The Search for Meaning: Reflections on a National Tragedy

For those who lived through it, endured it, and ultimately absorbed it, September 11, 2001 persists in memory in an intensely personal way.  Each of us owns that day and its aftermath, even when we manage to remember that so many others own it too.  Some of us, far too many, lost lovers, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, colleagues, and friends.  These people and their families have suffered unnatural losses by grotesque means, never to be made whole again.  Others, spared this terrible, immediate grief, were nevertheless called to witness something die, and then something terribly sad and terribly wounded grow in its place inside our friends who lost someone.  And there are those of us, living in the city at the time, who suffered the violation of our surroundings.  To have shredded, singed office papers falling like morbid confetti in front of our homes; to continually encounter dumfounded, fearful, and farway eyes; to take ghostly quiet subway rides; to breath the choked air; to smell that burning smell, miles away, in midtown or in Brooklyn, a burning that even to the uninitiated was unmistakably more than electrical wiring, rubber, wood, and fuel, a smell that hung in the air for weeks and haunts us still.  These are all elements of the pictures of that September past that we each stitch together in our own peculiar ways.

Of course that day and its aftermath were always more than personal; we were collective in our schock, grief, and even anger.  And we were united in our pride, in our eternal gratitude, for the selflessness, courage, and heroism of those firefighters, police, and all those ‘first responders’ who ran into burning buildings to save others rather than running out to save themselves.  They represented the very best in us, or something we desperately hoped or wished was in us, and to witness such nobility, to revel in it, even to the brink of fetishizing it, was necessary in the face of such evil that we were unable and, as we numbly watched the news over and over, perhaps even unwilling to escape.

But we were also united in a more abstract, yet significantly more pointed way.  Al-Qaeda, the Islamofascist death-cult responsible for transforming normal airplanes into deadly missiles from out of the blue, did not set out to kill anyone’s brother, daughter, father, or wife in particular.  Their prize wasn’t that personal.  They took flight to hurt all of us.  This was battle in a war against Americans.  A war that, as most Americans only belatedly became aware, al-Qaeda had declared in 1998.

In a war we did not know was being fought, with an enemy most had never heard of, we were naturally clueless as to why.  The burden of making sense of our national nightmare naturally fell to our President.  On September 20th, 2001, George W. Bush addressed a Joint Session of Congresss and the American people:

‘Americans are asking, “Why do they hate us?”

They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.’

This answer was to become central to the official narrative of the tragedies of New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, as well as of much what was to was to follow in their wake.  Critics naturally found it expedient and facile.   No doubt it was, but that didn’t make it false.  Part of its success stemmed from being psychologically satisfying.  Our newly acknowledged enemies hated us for who we are, not for what we do.  This made the proper reaction to the attack much simpler to settle on.  For if it were the latter, if it were our actions and policies that the killers hated, then we could find ourselves susceptible to the thought that they had reasons – however unjustified we might maintain – for their fury, that they – again, however mistaken – saw themselves as the wronged party and that they were retaliating, rather than provoking.  And once we came to frame the event in this fashion, the potential would exist that our identification with their ‘holy warrior’ perspective would become so great that we might even agree with that the attack on our shores was comeuppance and not a crime.   Thinking ourselves in someway culpable in our own tragedy, we might reasonably demand to do things differently, to change course and pursue policies less harmful or offensive to others.

But the President assured us that we were attacked because of who we are: lovers of the freedoms that define us and for which our nation was founded.  As most of us have internalized long ago, even while living in a society whose artistic, entertainment, and, indeed, therapeutic culture is consumed with the theme of individual reinvention, changing who you are is hard, extremely so, assuming it to be possible at all.  And what if it were possible?  Who of us could possibly want to change our identities as lovers of freedom?  Isn’t this aspect of who we are unassailable?  Isn’t our steadfast commitment to such freedoms the very backdrop against which any hoped for reinvention could be desireable or prove redemptive?   Isn’t our identity as lovers – and, indeed, defenders – of freedom why so many people around the world love us?  That these people from another part of the world, a problem-plagued part marked by oppression and dysfunction and endless conflict (they certainly seem to never change nor show signs they ever could) attacked us because of our commitment to freedom shows just how far beyond the pale they are: they are not to be reasoned with or even understood as anything other than irrational, as illiberal and undemocratic, as unmodern agents of totalitarian oppression and backwardness.  (Indeed, as Bush noted, under the Taliban, the Afghan regime that harbored al-Qaeda and was at one with them philosophically, “Women are not allowed to attend school. You can be jailed for owning a television. Religion can be practiced only as their leaders dictate. A man can be jailed in Afghanistan if his beard is not long enough.”)

