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Memory and 9/11

The Chronicle of Higher Education | Sunday, Aug 07, 2011

Though I live in New York and was as horrified as anyone that first morning, almost from the start I began to feel myself peeling off from the general tenor of response, the grand consensus.

Of course, I felt horrible about the loss of life—2,606 in the towers themselves; another 150 or so in the crashing planes—and for the families of the victims, especially the kids (I too lost my father suddenly, absurdly, unaccountably, out of nowhere, in a car crash when I was 10, so I could relate). But they were hardly the only people around who suffered grievous losses that year (there were more than 40,000 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2001; nearly 6,000 workplace fatalities; 440,000 smoking-related deaths).

Nor was this even the worst such catastrophe New York itself had ever faced: On June 15, 1904, a steamboat called the General Slocum burned to the waterline in the East River, costing the lives of more than 1,020 of its 1,342 riders (at a time when New York City's population was only 3.4 million, compared with 8 million in 2001—certainly a comparable disaster). One of the facts about the twin-towers disaster that has been occluded over the years is that if you were in the buildings when it happened, there was an overwhelming likelihood that you would survive.

Get a grip, I kept finding myself thinking, as the event grew ever more fetishized over the ensuing months—the gaping hole in the skyline acquiring an idol-like status, all political life (and prior common sense) seeming to get sucked into its yawning vortex. New York was not the first city that's ever faced a terrorist attack, I kept having to remind myself, nor the first city ever to have been bombed (hell, we ourselves, as Americans, had repeatedly bombed a good many of the rest of the world's cities).

Maybe it was just that we'd imagined ourselves immune from the forces impinging on other people's lives, immune from history (history previously being defined precisely as something we did to other people, not something they ever did to us); and now suddenly that old historical machinery was clanking away big time, the chains catching hold, and it didn't feel at all good.

Nor can it be said that, historically speaking, we went on to acquit ourselves with much distinction. Londoners during the Blitz had to endure this sort of thing day after day, for weeks on end, but they didn't crumple. Under Churchill's leadership, it was as if the more the Nazis threw at them, the greater their focus, the more uncanny their calm: Far from buckling, they bucked up. They retained perspective.

For when you're under murderous assault is precisely not the time to turn your entire political culture inside out. That's what the terrorists want you to do, that's what they are dying for you to do. But you're supposed to resist that temptation.

Instead, in thrall to the serpentine blandishments of fear, we spooked ourselves (or at any rate allowed our political class to spook us) into the grotesque disfigurations of the Patriot Act; the witch hunts aimed at Arabs and South Asian immigrants (many of them second- and third-generation American citizens); the botched invasion of Afghanistan; the calamitous Iraq fiasco; the preposterous fetishizations of Hallowed Ground and the Families and the Heroes; in sum, the hysterical deformation of virtually all of American politics, which in turn allowed the egregiously incompetent President George W. Bush that second term with its Katrina debacle, burgeoning deficits, and the whole clueless build-up to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Not that everyone got it wrong, of course. The late Susan Sontag, for one, saw things clearly from Day One. Writing in the first issue of The New Yorker after the attacks (the one with that indelible Art Spiegelman black-on-black cover), she concluded:

Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be.

Those words got her roundly excoriated, even by the magazine's editor. (After which, remember, The New Yorker, like so many others in the mainstream media, went on to endorse the Iraqi campaign at its outset.)

But I digress. You ask, How do I think 9/11 will be remembered 100 years from now? Forget 100, let's say 50. I suspect people in 2061 will no more remember the World Trade Center disaster than we today do the General Slocum. (The only reason I happen to know about that calamity is because one time I pursued an obscure reference in Joyce's Ulysses, all of which famously takes place the very next day: June 16, 1904.) And this is because such people as will still be around in 2061 will be too busy dealing with the rampaging effects of global warming. To the extent that they will be thinking about the first decade of the 21st century at all, they may set themselves to pondering what on earth the people back then could have been thinking as they let warning after warning go unheeded.

The 10 years just passing, as we all must realize if we are being honest with ourselves, constituted the hinge decade, the decade when something substantial had to be done if the world were going to avoid the exponential catastrophe into which we have now embarked. (You can't go on sagely noting, year after year, that we have only 10 years left within which to confront the crisis, without at some point those 10 years having run out.) Perhaps we could have done both: honored the victims of 9/11 while at the same time tending to the far greater devastation bearing down on us. The point is that, obviously, we weren't able to, and in almost every conceivable way, the result has been an utterly squandered decade.

Shame. Shame on us.

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 7, 2011