A few days ago, I was talking with a friend whose career took a hit in the fall of 2001. For many of us, especially in New York, the cliché that “everything changed on 9/11” is not quite true – or rather, way too black and white. Lives changed in tragic suddenness for the families and friends of the dead, but for the rest of us, the shift was more subtle. Some of us took new directions, either consciously or otherwise. My friend and I were talking about his career shift, the acceptance of events we cannot control, and the Augustinian embrace of the process of beginning an entirely new life. But he thought it didn’t quite fit, because we really don’t throw away the past. Instead, it clings stubbornly like the dust of all civilization before us. More relevant to living life post-2001, he argued, is the existentialism of Camus. Accepting the absurdity of our lives, the twists and turns, the defeats and even the horror, allows for moving forward. And that acceptance can be strangely comforting.
I thought of this conversation again reading today’s newspapers, filled as they are with remembrances and tributes. Particularly compelling, to me anyway, is a column entitled “How to Remember, How to Forget” on today’s NYT op-ed page. Written by Spanish author Javier Marías, it contrasts American’s continued public mourning over 9/11 three years after that terrible day, and Spain’s reaction to the gruesome train bombings of March 11th.
Perhaps it's simply that our hides have toughened, our hearts and minds have grown more accustomed to futile, gratuitous murder. It is a terrible thing, but little by little you get used to the possibility of indiscriminate attack, just as we've all grown used to the certainty that there will be deaths on the highways every weekend. "It's always going to happen - let's hope it doesn't happen to us," becomes the unformed, unconscious thought.
Maybe that's why Spain, six months later, seems already to have overcome the trauma of the railway bombings. There is no more fear than there was before, and neither are there any fewer liberties. The current Spanish government has shown no interest in constantly sounding the alarm. Our habits seem as unchanging as the streets, the bars, the restaurants, the stadiums, the airports and the train stations, all just as crowded as ever - and as lively and buoyant. It's also certainly true that for most of us not, a day goes by without remembering the almost 200 victims of March 11, with pain and a keen awareness that chance, fate and bad luck continue to be as important today as they were in humanity's less foreseeing epochs.
Spain accepts as the U.S. does not, that there really is no worldwide “war on terror” led by our military or anyone else’s. That “war” is a political construct, designed to make us feel like our country is doing something to punish the evil, and, frankly, to gain support for the office-holders of the day. We accept – largely without question by our free press – that it’s the American way, slow to anger, fierce in retribution, noble in peace. We ignore the fact that the war in Iraq has killed ten times the number of human beings than the murderers of 9/11. Somehow we elevate 9/11 to our generation’s Pearl Harbor, and we demand that its victims play out their grief in public, reality-show style, so that society as a whole can bathe itself in glorious pathos.
When Michael Bloomberg invited his party of nominal affiliation to New York this September, he helped to raise the Twin Towers again in the digital music videos that danced across the stage at Madison Square Garden. In embracing 9/11, that convention seemed to ignore the intervening years, the failure of the hunt for bin Laden, the backsliding into anarchy of Afghanistan, the nonexistent links from Saddam’s Iraq to the Saudi killers on American planes on a crisp September workday. The Republicans, I think, know their audience better than the Democrats. Culturally, we love the spectacle of grief, the “behind the Music” formula of success, the fall from glory, and the redemption in the end. We cheer for digital armies of elves, dwarves, and men on horseback battling the dark, inhuman orks that rise from the hellish depths of Mordor to the east and spill across movie screens from coast to coast, setting box office records.
As a society, we only share the shadows of despair – we do not plumb its depths, because we are incapable of doing so. We buy trinkets and posters with images of the World Trade Center; at first, marketers of such doo-dads gave a percentage of sales to charity. Now, it seems, 9/11 has become fully institutionalized as another Valentine’s Day or Fourth of July – we pause, we remember, we buy. I searched for 9/11 on eBay and came up with 4,556 items for sale, including an "NYPD 0/11 Italian charm," "Ground Zero baseball cap," and the "American Pride 9/11 Memorial figurines." As the Daily News reporter Jose Martinez wrote in a great expose yesterday:
The day set aside to mark the nation's losses on 9/11 now comes wrapped in red, white, blue - and green.
A snack-filled "Tower to Celebrate America." Greeting cards. Patriotic pillows. "Iced Cookies for America."
This can't be what President Bush had in mind in 2002, when he designated Sept. 11 as Patriot Day, an annual day of remembrance.
And yet surely, we must have known it would come to this – that the sacred quality that surrounded 9/11 for the last three years would fade, that the fragile depth of a complex painting would gradually compact into a cartoonish line drawing.
And yet grief is fully personal, biologically so. In today’s news, buried inside away from the stories on the Freedom Tower and the annual printed pages that are the roll-call of the dead, are the paid death notices, three years on. Placed by loved ones whose grief is still an open, unhealing slash, these intrinsically middle class, public expressions of mourning and remembrance pack a sickening gut punch that dispatches detached existentialism. There are the pictures of firefighters (in whose heroism, I believe, we find the single, abiding chapter of glory written that day). There are moms, dads, brothers, grandfathers, and children who speak directly and publicly to the dead in tightly-leaded, sans serif, agate type on page 40 of the Saturday tabloid. A simple poem to a fire lieutenant is all the memory - and the shared humanity - that we really need:
There are times that I am angry,
there are times that I am sad,
when I visualize your face & smile,
that is when I'm glad…
There's a hole in my heart
I know we will never be apart.
Yes, it's been three years,
and I've shed many tears.
UPDATE: Here are some takes from other blogs, well worth reading: