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This Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011, will undoubtedly mark the apotheosis of the long sacralization of the terrorist attacks that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center and killed more than 3000 in New York, Washington and Shanksville, PA. By sacralization, I do not mean the phantasms of those who see a crucifix in a surviving piece of metal among the ruins but an ongoing attempt, usually in religious but also in secular rhetoric, to elevate this event from one more chapter in the history of human evil to “the day that changed everything.”
This mass murder did not change everything; it changed only some things. And what it did change, it generally changed for the worse.
Sacralization and memorialization are not, and should not be, synonyous.
Memorialization rightly recalls the names and lives of the individuals who died so senselessly on that day, not because they were all heroes but because they were all human beings worthy of remembrance. Sacralization and mythicization, by contrast, look for some sort of sense and transcendent meaning where there is none. My congratulations to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for having the guts to dispense with the generally obligatory minister, priest, rabbi and imam at the city’s official memorial. You can’t have one without the others and now atheists would probably also demand their own “chaplain.”
The sacralization began in earnest three days after the attacks, when President George W. Bush presided over an ecumenical prayer service in Washington’s National Cathedral. In a speech indistinguishable from a sermon, Bush replaced the language of civic virtue with the language of faith. Quoting an anonymous man who supposedly said at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, “I pray to God to give us a sign that he’s still here,” the president than assured the public not only that God was here but that he was personally looking out for America. “God’s signs,” Bush declared, “are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own.”
Then Bush went on to adapt the famous passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, “Neither death nor life, no angels nor principalities, nor powers, not things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, can separate us from God’s love. May he bless the souls of the departed, may he comfort our own, and may he always guide our country.”
One can only hope that President Obama, who will speak at the National Cathedral this Sunday evening, refrains from preaching such a sermon. Presidents belong in the bully pulpit, which means a secular pulpit. They ought not to be addressing the nation from the altar of any church or assuring us that God is still here. That is the job of the clergy, for those who cling to belief in a benevolent deity.
Franklin D. Roosevelt did not try to reassure the nation after Pearl Harbor by appearing at the National Cathedral in the role of minister-in-chief, and Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address not from a sanctuary but on the field where so many soldiers had given “the last full measure of devotion.”
Sacralization mistakes honest discourse for sacrilege. On the one hand (let us call it the hand of left-wing political correctness), it is now considered at worst hateful, at best bad taste, to refer to radical Islam as one important actor in this event. We all know, don’t we, that “true” religion is always good.
On the other hand (right-wing political correctness), “Never forget 9/11” is used as an excuse for everything from hounding illegal Mexican immigrants as if they were terrorists because they want a better life to questioning the loyalty of Muslim Americans who have been in this country for generations. Here is Dick Cheney redux, unapologetic for the lie about weapons of mass destruction that kicked off the Iraq war or for the administration’s (largely successful) attempt to dupe Americans into thinking that the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi.
Hypocritical sacralization is really about ownership of a disaster, not about remembering and honoring those who died. This applies both to the furor over the proposal to build a Muslim community center a few blocks from the site and the attempt by one atheist group to prevent the aforementioned cross-shaped piece of metal from being displayed in the national 9/11 museum. Why not just put a plaque on the museum, for people who are presumably too stupid to remember the real, as opposed to the mythic, 9/11, which says, “People of all faiths and no faith died here.”
Another element in the process of mythicization is a bloviated exaggeration of the traumatic effects of 9/11 on those who experienced the event only vicariously. The farther you get from New York, which bore the brunt of the attacks and where most lives were lost, the more Americans seem to insist on their ownership of the insult to the national psyche. It is as if I were to claim that I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because, like millions in November 1963, I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on television.
James Coyne, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, published a fascinating critique last week of sociological and psychological studies suggesting that millions across the nation incurred post-traumatic stress disorder simply because they watched news coverage in the weeks after 9/11. What Coyne suggests is that “symptoms” such as “having difficulty falling asleep” and “not wanting to talk about the event” might not have been post-traumatic stress disorder but a perfectly normal response to events that created great uncertainty about the future.
