September 4, 2003
Sept. 11 Still Roils Our Nation’s Heritage
Anniversaries take on lives of their own. The further from the original event, the more laden they become with symbolism, meaning and portent.
Since the tempo of our time is fast, even abrupt, it's not surprising that since Sept. 11, 2001, we've backed away from the stomach-churning horror of that day.
We had to. You go insane if you keep tumbling over the same precipice forever. How we've shrouded and protected ourselves is of question, not the need to shroud.
Last year, I was in New York on the first anniversary of Sept. 11. The city was quiet, subdued, still reeling from the events that had changed it forever or so everyone thought. Yet people were being buffeted by gusts, inside and out -- winds blowing down the streets at 60 mph matched the whirlwinds inside every New Yorker, whirlwinds of fear, of loss and, yes, of hate.
Somehow, this must be stilled. If not, we wither and die.
E.B. White, in his prescient essay, "Here Is New York," first published in 1949, looked into a post-Hiroshima future and saw a city that, "for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now...."
White was smart. He'd once lived in New York; at the time he wrote "Here Is New York," he was living in Maine, as safe from Gehenna as you could be. But there are many forms of hell, and maybe the worst is the one that we absorb and that lives inside of us -- a hell that you can't escape, not even by moving to Maine.
Sept. 11 is that kind of hell. That may be why we have yet to decipher and sort it out. And why we may never be able to.
Thanatologists like to talk about the various stages of death, starting with denial and anger, moving through bargaining and depression and ending, for some of us, with acceptance. We couldn't deny Sept. 11. It was replayed over and over again on television. But we can't accept it, either, and we shouldn't.
That leaves us on ground that is unstable, malleable and ripe for opportunists, of whom there are many. Civil liberties are being trumped by "security," foreign relations by unilateralism and sense and sensibility by runaway jingoism -- the fruits of fright and confusion. Reason, reflection, moderation have retreated to the vestibule of public life.
That blow to discourse may be the most corrosive and the most lingering casualty of Sept. 11. This is not to minimize the many lives lost two years ago, but we do not need a rerun of Palmer Raids or McCarthyism. That cowboyism, jingoism, damn the Bill of Rights-ism surfaced so swiftly and so tenaciously after Sept. 11 makes me wonder whether turning us into our own worst enemies was the true goal of Muhammad Atta and his 18 pals.
The buildings crumbled and the bodies fell, and the emotional blow coast to coast was immediate and devastating. But more invisible, and maybe more effective, was the blow to our civic integrity, our national heritage, our communal raison d'être.
If we forget why we exist as a country, if we spurn the founders' principles and vision, then our tongues, as the psalmist wrote in another context, will cleave to the roofs of our mouths. Or worse, and more subtly, as Job moaned, "Oh, that my grief were thoroughly weighed and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now, it would be heavier than the sand of the sea; my words are swallowed up!"
Our words and our beliefs are not yet swallowed. We still hear them -- if we strain. But amid the current clang and clutter, our words -- words of justice, words of truth, words that truly mark us as Americans -- are harder to notice and harder to heed.
Arthur J. Magida is writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is "The Rabbi and the Hit Man" (HarperCollins).