September 9, 2009
A few weeks after Sept. 11, I visited the site of the wreckage with a group of Jewish journalists. The makeshift museum that had sprung up along the perimeter fence — photos, snapshots, handmade “Have You Seen Her?” posters, flowers and toys — was as tragic as anything I’ve ever seen.
Thinking back to that day, the memory feels unreal, otherworldly.
Our guide was Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, an Orthodox-ordained leader of CLAL, a cross-denominational national organization for Jewish learning and leadership. Hirschfield allowed us to sit, stunned, on a bench in Battery Park, to gather our wits. Society, he assured us, would begin to find a way to incorporate this massive, life-altering historic event into its collective memory. Jewish tradition, which has cornered the market on how to mark disaster, would be a guide for society at large. We would help find the liturgy and rituals that would ensure that Sept. 11 and its lessons would never be forgotten.
Well, we didn’t and they have been.
The news just from the last few weeks shows that whatever outrage and vigilance the terror attacks should have inspired has gone flaccid.
On Aug. 21, the Libyan agent convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing returned home from a Scottish prison. Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill released Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi on “compassionate grounds,” because the 57-year-old had prostate cancer. On his arrival in Tripoli, al-Megrahi received a hero’s welcome and was feted days later at the celebrations marking Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s 40th year in power. The world was outraged, but not for long.
This week, the Iranian parliament approved President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nominee for defense minister — Ahmad Vahidi — a man wanted in the 1994 AMIA Jewish center bombing in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people. The world was outraged at Vahidi’s nomination, but not for long.
I’d like to be able to predict that it’s only a matter of time before a memorial to Sept. 11 rises in some Muslim country honoring the hijackers. But that already happened — in London, England. In 2003, the radical Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun organized an event honoring “The Magnificent 19.” The fact that the group was subsequently banned by the British government, in 2005, has been well reported. What hasn’t been reported is that this past June, the group relaunched its activities.
“We would like to declare that after almost 15 years since the establishment of Al-Muhajiroun, and five years since its disbandment,” the Web site reads, “Al-Muhajiroun is to be relaunched in the United Kingdom and to resume its activities as normal.”
Eight years since Sept. 11, America is still trying to beat back an Islamist tide in Afghanistan and Iraq, still trying to find Osama bin Laden and still dependent on Middle East oil.
The world was outraged, but not for long.
I’m assuming that finding a way to remember Sept. 11 will necessarily increase the chances that society will identify extremists, stand up to them and commit to policies that make us less vulnerable to them. But I know there’s some wishful thinking in that. Sept. 11 has become as heavily politicized as Glenn Beck’s tears.
This week the right is using Sept. 11 to bash President Barack Obama for trying to mark the anniversary with a day of service — is there anything more socialist than volunteering! — and the left is using it to re-attack George W. Bush for following Sept. 11 with a war in Iraq. The moderate left and right are using “the lessons of 9/11” to justify the extent of American involvement in Afghanistan, while the loony left and right come together in pushing any number of conspiracy theories over what happened that day. Google Sept. 11, and the first page of results has more about the conspiracies than about the victims or the lessons.
Meanwhile, polls show that Americans, while acknowledging the day’s impact, are at a loss at how to mark it. A 2007 USA TODAY/Gallup Poll found that while 71 percent of Americans called Sept. 11 the most memorable news event of their lifetime, only 6 percent said they would observe the anniversary in a formal way. Since 2007, the number of events, and the media’s coverage of them, has only dwindled.
America, the scholar Edward Linenthal pointed out, doesn’t do anniversaries on off years. Strange as this may seem for a nation founded in 1776, our collective memory works better in 0s and 5s. We prefer even numbers.
That means that in two years, the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 will see a resurgence, if not a surfeit, of ceremony and memorial. And that gives the Jewish community an opportunity to begin developing a Sept. 11 liturgy and ritual for use on the 10th anniversary that will still be powerful on the 100th, that will see that the lessons aren’t lost and the sense of moral outrage is forever renewed. It’s a tall order, but here we are about to mark the creation of the world, after 6,000 years. We know from memorials, and we should help make sure the world gets this one right.
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