10 years removed, a different memorial to September 11

In case you didn’t know, this weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. It’s unlikely you don’t know this, of course—not just because the date 9/11 has been so seared into nearly every Americans’ consciousness, but because of the national media blitz that has accompanied this dark day’s turning a decade old. Supposedly, the past week’s obsessive focus upon the event is in service of a national act of honoring the fallen and remembering. What we’re to remember, however, is not made especially clear. I suppose this is often how things go when a culturally heterogenous nation of 300 million souls is asked to engage in an unspecified act of universal transcendence.

I was young when the attacks occurred. I don’t remember with the intense clarity of many others what I did or felt that day. And I won’t ask you to walk with me through my memory’s hazy landscape. Why should I? I wasn’t there. I didn’t know anyone there, at least not to my knowledge. Like millions upon millions of other Americans, but unlike the family and friends of the nearly 3,000 who died in the atrocity, I was blessed enough not to have to bear the weight of personal grief. It is not my day.

What I do remember clearly, however, was the political atmosphere that rose from the wreckage and carnage left in New York and Washington. That era of paranoia, claustrophobic suspicion, anger, bloodlust and dull, relentless conformity—that’s the milieu in which I came of age as an American citizen and political observer. It was a deeply unfortunate, dark, sad time. That it could be understood, following the trauma of 9/11, does in no way change the national discourse of that time’s fundamentally ugly character. I am profoundly grateful that we as a nation have, in fits and starts, tried to move on in the 10 years since.

Unfortunately—perhaps predictably—this weekend has been a time of backsliding. Although it is in much meeker, more watered-down form, the mawkish, solipsistic authoritarianism of those years has returned with a quiet vengeance.  It’s clear that, 10 years removed, there still remain a great many things concerning 9/11 about which significant numbers of us are unable or unwilling to acknowledge, opting instead for the escapist comfort of sanctimony, irrationality, and self-pity. If we are to understand comprehension as did Hannah Arendt, as “the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality – whatever it may be,” then we remain far, far removed from truly comprehending what happened that day.

At the least, these are the conclusions I’ve drawn following the ongoing brouhaha over Paul Krugman’s post today on the attacks. It’s not a long post. Here it is, in full:

Is it just me, or are the 9/11 commemorations oddly subdued?

Actually, I don’t think it’s me, and it’s not really that odd.

What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. Te atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.

A lot of other people behaved badly. How many of our professional pundits — people who should have understood very well what was happening — took the easy way out, turning a blind eye to the corruption and lending their support to the hijacking of the atrocity?
The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.

I’m not going to allow comments on this post, for obvious reasons.

As is to be expected, Krugman’s straying from the unofficial rules of how one is allowed to express oneself on this “sacred” day has been greeted with a rabid viciousness among denizens of the blogopshere’s far-right. Indeed, it lacks all of the hallmarks of what, supposedly, defines one’s comments about 9/11 as being acceptable: there is no self-conscious paean to the first-responders and others who lost their lives as they tried to save their fellow innocents, there is no call for an ambiguous “coming together” of all of “us,” no stirring assurances that evil is evil and good is good. Most sinfully, Krugman makes not even the slightest effort to further the anesthetizing lie that, somehow, that awful day gave Americans and America itself license to respond however it saw fit, no matter how crude, vengeful, or brutish.

He fails to recognize that all involved that day, most especially our political leaders, were cleansed through the blood of the fallen and reborn anew—not as fallible men, capable of making mistaken or even doing wrong, but as a new class of American warrior-saints, above all criticism; or, as it’s been renamed, “partisanship.”

It’s clear that Krugman has run afoul of various unquestionable, consoling fairy-tales and myths. Not from the far-right’s sputtering rage, but rather because of the mealy-mouthed, ethically bankrupt way in which the self-imagined Serious have responded, too. Reading this, I felt as if I were back in 2003, those days of lapel pins and freedom fries, when every mediocrity with an inclination to hear their own voice struggled to be the most sanctimoniously, pompously censorious champion of the conventional wisdom:

In a blog post that went live on The New York Times’ web site just moments before the 10th anniversary of the moment when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Paul Krugman says that the events of September 11, 2001 have been tarnished by the events that occurred afterwards […]

What, exactly, would he have preferred to see to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks? Of course the ceremonies are subdued, we’re talking about marking the day that more than 3,000 people were killed in attacks that we all watched unfold on television. The people they left behind are still around, and many of them didn’t even have a body they could bury. Does Krugman want us to through a big party like the one that erupted outside the White House when Osama bin Laden was killed? Somehow I think not.

I’d also add that Krugman’s designation of Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush as “fake heroes” strikes me as totally off base. I’m no fan of the former President, but there are few people who will or can deny that his leadership in the days and weeks after September 11th was something that history will always remember him positively for […]

The same can be said of Rudy Giuliani, who helped keep New Yorkers united at a time when their city faced a shock unlike anything American city had ever experienced.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a need to look back over the past ten years at the mistakes, the mis-steps, and the price that’s been paid over the past ten years. The retrospective pieces we’ve published here at OTB on the subjects […] were meant to do just that. Additionally, one can look at the Afghan War, and the misguided adventures in Iraq and find much to criticize in the decisions that have been made over the past decade. One can do so, however, without the obvious vitriol and contempt that Krugman displays in his post today.

How could Krugman live with himself, voicing his anger and shame over the actions of this country over these past 10 years, “just moments before the 10th anniversary of the moment when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center”? Why does he hate the victims of 9/11 so? Do you think he even is patriot enough, decent enough, to have memorized all of the minutiae of that nightmare? Does he even know which flight it was, which face of which tower it hit, what read the clock at that very moment? How dare he sully this holy moment with his “vitriol and contempt”? Doesn’t he know that ever wise “history” will surely “remember [Bush] positively”? Who is he to speak up in the face of so much death and sorrow; what does he think—that he knows more than History?

It’s not important that we’re given no proof of how Bush or Giuliani somehow rose to the occasion, like super-men or gladiators, uniting us all. It’s not important whether or not we required the Great Leaders to unite us. History tells us we did, they did. Against the incontrovertible judgment of History, Krugman is nothing. Yes, one might be able to find “much to criticize” in the America’s actions in the 10 years since. One could very well find it worthy of criticism to engage in a war of choice that left more than 100,000 dead and a country in tatters. One could find it worthy of criticism to, 10 years later, remain at war in another country to no clear purpose and with no real end in sight, maintaining a troop presence in the tens of thousands while raining death upon scores of innocents (collateral damage) in pursuit of less than 50 al Qaeda members. One could criticize the systemic implementation of torture, surveillance, indefinite detention, etc.

But there’s no need to react to these potential missteps with anything that might be considered “vitriol” or “contempt” for those that made them or cheered them on in the process. It’s simply a case of, well, “mistakes were made.” Bringing them up today? That’s simple partisan hackery. It’s damn near thought-crime. He clearly doesn’t understand how, 10 years removed, we’ve learned so much.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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