Let’s bag it.
I’m talking about the tenth anniversary ceremonies for 9/11, and everything that goes with them: the solemn reading of the names of the dead, the tolling of bells, the honoring of first responders, the gathering of presidents, the dedication of the new memorial, the moments of silence. The works.
Let’s just can it all. Shut down Ground Zero. Lock out the tourists. Close “Reflecting Absence,” the memorial built in the “footprints” of the former towers with its grove of trees, giant pools, and multiple waterfalls before it can be unveiled this Sunday. Discontinue work on the underground National September 11 Museum due to open in 2012. Tear down the Freedom Tower (redubbed 1 World Trade Center after our “freedom” wars went awry), 102 stories of “the most expensive skyscraper ever constructed in the United States.” (Estimated price tag: $3.3 billion.) Eliminate that still-being-constructed, hubris-filled 1,776 feet of building, planned in the heyday of George W. Bush and soaring into the Manhattan sky like a nyaah-nyaah invitation to future terrorists. Dismantle the other three office towers being built there as part of an $11 billion government-sponsored construction program. Let’s get rid of it all. If we had wanted a memorial to 9/11, it would have been more appropriate to leave one of the giant shards of broken tower there untouched.
Ask yourself this: ten years into the post-9/11 era, haven’t we had enough of ourselves? If we have any respect for history or humanity or decency left, isn’t it time to rip the Band-Aid off the wound, to remove 9/11 from our collective consciousness? No more invocations of those attacks to explain otherwise inexplicable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our oh-so-global war on terror. No more invocations of 9/11 to keep the Pentagon and the national security state flooded with money. No more invocations of 9/11 to justify every encroachment on liberty, every new step in the surveillance of Americans, every advance in pat-downs and wand-downs and strip-downs that keeps fear high and the homeland security state afloat.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 were in every sense abusive, horrific acts. And the saddest thing is that the victims of those suicidal monstrosities have been misused here ever since under the guise of pious remembrance. This country has become dependent on the dead of 9/11 — who have no way of defending themselves against how they have been used — as an all-purpose explanation for our own goodness and the horrors we’ve visited on others, for the many towers-worth of dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere whose blood is on our hands.
Isn’t it finally time to go cold turkey? To let go of the dead? Why keep repeating our 9/11 mantra as if it were some kind of old-time religion, when we’ve proven that we, as a nation, can’t handle it — and worse yet, that we don’t deserve it?
We would have been better off consigning our memories of 9/11 to oblivion, forgetting it all if only we could. We can’t, of course. But we could stop the anniversary remembrances. We could stop invoking 9/11 in every imaginable way so many years later. We could stop using it to make ourselves feel like a far better country than we are. We could, in short, leave the dead in peace and take a good, hard look at ourselves, the living, in the nearest mirror.
Ceremonies of Hubris
Within 24 hours of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the first newspaper had already labeled the site in New York as “Ground Zero.” If anyone needed a sign that we were about to run off the rails, as a misassessment of what had actually occurred that should have been enough. Previously, the phrase “ground zero” had only one meaning: it was the spot where a nuclear explosion had occurred.
The facts of 9/11 are, in this sense, simple enough. It was not a nuclear attack. It was not apocalyptic. The cloud of smoke where the towers stood was no mushroom cloud. It was not potentially civilization-ending. It did not endanger the existence of our country — or even of New York City. Spectacular as it looked and staggering as the casualty figures were, the operation was hardly more technologically advanced than the failed attack on a single tower of the World Trade Center in 1993 by Islamists using a rented Ryder truck packed with explosives.
A second irreality went with the first. Almost immediately, key Republicans like Senator John McCain, followed by George W. Bush, top figures in his administration, and soon after, in a drumbeat of agreement, the mainstream media declared that we were “at war.” This was, Bush would say only three days after the attacks, "the first war of the twenty-first century." Only problem: it wasn’t. Despite the screaming headlines, Ground Zero wasn’t Pearl Harbor. Al-Qaeda wasn’t Japan, nor was it Nazi Germany. It wasn’t the Soviet Union. It had no army, nor finances to speak of, and possessed no state (though it had the minimalist protection of a hapless government in Afghanistan, one of the most backward, poverty-stricken lands on the planet).
And yet — another sign of where we were heading — anyone who suggested that this wasn’t war, that it was a criminal act and some sort of international police action was in order, was simply laughed (or derided or insulted) out of the American room. And so the empire prepared to strike back (just as Osama bin Laden hoped it would) in an apocalyptic, planet-wide “war” for domination that masqueraded as a war for survival.
