Taking 9/11/2001 Seriously on 9/11/2011
Living in Washington, D.C., I attended three civic remembrances on September 11, 2011. The first was held at "Freedom Plaza," a triangular paved space on Pennsylvania Avenue midway between the Capitol and the White House. The premiere D.C. remembrance event, it featured the mayor, D.C.'s non-voting "congresswoman" Eleanor Holmes Norton, and other officials. The second took place in the Kogod Courtyard, the beautiful indoor/outdoor space that connects the National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art. It featured a "Burden Boat," built by Kurt Steger. In the words of the museum's announcement,
The public is invited to place messages into the boat as part of the event. At 4pm the artist will pour water over the messages left in the boat so the burdens receive cleansing, healing and release.
Later that evening, the National Portrait Gallery presented the D.C. premiere of Rebirth, a feature-length documentary following five persons with close ties to the attacks.
Most notable was the lack of public participation. Although booths set up by community organizations hoping to recruit members rimmed Freedom Plaza, the crowd was so slim as not to constitute a crowd at all. Most onlookers were food vendors and people connected with the booths. At the museum, as Steger placed a printout of the names of the dead into the Burden Boat and then poured water on the paper, only forty people looked on, and most were idly curious passers-by. The movie audience filled perhaps a quarter of the theater.
Does this mean we're over it?
In a sense, yes. Lynn Steuerle Schofield, who lost her mother at the Pentagon, noted in the Washington Post this year, "Sometimes I feel I am asked to attend my mother's funeral again and again, year after year." The five people chronicled in Rebirth have similarly moved on, in a way. The beautiful young woman whose fiancée died has married, for example, given birth, and is now helping to raise their two children. Those of us who did not lose anyone we knew personally continue to feel for others' losses, but time, like physical distance, lessens this emotion. An old newspaper adage holds that one death in one's home town equals 100 in one's country and 1,000 on the other side of the world. The same is true about time. Death does lose its immediacy.
The problem is, our public history has not done justice to the event. Our public ceremonies emphasize only the persons killed. So does the new memorial at the site of the carnage in New York City, attractive as it may be. No one who goes to that site, or to the Pentagon, or the Pennsylvania crash scene, learns any real history beyond the basics of what happened. Who attacked us? (Not by name, of course, but nationality, background, occupation, ideology.) Why did they do it? How did the U.S. respond? Why? What resulted? These are among the important questions not asked and not answered, in stone or speech, ten years on.
The bipartisan and "safe" response to 9/11 was ascendant on its tenth anniversary. Speech after speech bemoaned the loss of life, especially of innocent life, that took place on that day. On the surface, nothing is wrong with that. Americans did lose family members, friends, loved ones. From my city, Washington, three award-winning middle-school children were passengers on the plane that took off from Dulles and wound up crashed into the Pentagon. Of course, they had done nothing whatsoever to merit their deaths.
This safe response is shallow, however. It is almost as shallow as President Bush's "explanation" for the attacks in his speech to Congress on September 20th:
Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber—a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
What a rosy analysis! They hate us because we are good!
Bush repeated variants on that paragraph throughout the next year. He knew better, of course. Michael Scheuer, first chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit, corrected him:
Bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but have everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world.
Rather than ask Americans to pursue a vision of shared sacrifice to overcome an ideological, implacable, and stateless foe, Bush then implored us all to go shopping.
Of course, one of President Bush's responses to 9/11 was to wage war on a state—Iraq. His assertions, and those by Vice President Dick Cheney and others, convinced more than 40 percent of Americans that Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in the September 11 killings, according to polls. A Zogby survey of GIs stationed in Iraq in 2006 found that 85 percent still believed that the U.S. war there was mainly "to retaliate for Saddam's role" in 9/11. Of course, Bush and his administration knew all along that Iraq had nothing to do with al Qaeda or the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The attack on Iraq was also an unfortunate response in realpolitik terms. Hans Blix, the UN weapons inspector whom Bush ordered out of Iraq so he could bomb the country, wrote, "The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a tragedy—for Iraq, for the U.S., for the U.N., for truth and human dignity." (1) According to Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback, "the United States has magnified many times over the initial damage caused by the terrorists." (2) Johnson refers to the new terrorists bred by the endless U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Historians (and other scholars) have done good work answering the "why" questions posed above. Simply by cuddling up in a good bookstore for a few afternoons, a person can become well-informed about the War in Iraq. Scholars show the role it played in boosting Republican fortunes in the 2004 elections, the astonishing error the U.S. made in not using Iraqi military and police forces to maintain order, and how our "shock and awe" tactics made orphans of one in every three Iraqi children. None of this work got any airing at last Sunday's public remembrances, and none is on the landscape. Similarly, most high school U.S. history textbooks never ask why the U.S. attacked Iraq, nor do they assess the results.
About the deaths in World War I, British poet Laurence Binyon wrote, "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old." Of course, the human tragedy of 9/11 is precisely that the fallen—the title of Binyon's poem—had no chance to grow old. "At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them," concludes the stanza. But eventually, of course, "we that are left" shall die. Just now, the dead soldiers from World War I are passing from the sasha—the living-dead, whose time on earth overlapped with people still here and who still live in the memories of the living. They are becoming zamani—revered ancestors, to use Kiswahili terms. When that happens, no one will remember them—at least not personally.
When the dead of 9/11 pass from sasha to zamani, what will be the use of our public memorials then? Will they be as quaint a curiosity as the plaque not far from my house telling of "The Presidents Tree?" It stands on an ancient-looking wrought-iron fence that turns out to date to 1948, put up to protect an old beech tree. On it stood the names of every president from Washington to Andrew Johnson, carved "during the Civil War period" by a young farmer. The plaque went up in 1960; the tree fell down soon after.
Of course, monuments and historical markers often cannot portray history in any depth. Hopefully the "9/11 Memorial Museum," planned to open in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2012, will do that. That hope looks dubious, however. As described at its website, the museum will feature a "Wall of Faces," showing each victim. Exhibits will "commemorate the lives of those who perished" and "provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about the men, women, and children who died."
Many members of the public seem ready to go beyond the rosy optimism and shallow focus of our public history. A Washington Post/ABC poll taken just before this year's remembrances showed that only 39% of Americans believed the nation was "better" as a result of 9/11; 42% believed "worse." A survey taken late in 2001 showed much more optimism: 63% "better" and just 25% "worse."
Where will we explore the tough questions? Where will we tell the history? Where on the landscape? Or are books enough?
(1) Newsweek, 3/31/2008, 23.
(2) Chalmers Johnson, "Intellectual Fallacies of the War on Terror," TomDispatch, at tomdispatch.com/post/174852/chalmers_johnson_12_books_in_search_of_a_policy (10‑22‑07), reprinted at HNN.
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