I remember where I was that day. Of course I do. Who over the age of 20 doesn’t? This was the most recent Pearl Harbor, the newest JFK Assassination – if you were alive and old enough to know about the world beyond your friends and neighborhood, you remember what happened. I’ve been through three of those events in my 45 years, and I’m not sure why the other two qualified for that level but they did. I remember where I was when I found out that Reagan had been shot. I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up. And I remember 9/11.
It was a tragedy of mind-numbing proportions. The slaughter of the innocent always is.
About two weeks after the events I sent out a survey to about a hundred people – basically the mailing list for the updates on my first blog, which was a more focused and less frequent affair than this one. Where were you when you found out? When did you realize it was so serious? What did you do the rest of the day? What sticks with you from that day more than anything else? Basic questions, focused on the specifics of human experience.
Comedy can be broad. Tragedy is always specific.
I got an overwhelming number of responses to that survey, and rather than send out a compilation as an email – as was my original intent – I posted them as a web page. It’s still out there, if you know where to look. I found myself reading it last week.
It is still surprisingly raw.
The final question of the survey was something along the lines of “What do you think you will say to someone thirty years from now when they ask you what it was like?” As with the other questions, the answers were thoughtful. What impressed me, though, was that they were also surprisingly hopeful – there were a great many responses that talked about how the US would be changed forever, how it brought us together, how there would be a silver lining even in a cloud that dark.
It didn’t work out that way.
The innocent dead were immediately put to work for partisan advantage. They were used to justify not one war – a war that was at least related to their deaths – but two, the second being that Freudian farce of a conflict in Iraq, where the Honorable Runner-Up in the White House sought to outdo what his daddy had tried a decade earlier. They were made the excuse to gut the Constitution and the rights that the Founding Fathers had placed in there for the protection of the citizens, ironic since the Honorable Runner-Up in the White House made such a big deal about how the innocent dead were murdered because of our freedoms and then went to such great lengths to take those freedoms away. And perhaps most shamefully, they were prostituted as political campaign fodder.
I think the final straw for me was when the Honorable Runner-Up in the White House came out with a campaign commercial for his second try at winning a majority of the votes, a commercial that prominently featured the New York City firefighters marching bravely to their duties and their deaths, as if their heroism and sacrifice somehow justified his sordid ambitions.
There are things that are sacred.
There are things that cross lines that should never be crossed. There are things that are unforgivable. There are things that cannot be undone. “Have you no decency, sir?” Robert Welch once asked another political opportunist, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
And the answer, on both occasions, was no.
The honored dead are not honored by being made into tawdry political symbols. They weren’t there to be heroes. They were just going about their lives and were murdered in the name of political fanaticism. And we responded with fanaticism of our own.
I am not convinced that sinking to that level was the proper response.
Nor am I convinced that the use of the innocent dead as political cudgels to beat dissenters and enforce a narrow, ideologically charged patriotism is worthy of commemoration.
Ten years later I remain sickened by the horror of that tragedy. And I am no less sickened by the way that tragedy has been twisted to suit our increasingly fanatic, ideologically extreme partisan politics. We have not changed forever, nor for the better, and reading the answers to my survey today, a decade after the fact, was an exercise in lost hopes and the bitter taste of opportunities squandered.
I will remember the innocent dead on this day – the specific individuals, men and women with families, with stories, with lives brutally cut short in the name of other people’s extremism. I will remember them and I will mourn.
But I will not commemorate this political monstrosity called “9/11.”
No, I will not.