In the meantime, the populace was mustered through repetitive, nationwide 9/11 rites emphasizing that we Americans were the greatest victims, greatest survivors, and greatest dominators on planet Earth. It was in this cause that the dead of 9/11 were turned into potent recruiting agents for a revitalized American way of war.
From all this, in the brief mission-accomplished months after Kabul and then Baghdad fell, American hubris seemed to know no bounds — and it was this moment, not 9/11 itself, from which the true inspiration for the gargantuan “Freedom Tower” and the then-billion-dollar project for a memorial on the site of the New York attacks would materialize. It was this sense of hubris that those gargantuan projects were intended to memorialize.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, for an imperial power that is distinctly tattered, visibly in decline, teetering at the edge of financial disaster, and battered by never-ending wars, political paralysis, terrible economic times, disintegrating infrastructure, and weird weather, all of this should be simple and obvious. That it’s not tells us much about the kind of shock therapy we still need.
Burying the Worst Urges in American Life
It’s commonplace, even today, to speak of Ground Zero as “hallowed ground.” How untrue. Ten years later, it is defiled ground and it’s we who have defiled it. It could have been different. The 9/11 attacks could have been like the Blitz in London in World War II. Something to remember forever with grim pride, stiff upper lip and all.
And if it were only the reactions of those in New York City that we had to remember, both the dead and the living, the first responders and the last responders, the people who created impromptu memorials to the dead and message centers for the missing in Manhattan, we might recall 9/11 with similar pride. Generally speaking, New Yorkers were respectful, heartfelt, thoughtful, and not vengeful. They didn’t have prior plans that, on September 12, 2001, they were ready to rally those nearly 3,000 dead to support. They weren’t prepared at the moment of the catastrophe to — as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so classically said — “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
Unfortunately, they were not the measure of the moment. As a result, the uses of 9/11 in the decade since have added up to a profile in cowardice, not courage, and if we let it be used that way in the next decade, we will go down in history as a nation of cowards.
There is little on this planet of the living more important, or more human, than the burial and remembrance of the dead. Even Neanderthals buried their dead, possibly with flowers, and tens of thousands of years ago, the earliest humans, the Cro-Magnon, were already burying their dead elaborately, in one case in clothing onto which more than 3,000 ivory beads had been sewn, perhaps as objects of reverence and even remembrance. Much of what we know of human prehistory and the earliest eras of our history comes from graves and tombs where the dead were provided for.
And surely it’s our duty in this world of loss to remember the dead, those close to us and those more removed who mattered in our national or even planetary lives. Many of those who loved and were close to the victims of 9/11 are undoubtedly attached to the yearly ceremonies that surround their deceased wives, husbands, lovers, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. For the nightmare of 9/11, they deserve a memorial. But we don’t.
If September 11th was indeed a nightmare, 9/11 as a memorial and Ground Zero as a “consecrated” place have turned out to be a blank check for the American war state, funding an endless trip to hell. They have helped lead us into fields of carnage that put the dead of 9/11 to shame.
Every dead person will, of course, be forgotten sooner or later, no matter how tightly we clasp their memories or what memorials we build. In my mind, I have a private memorial to my own dead parents. Whenever I leaf through my mother’s childhood photo album and recognize just about no one but her among all the faces, however, I’m also aware that there is no one left on this planet to ask about any of them. And when I die, my little memorial to them will go with me.
This will be the fate, sooner or later, of everyone who, on September 11, 2001, was murdered in those buildings in New York, in that field in Pennsylvania, and in the Pentagon, as well as those who sacrificed their lives in rescue attempts, or may now be dying as a result. Under such circumstances, who would not want to remember them all in a special way?
It’s a terrible thing to ask those still missing the dead of 9/11 to forgo the public spectacle that accompanies their memory, but worse is what we have: repeated solemn ceremonies to the ongoing health of the American war state and the wildest dreams of Osama bin Laden.
Memory is usually so important, but in this case we would have been better off with oblivion. It’s time to truly inter not the dead, but the worst urges in American life since 9/11 and the ceremonies which, for a decade, have gone with them. Better to bury all of that at sea with bin Laden and then mourn the dead, each in our own way, in silence and, above all, in peace.
[Note on further reading: I recommend two recent pieces that, amid the mountain of usual writing about 9/11 ten years later, have something out of the ordinary to say: Ariel Dorfman’s “Epitaph for Another September 11” in the Nation magazine on the two 9/11s and how differently two American nations reacted to their disasters, and Lawrence Weschler’s “Memory” in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the shame of a squandered decade.]
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt