Nothing to Commemorate
"What will you do to commemorate 9/11? The 'I Will' campaign has thrown out the question and people from around the country, including a few celebrities, have answered."
That's from the news website The Inquisitr [sic]. I'm pretty sure I don't count as a celebrity to anyone but my dog. With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks coming up, though, the matter of commemoration is worth pondering.
I see there are many commemorative events planned all over the country. In Orlando, Florida, the fire and police department bands will lead a tribute. "The lighting of four unity candles representing civilians, fire, military and police will highlight the event." In Pasadena a memorial will be unveiled while USMC jets do a flyover. For the kiddies, Nickelodeon has already broadcast a 9/11 Special.
Colorado seems to be particularly keen on commemorations. In Denver, "Governor Hickenlooper & Mayor Hancock are hosting a commemorative event and concert" featuring, among others, the Beach Boys. In Colorado Springs, "Representatives from local government, business and civic groups have been meeting since January to plan the 9/11 Day of Remembrance." Not to be outdone, the public library in Boulder "will host the global sidewalk chalk art project 'Chalk4Peace' in remembrance of the terrorist attacks."
The biggest and best-publicized ceremony will be in New York City at the World Trade Center site on Sunday. "Dignitaries will recite poetry and the names of the dead will be read out," we are told. The U.S.S. New York, a Navy ship built in part with steel salvaged from the World Trade Center ruins, will visit the city, anchoring in the Hudson River near the ceremony. Scotland is sending three — three! — choirs to sing for the commemorators.
Now look: I know it's all well-intentioned, motivated mainly by honest and commendable motives: patriotism, sympathy, commercial enterprise. I don't want to rain on anyone's 9/11 parade. (Yes, there are parades, too.) But … why would we want to commemorate those atrocities?
Friends and relatives of those who died will of course want to remember their loved ones, and are free to do so in whatever way they choose. That is entirely a private matter. Municipal fire and police services, and branches of our military that lost members in the Pentagon attack, may want to hold collective events. I can't see any reason why they shouldn't, and I'm fine with them using public funds for the purpose. What I find myself instinctively reacting against is the national commemoration of 9/11.
National commemorations are for national achievements — for positives, not negatives. We might properly commemorate the Pilgrims' successful settlement, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, victories in war, the Moon Landing. We used to commemorate George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and still commemorate Martin Luther King, but by their birthdays, not by the days of their deaths.
True, we commemorate those who died in our nation's wars; but a war is a collective national enterprise, for which national commemoration is appropriate. And we don't in fact any longer hold official commemorations of particular wars, as to do so would raise touchy issues: in relation to the Civil War, for instance, or the Vietnam War. Still less do we commemorate single military events — battles, or attacks like Pearl Harbor. Still less yet do we commemorate acts of terrorism like the 1920 Wall Street bombing. So why are we commemorating 9/11?
In common with, I think, most sane Americans — a category from which I'd exclude those in thrall to conspiracy theories — I recall 9/11 with two principal emotions: anger, and shame.
The anger is a natural response to the fact that those attacks were a gross insult to my country. Insults make one angry. In my case the anger was compounded by the thought of hundreds of harmless middle-class New York office workers, the kind of people I have spent much of my working life among, suffering horrible deaths at the hands of savages.
The shame arises from thinking of the stupidities that we, Americans, had collectively indulged ourselves in, and that allowed the 9/11 terrorists to do what they did. As the 9/11 Commission Report says, after cautioning against hindsight: "We believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management."
Should we commemorate an insult? Should we commemorate our failures?
So far as the insult is concerned, I think a better approach would be, first to avenge the insult by whatever honorable means comes to hand, then to pass over anniversaries of it in grim silence. The avenging has been sufficiently accomplished by our relentless killing of Al Qaeda personnel — a senior one just last month — and our trashing of Afghanistan, which had been hospitable to the terrorists.
Some of our failures have been addressed. The "security theater" at airport check-in surely contains a high proportion of make-believe; but for all that, it is much harder now to take over the cockpit of a plane in flight than it was ten years ago.
In other respects we are as stupid now as we were then. Following 9/11 a sensible nation would have stopped, or severely restricted, the settlement of foreign Muslims. Incredibly, we took the opposite approach. Of all the foreign-born Muslims in the U.S.A. today, about 40 percent arrived in the last ten years. Tens of thousands of them hold extremist opinions.
In short, nothing to commemorate, and much to feel dissatisfied about.
The most I'll allow, at a stretch, is that if the U.S.A. were a nation with an established religion, a modest church service might be appropriate, to administer some tribal bonding, and to remind us not to hate our enemies too indiscriminately. That's the kind of thing religion is good at.
Unfortunately the Constitution excludes any such possibility. We could only have a religious commemoration if we brought in all religions. That would mean Muslims, too. They would certainly clamor to be included, arguing that Muslims — other than, of course, the hijackers — also died in the attacks. (Which is certainly true, though the number is disputed, with estimates from 20-something to 60-something.)
If there were going to be imams at the service, though, some number of the 9/11 families would boycott the event, leading to a rancorous row. This is undoubtedly the reason behind Mayor Michael Bloomberg's having excluded all clergy from Sunday's ceremony.
That leaves us with no rationale for public commemoration that I can see. My own answer to the opening question is the one I gave nine years ago, at the time of the one-year anniversary: defiant normality. I recommend it to the nation at large.