Ground Zero, New York, September11, 2010. Photo: AP
As one of the most famous dates in living memory comes around this weekend, millions of people worldwide are being invited to remember the terrorist attacks on United States cities of September 11, 2001. Already the 10-year anniversary of the horrific aerial assaults that brought down New York’s Twin Towers and killed more than 3000 people has prompted a huge amount of media commentary both within America and in allied countries. In their articles pundits advance conflicting lessons to be learned from the War on Terror of the past decade.
There is one lesson regarding 9/11, though, that everyone must agree on: Americans can be the target of warlike attacks at any time, in their own country, going about their normal lives, completely outside the context of formal wars. That this has proved true of the British, Spanish, Indian and other nations since 2001 does not make the lesson any less sombre or painful. What it does is invest those disasters, so full of human pain, with patriotic meaning, raising the victims to the level of fallen soldiers and survivors to the status of veterans. Anniversaries take on the solemnity of a Memorial Day (Remembrance Day elsewhere in the world) and demand rituals to match.
But here we run into a difficulty: what sort of rituals can be used in an increasingly secularised and multicultural society? Even the United States, which is more religious than most Western nations, is witnessing a drive to exclude religion from the public square (as, for instance, in the substitution of “Holiday” for Christmas) and, where inter-faith leadership of public services might still be tolerated, the presence of the Islamic faith is offensive to some people. This is particularly the case in anything to do with the “holy site” of 9/11, Ground Zero, as the row over the proposal to build a mosque two blocks away has shown.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has therefore decided that there will be no clergy officiating or formal prayers when the September 11 memorial is dedicated with a solemn ceremony of remembrance at Ground Zero on Sunday. His spokeswoman has said that the decision was made to avoid disagreements over which religious leaders would participate. Instead, a programme designed in conjunction with 9/11 families is to include readings that are “spiritual and personal in nature” and six minutes of silence are planned for personal reflection and prayer.
The White House, for political reasons, wants to soften the focus on 9/11 with acknowledgements of terrorism trauma suffered elsewhere in the world and with a “positive, forward-looking narrative” that stresses “resilience”. Guidelines for official communications at home also talk of drawing on the “spirit of unity that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.” It is not clear whether President Obama will even allow himself a “God bless America” in case it sounds too jingoistic.
Bloomberg’s office and religious leaders who support the religion-free service at Ground Zero point out that there will be (already are) religious services elsewhere in the city which can meet people’s need for such things. However, many people no longer have any religious affiliation, and besides, there is still the question of what constitutes a fitting public memorial service. Will “spiritual” readings, the reciting of the names of the dead, silences, and speeches on resilience and unity answer sufficiently to the solemnity of the occasion and depth of feeling?
Experience of funerals where religion is either absent or plays a minimal role is not encouraging. Cut adrift from their transcendent meaning, rituals quickly descend into banality — what Canadian columnist Barbara Kay recently called “teddy-bear grief”, evoking the paraphernalia that now often adorns the site of a tragedy. There is little in such tokens, or in the string of homely anecdotes that passes for a eulogy, or in the pop songs that have taken the place of hymns, to console the bereaved or inspire them with hope when faced with the uncertainties of life. The Ground Zero service will undoubtedly be more dignified than this, but will it be enough? And, if it is enough this year, will religionless rituals continue to satisfy people?
If New Zealand experience is anything to go by, the answer seems to be, no. Here, Maori culture increasingly plays a role in public occasions from the opening of community libraries to state funerals, and Maori ceremonial involves karakia, or prayers, offered as a blessing on the proceedings. Even the All Blacks team for the Rugby World Cup (opening tonight) has received a Maori blessing. The fact that it annoys secularists is unlikely to stop the trend since it is a matter of political correctness to defer to the country’s indigenous culture.
But there is something more to it. The karakia (especially since they are chanted) lift ceremonies out of the mundane sphere and add solemnity. They tacitly acknowledge that most of those present don’t actually object to religious expression and that some positively embrace it. And Maori ritual relieves the embarrassment of the non-religious by addressing the deity (deities?) in a language that most of the gathering does not understand. It is somewhat dishonest, but it gets around the religious problem.
Americans will find their own solutions. One thing is clear, though — two things, really. The first is that anniversaries such as 9/11 are going to require public commemorations for a long time to come. The second is that people, even those innocent of religious ritual — or especially them — are drawn to solemnity on such occasions.
To cite Australasian experience again, in both Australia and New Zealand there has been a renaissance of the Anzac Day memorial service with a notable presence of young people. Many have made the pilgrimage to Gallipoli (the scene of disastrous World War I allied losses which the day commemorates) and this has become almost a rite of passage for young adults living overseas. Back at home, youngsters wait in the pre-dawn chill or rain and willingly submit to a short prayer service which incorporates the eerily solemn “Last Post” and the National Anthem –which in New Zealand is a full-on Christian hymn (though often sung in Maori to spare the feelings of those uncomfortable with words like “make us faithful unto Thee”).
Patriotism and religion belong together and the effort to separate them is bound to destroy them both. Patriotism without religion lacks its key unifying and humanising principle; religion without patriotism becomes something disembodied and irrelevant. Both kinds of inauthenticity lead to social polarisation and decay — a sad legacy for those who lost their lives for their country, in whatever way.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.