other coast. It doesn't mean anything: just a clanky note in the general cacophony.

Still. There are moments even here to make one pause—like when we were sitting in a food court off the Strip trying to get ourselves rehydrated and a woman came in pushing a wheelchair inhabited by what was clearly her husband. They both looked to be in their late 20s, weather-beaten, blue collar, an afternoon of booze in their eyes and the look of people with a solid history of Vegas partying behind them. Only now the husband's legs had been blown off: the stumps—one cut below the knee, the other much shorter, closer to the thigh—were wrapped in heavy gauze and came off his torso at angles that were slightly askew. His upper body was well-built, though, and there were a couple of military-man tattoos on his biceps. So I thought: here's an Iraq War vet who'd lost half his body to one of those roadside bombs that are a favorite way for insurgents to kill and maim American soldiers, and now he's home, and his wife is trying to help him forget about his—no, their—troubles by taking him to their old stomping grounds. Since 9/11 prompted the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I'd heard, there were thousands of guys like him. And here one was.

Whatever the wife's plan to cheer her husband or herself up, it didn't seem to be working: their faces were drained, and they didn't look like they'd forgotten much of anything. Which fact became clear to me when my boys and I headed off to the bathroom at the same time the woman rolled her husband up to the restroom door. There, he mumbled to her something like, "Guess I'll take it from here," and pushed himself miserably into the john, rolled himself toward the handicapped stall, turned around and awkwardly maneuvered backwards into its confines, shut the door, and proceeded to get himself into position to do his business. It all seemed like a hell of a complicated operation conducted by someone quite new to the idea of not having a lower body, and given the fact that he wouldn't look at or speak to anyone while he was in the head—he refused any of my help—it seemed like a humiliating operation as well.

My sons are young, and when the vet wheeled himself out of the restroom 15 minutes later, they stared at him over their Cokes, which I had to tell them to try not to do. But this was also the moment when I realized that nobody else in that crowded food court was looking at the guy, that in fact everybody seemed to be working hard not to even notice the vet with the blown-off legs in the wheelchair. He was, to put it bluntly, ignored, and it wasn't because people were being discreet. Granted, people don't go to Vegas to be confronted with this kind of stuff, but as our president has reminded us often in the five years since 9/11, we are at war, and it might be nice for people who are enjoying the blessings of liberty in ways that probably piss off Islamic terrorists the most (the fornicating, the debauchery, the ritual sacrifices to Mammon)—well, it might be nice if they noticed the soldiers who were getting themselves blown up so we can all keep sinning in Sin City.

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