And so, because those who attacked us did so because of who we are, and because we probably could not, and most certainly would not, change who we are, we chose to fight.  Thus began a decade of fighting, first with our enemies, followed soon enough with our allies, and ultimately with ourselves.  With increasing frequency, we now hear it referred to as a ‘lost decade.’  That is an uncharitable assessment, yet the removal of the Taliban, the crippling of al-Qaeda, as well as the ending of the brutal oppression of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, three accomplishments most nations wanted but which few were willing to attempt and no other was capable, exacted an enormous price in life, prestige, honor, self-confidence, and, of course, money.  Going to extremes in the defense of liberty, we ruefuly learned, is not without its vice.  On May 1 of this year, nearly ten years after the fact, we, now bleeding and nearly bankrupt, managed our most tangible measure of revenge, justice, or both, with the murder of Osama bin Laden.

It’s time to stop fighting in the motivation and memory of September 11th.  We need now to heed the desperate calls from our own neighborhoods.  But as we wearily turn inward, we would be well served to reflect on the meanings we assigned to ourselves and that day.  We were attacked because of our freedoms.  Facile?  Yes, but the real fault with this account is that it is profoundly true.  The ‘fault’ I speak of is not that we were ‘to blame’ for what happened that terrible day; the dead-enders who thought they could enter paradise by committing mass murder are to blame for that.  The fault I speak of is uniquely our own.  We have taken the prepositional value of freedom and made it our foundation. We are dedicated to both the freedom of religion and the freedom from it; the freedom to exercise one’s political voice and the freedom from having to vote at all (which generally 40 to 60 percent of those eligible prefer to exercise); the freedom to disagree and the freedom from having to pay much attention to one another.  The land of the free can find no common ground on what ‘freedom’ we are supposed to love, what of or what for.

That we can be defined as dedicated to freedom is a deep problem rather than a source of enduring pride.  Our fundamental commitment to freedom, rather than the freedom to participate in a shared sense of purpose, is at the root of our division, not our community.  Our national tragedy is that apart from an extraordinary and tragic event such as the terror attacks of September 11th that unite us in shock and grief, and when every news source provides essentially the very same content, we have little reason or warrant in calling ourselves ‘a people’ rather than being a mere collection of individuals.  We have become estranged.

What brings us together more routinely, what serves as the real basis for the nominal community we have, is not a cultural vision but perceived economic necessity.  Economic community is a necessity of course; there is no need to deny that.  What we should reflect on, however, is its scope and scale.  Economic wellbeing has become for us an end in itself: there is no other collectively recognized good or goal that our economic engine is meant to serve beyond increasing our ability to acquire and consume.  Rather than helping propel American culture, it is our cultural pursuits, from arts to leisure, that are increasingly made subject to the demands of the economy.  Whether it is publishing books, making movies, or playing baseball, its always business.

Economics is the primary reason for most of our poltical interaction. We vote with our pocketbooks (so the saying goes), those of us who bother, anyway, and we vote every four years as Americans for a leader to steer the economy and command a military-backed foreign policy that is supposed to project and protect ‘our’ interests.  But what interests are these beyond securing maximum profits for American-owned international enterprises?  The freedom for which American power, soft or hard, is most frequently employed is the freedom for financially well-placed Americans to make more money.  Most of what is done in the world in our name is for this end and this end alone.  Some people hate us indeed for what our leaders do, but what our leaders do is a direct reflection of who ‘we’ really are, what we tragically have become, a people united by little more than a cut-rate culture and a common currency.

Our love of freedom has been licentious and it has to end at some point.  The very idea of America needs renewal.  When we turn to rebuild our decaying infrastructure, when we relocate our nation-building adventures to the homeland, we cannot neglect to reconsider just what being an American is supposed to mean.  The people who were murdered ten years ago because they were Americans deserve that.


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