An almost wicked thought for the anniversary of 9/11: Has there ever been a more un-American mantra than "We shall never forget"?
A year ago, America's many radio stations became a sort of echo chamber for the people's voices. They played plenty of fun, near-Jingoistic jingles ("I Won't Back Down"), instant reactions ("Let's Roll"), and patriotic thumbsuckers ("Proud To Be An American"), but, for my money, the most overplayed song was U2's "Stuck In A Moment."
Though not written in response to 9/11, it's easy to see why it was used for that purpose. The song was simultaneously consoling and challenging, with the lead singer telling the audience that he empathized with them ("I know it's tough") but that, really, they needed to "get yourself together." Else, they would end up in an inescapable purgatory of their own making ("you can't get out of it").
The most eerie line of the song ("I wasn't jumping … for me it was a fall/ It's a long way down to nothing at all") inadvertently reminded listeners of the now-banished network footage of people in the towers of the World Trade Center who jumped to their deaths to escape being roasted alive. Of these jumpers, Bush cousin John Ellis has memorably written what amounts to a prose poem:
Hanging on the ledge. Heat from the fire burning their backs. The last ten seconds before the last ten seconds of free fall. … [T]he sound of the dead weight of one jumper and then the next, hitting the roof over the entrance. A dreadful thud. And another. And another. Osama did that.
Yes he did, and if recent media coverage is any indication we are still very much stuck in the moments of that sad, sad day. The commemorative issue of Time, for instance, features 20 covers occupied with the event and its aftermath, the War on Terrorism, that graced newsstands and grocery store checkout lines last year.
Time also carries an essay by Andrew Sullivan. In it, the ubiquitous pundit compares the events of 9/11 to a disorienting family tragedy for which there can be no consolation.
Worse, abruptly switching metaphors, Sullivan tells us that the threat of fundamentalist Islamic violence on America is so unpredictable and so all pervasive ("more like a virus than a host") that the illusions of "isolationism," "appeasement," and "American exceptionalism" were all destroyed by three loud thuds. In fact, the whole idea of America as a New World—as "a place where you could safely leave the Old World and its resentments behind"—was done away with as well. A younger generation, which knows that "neutrality is no longer an option," will look to 9/11 as its formative experience.
I am not an isolationist, and I am vengeful enough that seeing Osama bin Laden's body displayed in a pine box would give me great pleasure. But I think I speak for many when I dearly hope that Sullivan is wrong on this one. That Americans score poorly on history tests may in part be a reflection on our educational system, but I've always thought it had something to do with the American character itself.
Despite countless attempts to improve us, Americans are not a "serious" people. Our entertainment is low, our religion is personal and radically ahistoric, and our politics mystify outside observers. We have little patience for geopolitics and when we are dragged in to foreign struggles, our instincts have been to get the job done, extract ourselves, and come home as soon as possible, hopefully leaving the world a better place. (This, at any rate, is the nation's character as defined by its people; the high-handed, largely unaccountable wizards of US statecraft—and their British-born apologists in the media—think and act otherwise.)
The idea of a New World, where old grievances gradually fade into the mists of time, may be a myth; but it's one that, before 9/11, we devoutly believed in. George W. Bush was elected on a platform that included a "more humble foreign policy" than that of his predecessor, who had placed American troops and American prestige at the center of various ethnic cauldrons, often with less than ideal results. With the Cold War well behind us and few enemies in sight, America was pulling back—and many of us were glad of it.
Then 9/11 happened. A man who was the very embodiment of Old World grievances (in his 1996 fatwa, bin Laden held the U.S. responsible for the anti-Muslim violence of the Crusades) brought the New World to a screeching halt, and provoked justified red hot rage on the part of Americans.
According to Bush and Sullivan, the resulting war does not yet have a terminal point in view. Spurred on by the memory of 9/11, the U.S. will do as it wishes to whomever it believes to be a threat. In the process, we will, of course, generate many new resentments, and we may have to jettison cherished old ideas about necessary restraint. An empire, by definition, is eternally at war.
The thing that will make this possible is not the capricious whim of a cowboy president, but the rage of a people who continue to want justice for their fallen fellow citizens as well as the assurance that this sort of thing will not happen again—ever. If it is held with any fervency, the oft-repeated phrase "We shall [or will] never forget" could mean that Sullivan is right, that Americans are abandoning the idea of a New World as unworkable.
I hope not. As bad as 9/11 was, it does not seem desirable that this terrible event should so radically change the ideals of a unique people. In many ways, America is about forgetting the past, or at least it used to be. From the Japan to Germany to Vietnam to former slaves and slave owners: the grudges slowly fade away, making America vastly different than so many other strife ridden clans and nations. This is a lesson we forget (or remember) at our peril.