In other words, you just might have been crazy if you weren’t a bit unhinged by what took place on 9/11. But that does not mean these events “changed everything” because they changed many of us.
As a New Yorker who remembers the unmistakable, acrid smell of death, a combination of human remains and toxic chemicals, that hung over the city for weeks, I can think of only one very impermanent way in which 9/11 changed anything for the better. For a time, a very short time lasting only a few weeks, we were kinder to one another, united in grief as well as righteous anger. This was true, or so they say, not only in my wounded city but throughout the nation.
But that sense of unity, as we all know, dissipated rapidly. Who can deny that we are an angrier, more politically polarized people than we were the day before 9/11? Our economic crisis is certainly a big part of the country’s sullen mood, but the two costly wars that can be directly traced to the emotions generated by 9/11 have exacerbated our financial problems. The anti-immigrant mood of the public, and the tendency to view all immigration as a threat somehow related to terrorism, is a direct result of 9/11.
And let us not forget the right-wing Republicans who showed exactly how sacred 9/11 was to them when they held up a bill to pay for the medical costs of first responders and workers who have serious illnesses, including cancer and emphysema, because they were exposed to the toxic graveyard left by the attacks. Indeed, the Republicans would not allow a vote on the bill until, just before Christmas, Obama agreed to the extension of the Bush tax cuts. That’s called payment in blood.
What sacralizers usually mean when they say “never forget” is, “Never forget the symbolic grievance that we can use for political purposes.” They don’t mean never forget the real horror and pain, experienced individually as well as collectively, of the lives that were lost. On Sunday, I attended one of the many memorial concerts being held this week at St. Paul’s Chapel, which is literally a stone’s throw from ground zero and provided food and rest for recovery workers for nearly a year after the attacks. During a Bach motet, we heard a siren from a passing fire engine and remembered everything without being prompted.
Opened in 1766, St. Paul’s (where the deist George Washington, who was not a regular churchgoer, was greeted on his inauguration day) is Manhattan’s oldest public building. More than 14,000 volunteers (oh yes, of every faith and no faith) worked in twelve-hour shifts to provide sustenance for the recovery workers removing human remains from the site. The volunteers and recovery workers, unlike politicians eager for their piece of 9/11 memories, have the right to say never forget. But they don’t say it, because they lived it.
Next year, on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, there will be much less of this quasi-religious pomp that surrounds anniversaries with round numbers. I do not know what the world will look like on September 11, 2101, but I can guarantee that no one will be grieving over the thousands who died a hundred years earlier on that day, any more than people are going to be torn by emotion as this decade proceeds and we reach the hundredth anniversary of the senseless slaughter that was the First World War. By the beginning of the 22nd century, September 11, 2001, will also have passed into the realm of history and debate.
Single events never really change everything: they are part of larger social forces and it takes more than one generation for the significance to be fully understood.. The First World War did, in fact, have the most profound effect on the history of the twentieth century, since its conclusion led directly to the even greater horrors of the rise of Nazi Germany, the Second World War and the Holocaust. But the people of western nations did not really know that in the 1920s and the early 1930s. Today, we do not really know whether terrorism will become a permanent feature of a “clash of civilizations” over the next century or whether the purported clash will devolve into an anxiety-provking but sporadic series of violent outbursts overtaken by other, more fundamental problems.
I do know that before we Americans do any more lying to ourselves about external attacks having changed everything, we need to ask ourselves honest questions about why the initial sense of unity after 9/l1 disappeared so quickly. That is not the terrorists’ fault and cannot be remedied by sanctimonious meditations about American suffering that was, for most Americans, second-hand suffering. But then, perhaps the psychobabblers are right, and stress from watching television has become as bad as being killed or breathing in poison yourself. That is certainly a subject for a sermon.