2011 gets a pass, but only a minimal pass. It has been ten years since that which was considered unthinkable happened. I certainly would never want to see it again, nor wish it on anyone else, and yet I know there are some who would…and they are not enemies of the country. September 11, 2001 was a tragedy, a travesty, and a diagnosis all at once.
Before we unpack that however, I do need to say that even though reflection is warranted, especially at this anniversary date, much of the media has behaved shamefully this week. I’m not going to say that attention shouldn’t have been paid to the arrival of this particular date, or that such a dreaded occurrence shouldn’t be identified and ruminated upon, but for some news outlets the “reflections” began last Sunday and have been almost non-stop since. I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition Monday through Friday but found myself switching off a lot this week. How did old people react to 9/11? How about young people? How about kids who weren’t even born yet and live in a world where they never knew a time before 9/11 (yes, we are talking about nine-year-olds here)?
There is a time for everything, so I’ve been told, so too there is a time for facing the gruesome after effect of a horror. It should not be accompanied by a marathon of testimonies, non-testimonies, and disconnected bloviation punctuated by raspy, near-whispering commentators because “this is our serious, mournful radio host voice.” It shouldn’t be an opportunity for other news organizations, let’s say right-leaning news organizations, to crow about how President George W. Bush “got it right” in the aftermath because “we’ve been ten years terror-free.”
There can be no War on Terror just as there can be no War on Guns, Bombs, Bullets, or Misinformation. They are all weapons and, upsettingly, they all work and, thus, will never truly be out of any government or organization’s toolbox. Terror creates the tune you must dance to whether you like it or not. Witness the reports that al Qaeda is plotting an anniversary attack on New York and Washington. It may be paranoia. It may be the government working the panic nerve like a trigger on a Playstation game controller. Or it may actually be something to occupy our attention; it may be the real deal. We are not in the position to discount it because if we worry and nothing happens, we look like frightened lemmings. If we don’t worry, knowing of a possible threat, and something does happen then we were negligent, even complicit, in more bloodshed. Terror as a tool works because you can’t discount the awfulness of its results and, therefore, other forces call a tune. We haven’t much choice but to dance.
But getting back to the media morgue this week, how we deal with our response to terror is our choice in degrees. It isn’t picking at the National Scab for a week. It is a day of national mourning, not one day and seven-to-eight more of wringing out the crying towel for the cameras because the pain of loved ones and survivors is so magnetic. I am reminded of something someone said a couple years back when the 9/11 frenzy shouldn’t have been so belabored, and yet was. She said, “How would you feel if you had a family member die in a car crash, hit by a drunk driver. Then every year, everyone talks about the car crash, the intersection it happened at, the cars that were being driven, the drunk driver and, oh by the way, do you miss your loved one?You have relatives of 9/11 victims, of first-responders and all, who every year are reminded of how their relations died, with cameras and microphones jammed in their faces, and the last thing they seem to want to know from you is anything of consequence about the person that you lost.”
She added, “And God forbid you say that you’re getting by, or it doesn’t hurt like it used to even though it will always hurt a little. Other people get to move on, but in the public eye, 9/11 mourners have to stay in perpetual mourning or they’re terrible people. How dare they say they’re getting by and they have days where they don’t even think about it! This is 9/11! They must be terrorist sympathizers at heart!”
“At least you get to cry over your mom or your grandparents in your own time, when it sincerely affects you,” she said. “The 9/11 families are forced to cry on cue or else they’re evil. They expect us to die a little all the time and, and this is how ignorant they are, we already do. They could at least give us the dignity of turning off the camera when it gets too hard.”
About that diagnosis: 9/11 taught one hard lesson that we should never forget, and it is not the one you might think. For generations the country was the island of The Untouchables. Wars waged all over the world, terror was wrought upon them, but not us. We were too powerful, too big, to mess with, until we were messed with. The residual lesson of 9/11, that we are citizens of this world, not the rulers of it, should be applied to everything we do. It is fine to feel that the USA is exceptional, but we ought not rule like we are. Pride comes before a fall, and we were so proud for so long, we ourselves wandered every corner of our country, painting red and white concentric circles across it, daring the world to make a move on the target we created. As one of the biggest economies it was always going to be us on the stage, but the stage is bigger now than we. Can’t we still be exceptional yet also be magnanimous and, I don’t know, just a bit humble? We built this country with timber we cut down with our own hands. We shouldn’t be hiding them under white linen gloves.
But I still think 2011 gets a pass. We have survived ten years, not died. Yes, things have changed, some things drastically. Yes, there is a brand new spanner in the wrench box that a crafty politician can jam in the gears whenever they want to. There are new prejudices that keep people apart, our people, Americans of many complexions and beliefs but nonetheless American. There are new ideologies which we may never understand fully, but we have survived to say we made it to ten years. We should reflect upon what happened a decade ago because, this time, it is appropriate. Next year, we should try to tone it down and allow families the breathing room to cry off-camera. We should try to remember that lives, beyond the buildings, the fire and ashes, the attack vehicles and all, ended both for those trapped and those who attempted to find and free the trapped. We should try to leave the National Scab be and maybe, who knows, it might heal a little more.
And yet, I know we won’t.