At the end of the day, we are spent. But how did we spend it?
I was traveling throughout the weekend across a swath of the Midwest, the heartland of America, and saw and heard everywhere commemorations of the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. On 9/11, I spent much of the day in a car going through three states, and saw things like a billboard that said ‘America, Bless God’ over the face of an eagle with a tear under a fixed and determined eye. On a quiet and empty country road, outside a small town and on a front lawn of an old red brick farmhouse, I noticed a display someone erected, simple but honorable, with the gear and uniforms of firefighters and rescuers. It was moving.
The specials on radio and television were exhaustive. Hearing and seeing it again made us relive the brutal assault and it was gut-wrenching. By the umpteenth time I heard and read a retrospective, I was exhausted and searched for something less emotionally draining. Found it on the History Channel in a stirring account of the impressive teams of experts and the complex array of plans that went into the ’9/11 Memorial’. It was fascinating, and injected with hope and positive energy and human interconnectedness.
Then even that network turned to another special with warnings of graphic content and disturbing images, and I switched to a National Geographic interview for about 10 minutes until even that became too much. It takes a toll.
Speaking of which…
In countless ways we remembered the terrorist attacks and collectively grieved over what happened and reflected on what it meant. America mourned and reflected, but where are we ten years out?
Here are a couple of things on our human interconnectetions I took special note of, though at the expense of probably a dozen other items filed away for another reflection.
Public Discourse asks what memorializing September 11th means.
Given the lack of any generally agreed-upon public meaning of September 11th, we have naturally found it hard to arrive at a means of commemorating the date properly. The least controversial way to do it is to individualize the commemoration. This was precisely the tack taken by Maya Lin’s highly successful Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, a monument whose very name signaled that the purpose was to honor the individual veterans rather than their cause. Lin’s design was a collective tombstone, upon which were inscribed some 58,000 names of those individuals who lost their lives in Vietnam, but that eschewed any reference to the larger war or the nation…
Something of the same approach is being taken by the new 9/11 memorial, located on the former site of the World Trade Center, which was finally opened to victims’ families on the tenth anniversary of the attacks and to the public today. It too features the names of victims—nearly 3,000, including those from Pennsylvania and Virginia as well as those who died in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center—in this case, inscribed on bronze panels, deployed around pools with waterfalls…
But nowhere does it offer an explanation of the motives behind the “terrorist attacks” themselves, or a larger view of the geopolitical struggle of which they were a part.
The title given to the memorial by its architects—“Reflecting Absence”—was also indicative of its low-key, unspecific, somewhat ethereal and non-referential character. I have no doubt that the memorial will be a beautiful place for reflection and grief, in just the way the architects intended, and that such a modest approach will turn out to be appropriate to the setting and to the historical moment, just as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial seems to have been for its own. But it returns us to the questions with which we began: What is being commemorated here? What is the connection between the people being remembered and the larger task that their deaths set before the nation?
Lincoln’s great words at Gettysburg sought to highlight such a connection: it is for us, the living, “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,” the cause for which the fallen ones sacrificed their lives. But the new memorial seeks to obscure any such connection. If one were talking only about the tragically lost lives of some 3,000 individuals and nothing else—as if their lives had been lost in a single giant plane crash or car accident, or as the result of a random psychopathic act—there would be no way of justifying the lavish expense of or the political drama surrounding this memorial. What makes September 11th worthy of public memorializing is that it was not only an event in the lives of these individuals and their families; it was an event in the life of the American nation, an attack aimed at the American nation.
The Great Campaign for Human Dignity takes the reflection further.
Those of us who remember what occurred just ten years ago should know that all of it happened once before: an act of political terror committed by a small band of conspirators plunged the world into a conflict that would take on a life and logic of its own—claiming countless lives, causing undreamt-of destruction, consuming vast resources, making mincemeat of ancient liberties, reviving bloodthirsty fanaticisms that enlightened people had thought long-dead, toppling governments, causing ethnic cleansing that displaced millions of civilians, and plunging the wealthiest part of the world into economic stagnation and crippling debt. The fact that history grimly repeats itself should only surprise those who do not believe in original sin—which means that it surprises almost everybody.
And September 12th requires the same vigilance.