The Lessons of 9/11
Bill Long 9/11/06
Often when we talk about 9/11, even five years after the event, we are caught up in such a swirl of emotions that we almost give up talking as soon as we start. We can't help replaying the mental tapes of that fateful Tuesday morning, as millions of us helplessly looked on while the towers first smoked, then burned, then collapsed in a deafening and utterly horrific crescendo. As the dust cleared on that fateful day, however, and in the intervening five years since the attack in NYC, DC and over Pennsylvania, the problem of interpretation began. What does the event mean? What ought we to learn from it? How will we memorialize it properly? Will we ever forget?
If one does a little demographic work, we already have the following sober data. Let us assume that no one who was five years old or younger would really "remember" the events of that day. Let's add to that the number of people born in the USA since 9/11. This means that people ten years old or less in our culture really have no "first-hand" connection to the event of that day. If the population of the USA is now 300 million, and if we divide that population into 8 equally-sized "octiles" (though it never is quite that easy), we have about 37 million or more Americans who now have no "first-hand" knowledge of 9/11. And, of course, that number will grow with each passing day. The pressure is thus "on" for us to know how to teach the events of that day and transmit a sense of what it means to the generations that come after us. Indeed, the problem of interpretation is front and center.
Zeroing in on The Lessons of 9/11
Thus, when President Bush last evening said that we ought not to forget the lessons of 9/11, I would heartily agree. But, what are those lessons? The President didn't mention any, but he has said on other occasions that the principal lesson for him was that Americans are no longer safe on our own soil and that we must therefore have a firm resolve in identifying, fighting against and eliminating "international terrorism." While not disagreeing with either of those points, I would tend to emphasize other lessons from 9/11.
1. The Presence and Power of Human Evil Remains Visible and Strong. What I first learned in my theology classes more than 30 years ago, however, is what I want to add here. Evil or self-centeredness or attempts to destroy others does not just rest on one political party, national group or stateless entity. We all participate in it. When you are in the middle of a fight it is the other guy who is the incarnation of evil; however, when the fight isn't so intense, a mature person may have the wisdom to realize how s/he contributed to the situation that led to the fight in the first place. I am committed to the notion that there are others that hate us in the world because we have done some things that have made us appear hateful to them. We Americans have historically suffered from two crippling delusions: (1) that life is getting "better" in the world under our influence; and (2) that our influence in the world is an unalloyed good. Both of these, it seems to me, are also part of the rubble of 9/11.
2. The Worst of 9/11 is Probably Still to Come. I don't mean that there will necessarily be attacks of the magnitude of that day on American soil any time soon. But the effects of 9/11 will stay with us far after the Freedom Tower and Memorial are built and dedicated in New York City. The worst is to come for the rescue personnel, who still cough up black substances or suffer respiratory problems from their heroic work on that day. The worst may be yet to come for those nations who are our allies but who become the target of terrorist efforts because they are easier and more inviting subjects of attack. The worst is probably yet to come for us as we try to put together our historic love of liberty with the realities of security concerns that now seem to plague us.
3. The Tragedy of 9/11 has Become an Easy Tool of Political Exploitation. I suppose it would have been naive to think that anything else could have happened. The President saw how his approval rating soared in the wake of 9/11. We were scared, uncertain, ready to give to the President broad powers to get to the bottom of the problem that lay behind the attacks of 9/11. But, five years later, we are stalled in wars 8,000 miles away with no end in sight and little sense that even if we pulled out in the next few years that democratic regimes would be left in our wake. When politicians are faced with such a dilemma the temptation to "go back" to 9/11 to milk every precious approval rating point is immense. With mid-term elections coming in less than two months, the President can be forgiven for making 9/11 a rallying cry for candidates of his choice. But still my dissatisfaction continues. I would propose a rule that every candidate for the Presidency in 2008 swear off references to 9/11 and seek to defend his or her platform based on other factors. I wonder what kind of election this would give us.
4. America may be in more danger than in 2001, but in fact, the world hasn't changed for most people. The two most seemingly incontrovertible lines in American discourse today were spoken by Robert DeNiro on the two-hour special last evening, in which the film taken by French documentary filmmaker Gedeon Naudet of activity inside Tower 1 during the tragedy was shown. DeNiro said theat American was "changed forever" by the attacks of 9/11. He also called 9/11 the "defining event of our time." I don't know if I agree with either statement. Certainly some lives were changed as a result of 9/11. We all have to wait in longer airline queues, but even those can be a breeze at some times. We may have relatives in harm's way in the military, but that is not necessarily unique to our time. I think there are many people who would like us to believe that these events of five years ago changed everything, but I have my questions on why anyone would want me necessarily to agree with them on this issue. I think that those who want to claim that everything has changed in our time are those who also want to create a sense of vulnerability in us so that we will willingly give money or approval to them to pursue a plan that isn't clear.
I think this last point is the most troubling legacy of 9/11. We are now asked to give our trust to government people when threats aren't perceptible. We are asked to give credence to statements that claim that many terrorist attacks have been stopped. But an administration which manipulated intelligence on Iraq will certainly not hestitate, in my judgment, to manipulate stories on the 9/11 and the "War on Terror" if they think it helps them. Claims that things are "getting better" from national leaders are the natural prelude to "keep us in office." Who knows, in fact, whether things are "better?"
This is my "take" on 9/11's lessons on the fifth anniversary of it. And yours?
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long