Monday, September 11, 2006

The Awful Holiday

I’m going to try my hardest to avoid the mass media today. I’ve got no stomach for mawkish rehashings of great traumas. I don’t think atrocities should be reduced to melodrama. All the sooty flapping flags, all the sob-worthy montages, all the recycled stirring soundbites ought to be retired. They do us no good. We don’t need to pick at our gaping wounds with lollipops; we shouldn’t be turning tortured history into yet another soft-focus Oprah episode.

But our commemorations aren’t just ghastly, they’re also premature. The fact is that September 11th isn’t over yet. We’re still living in its repercussions and we probably will be for a few more decades. What happened that morning was a particularly horrible moment in a long crisis, with the convoluted and contentious events leading up to and following from it largely hidden by political cant, deliberate deception and our culture’s potentially-fatal ignorance of history and the world outside its borders. I don’t pretend to understand most of it, but I’d also rather not fight fanaticism and oppression armed only with a million bombs, a few stereotypes and a threadbare national myth.

But, before we get to that, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to insist that we no longer use the people who died on those planes and in those buildings—the brave and the average, the exceptional and the everyday—as rhetorical grist and talking-points fodder. They deserve to be cherished by the people who love them, not by politicians and pundits with a point to make, however valid that point may be. In the end, it’s their lives that should be remembered and honored, not the violence and horror of their deaths. We do them a disservice when we turn these innocent victims into brickbats to hammer at the people who disagree with us, just as we do a disservice to the importance of the issues we face when we try to make ourselves and our opinions holy by swiping the valor of the dead.

We have entered a period where the choices our nation has to make are far too critical to be decided by gut feeling, partisan favor or prejudice. It’s alright if we bicker, of course, we just need to start bickering at a higher level. This controversy over a cheesy miniseries is a good example of how asinine our national dialogue was become. In these polarized times, people want to prove that they’re hanging around on the side of the angels by showing that the events of 9/11 weren’t the fault of their side. This is ridiculous. 9/11 was Osama Bin Laden’s fault, it was Ayman al-Zawahiri’s fault, it was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s fault, it was Mohammed Atta’s fault. If that crew is too spectral and foreign for you to blame, go right ahead and pin it on Bill Clinton for treating terrorism like a pipsqueak problem, but at least have enough honesty to acknowledge that there weren’t a whole lot of Republicans raising the alarm back then either. Or, if you’re the sort of liberal who’d like to lay the whole thing at George W. Bush’s feet, you’ll find lots of people willing to agree with you and even a bunch willing to share their stupid conspiracy theories with you, but you’d be better off blaming every past administration up to and including Carter’s for mishandling the Middle East in the name of cheap oil and anti-communism. While we’re at it, why don’t we just blame the Soviets for invading Afghanistan and kicking that whole jihad thing into high gear? And why stop there? Maybe it’s the fault of the House of Saud for giving 13th-Century throwback Wahabbis so much control of their country’s religious life and so many of our petrodollars. Or maybe it’s the fault of Sadat and Nasser for letting their governments torture Egypt’s fundamentalist insurgents until they turned into terrorist hard-cases and then setting those same people loose to wreak havoc everywhere.

The point is that there’s enough blame to go around. What we lack are ideas and leadership. We’ve reached the point where the party in power lies and says they’ve made the world safer while the other party—my party, I might add—lies and says they have a plan to do better once we elect them. They’re able to do this because the people who vote for them have been conditioned to expect simple solutions and soundbite policies. We’ve allowed our democracy to be debased into a sort of civic shopping mall, where candidates package themselves according to marketing dictates and the only ones who can possibly rise onto the national stage are those who give the least offense or make the best sales pitch. Americans like optimism, they like being lulled, they never get tired of hearing that they’re the kindest, smartest, luckiest, most noble and special people God has ever created. No one will win an election by saying that this is a fairy story we tell ourselves to keep the bad news at bay. No one will win an election by saying that we have to grow up and leave that kind of fatuous nonsense behind if we ever hope to lead the world, not just plunder it and be menaced by it. No one will ever win an election by saying that someday soon those 150,000 soldiers stationed in the Middle East won’t be the only Americans sacrificing big pieces of their lives for the sake of bad foreign policy.

Today there’s going to be a lot of drivel about “the lessons of September 11th”. These will mostly be cliches and slogans of widely varying probity. There are those who will tell you, in all seriousness, that we have to understand how all Arabs or all Muslims are the enemy now and we have to steel ourselves for slaughter. There are others who will tell you, for the millionth time, that Bush is a crap president who was farting around with schoolchildren when the shit went down. You’ll hear about missed opportunities, bureaucratic ineptitude and political correctness run amok. Someone will make a remark about our deadly reliance on foreign oil. Someone else will prattle on about good and evil. Maybe someone will even dust off that old fundamentalist saw that God was punishing us for our wickedness.

People aren’t shy about formulating these things. But, in the third year of our Iraq debacle and in the fifth year of our acute national confusion, maybe we should start studying another lesson from that wretched day—that things are bad and they’re only going to get worse. I know it goes against the grain of our country’s can-do spirit and our depraved optimism, but eventually we’re going to have to stop being so infatuated with things that don’t matter and pick our way out of this mess we’re in.

This will not be a pleasant process. It’s going to take a hard look in the mirror and a whole horde of hard decisions. Still, I’d rather it happen before it’s too late and we’re all left sifting through the ashes of a fallen nation.