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September 11, 2002


I remember thinking with chagrin at one point that my web site was full of now-irrelevant news on a day which had become so tragic. Then I was ashamed; worrying about my web site at all felt disrespectful. You think funny things in moments of stress.

The web was actually a great help to me in the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Television news was there, of course, but they mostly spent their time re-airing footage and finding new ways to say “Tragedy struck (city) today, as…” It was depressing how quickly they had graphics and theme songs and slogans (“America Under Attack”, “America Strikes Back”, “America’s New War”). But the web, particularly the portion of it run by individuals, spoke in a human voice. It speculated, it reacted, it expressed sympathy. Some called for war or revenge, others for caution.

It is still amazing to see how blood-thirsty some commentators were. There was talk of nuking Afghanistan, or a massive campaign to kill Arab leaders and convert their people to Christianity. (Seriously! I think it was Ann Coulter, but I don’t have a reference handy.)

I’m not going to speak about the tragedies themselves. I wasn’t there. I didn’t lose anyone. The direct impact on me has been minimal. Chances are, you can come up with a memorial just as good as whatever I’d come up with, and I’m sure that television, radio, newspapers, magazines, various web sites, and myriad government officials will offer their thoughts. For me, the eleventh day of September will always have a solemn cast, even as the immediacy fades over time. (An earlier entry discusses my immediate reactions.)

Instead, I’d like to talk about what has happened since the attack. This won’t be a complete list, but I’m hoping to hit the major issues.

Obviously, the attacks inspired our metaphorical war on terrorism. (Administrations love metaphorical wars, because they can use war rhetoric to justify their actions without having to actually request a declaration of war or even define a specific enemy or victory condition.) We successfully overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan, but captured none of the major terrorist figures. We have captured three hundred prisoners, but our government refuses to treat them as criminals or prisoners or war, stating that they are terrorists but refusing to list charges or evidence. How probable is it that the military made no mistakes when rounding up these people? That not one person in Camp X-Ray is innocent? The longer the government refuses to acknowledge this possibility, the more embarrassing it will be.

Meanwhile, the next stop in our war on terrorism is apparently Iraq—which is convenient, as the administration wanted to attack Iraq anyway. Leaving aside all the questions of security and international law, let me ask this: Should we get into this while Afghanistan is still a mess? Yeah, the Taliban is gone, but now the country is run by warlords. You may remember the warlords: they were the ones who ran the country so badly that the Afghani welcomed the Taliban. If our goal in overthrowing the Taliban was anything other than revenge, it was to make sure that Afghanistan was not so miserably screwed up that it became a haven for terrorists. Have things improved in Afghanistan? The signs I’ve seen are not hopeful.

After the attacks, some warned that they would be used as an excuse to reduce or eliminate certain civil liberties. It seems they were right, according to this Associated Press summary. The ability to hold people without charges simply by saying a magic word (“Terrorism!”) is the scariest power a government can have. Particularly in an administration as prone to secrecy and coverups as this one.

The tragedies have been exploited for political and commercial purposes, but not on a large scale, thankfully. The emptiest gesture I can think of is the proposal to change the name of Newark International Airport to Liberty International Airport in Newark. If you’re going to rename something as a memorial, shouldn’t the new name have something to do with what you’re memorializing? And how exactly does renaming an airport—even one tangentially involved in the tragedy—honor the memory of those who died?

That’s actually why I’m not taken with the idea of making September 11 a holiday (or day of memorial, or whatever). Those of us who lived through it will always mark the date; those who did not will never understand it in the same way. I don’t want this day to become an excuse for barbecues and car sales. Consider this: Did you think about those who gave their lives for us in several wars last Memorial Day? How much attention do you pay to the plight of the worker on Labor Day? Independence Day has remained somewhat connected to its origins, even among people who mostly see it as an occasion for fireworks, but it is a celebratory event remembering an act of creation, not destruction. I don’t want September 11 to become Liberty Day and be observed on the closest Monday with a three-day weekend and tire sales.

This is becoming more of a rant than I had anticipated, but perhaps that’s frustration. There was a lot of talk about how we had changed forever—which we knew was absurd even at the time—but sometimes it seems that the good changes have faded while many of the bad ones are still with us.

I don’t want to sound like I hate everything the Bush administration does. The war in Afghanistan was handled well, by all accounts. Not perfectly, of course, but perfection is an unreasonable standard. I don’t want to sound like I’m in league with those in the “Blame America” camp. I don’t blame America for the attack. I blame the terrorists. Yeah, America’s actions in the past contributed to the terrorist movement which eventually struck in New York, but that doesn’t make it our fault. That sort of blame-the-victim argument is just as inappropriate here as it is in a rape case. When I call for us to understand why the terrorists attacked, it’s not because I want to excuse what they did. There is no excuse for ramming planes into skyscrapers. Understanding is important because it might help us reduce the chances of this happening in the future. Insight into the enemy can be a key factor in victory.

But September 11 is not about whether the government is doing a good job fighting terrorism, nor is it about tacky souvenirs or elevated states of alert, nor is it about the televised retrospectives that I plan to avoid. September 11 is about a terrible, pre-meditated thing that happened. It wasn’t the worst thing that happened ever, or even in the last year, but that doesn’t make it less terrible. Let’s try to recognize its anniversary with the solemnity it deserves. #