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That eleventh day of September, 2001 was such a terrible day, ten years later I find myself among those Americans who do not want to remember, who wish they could forget.  I went to work late that day, only to encounter a friend in the parking lot who asked me if I’d heard the news.  Hurrying to my office, I found my co-workers frozen in disbelief.  Shortly thereafter my secretary’s phone rang, and after listening briefly in silence, she hung up and announced: “One of the buildings has just collapsed.”  Some years before, our New York City offices were in that tower, and I had worked there.

I went back home then, in shock, and experienced the sickening horror of the day alone, mostly glued to my TV, unable to move away.  Most of us, I think, try to turn away from the face of evil when it presents itself.  On that day I could not.

Today is the eleventh day of September, 2011, a day I have not been looking forward to.  The questions I’ve most frequently seen posed in the run-up to today have been these:  “How have we changed?” and “What have we learned?”   These are decent questions, to be sure, although instinctively I’m not sure I want to try to answer them.  For me, better questions appear to be these: “How might we best have changed?” and “What should we have learned?”

An e-mail arrived this morning reminding me of a beautiful song entitled “Memorial Day,” written by a friend, Denise Jordan Findley, which she has “dedicated to those whose lives were lost, or forever changed due to the unspeakable tragedy on September 11, 2001.”  I played it over and over for a while, and I offer Memorial Day to you now.  This song very poignantly expresses how, I think, we should remember.

This afternoon I watched the women’s final at the U.S. Open, in which Samantha Stosur became only the second Australian woman ever to win this grand slam tournament (the great Margaret Court Smith was the first), in straight sets over Serena Williams. [1] Immediately following the tennis coverage, Sixty Minutes came on, with its special 9/11 edition, and that was followed by a two-hour special, “9/11: 10 Years Later.”

Sixty Minutes basically reminded us that we are fighting terrorism.  The two-hour  special was basically an invitation to relive the entire tragic experience we went through ten years ago.  I didn’t want to watch it, and yet just as on that fateful day I found myself compelled to do so.   I couldn’t watch it all this time, but I didn’t turn away for almost an hour, until I simply couldn’t take any more.

Why this intense, detailed remembrance, ten years after?  What is the point, if not to revive in us the anger, and the sense of alarm and fear of terrorism that so deeply affected us a decade ago?  Is there some other message or reaction that we didn’t have then that this reprise will engender in us now?  I think not.  Are there those who really wanted us to go through this awful experience again, and if so, why?

Today’s editorial in my local newspaper, The Albany Times Union, entitled “Ten years later, a time to reflect”  tiptoes into these icy waters.  It is cautious, at best, in its assessment of the effects on us of the 9/11 attacks, and in its offering of lessons learned:

It has driven us to do things that people should not do — to burn others’ holy books, to call for the abridgment of religious freedom and to spew hatred on the airwaves, on the Internet, from the bully pulpit and on the campaign trail.  *  *  *

It has driven us to do things that a nation should not do — to wage an unnecessary war in Iraq, to torture suspects or sanction their torture abroad, to spy on citizens, to single out people for suspicion and surveillance solely because of their ethnicity or religion.

It has driven us to do things a nation must do — to punish those who attacked us and to thwart those who hope to hurt us again. To wage a just war in Afghanistan, and to take stronger, smarter steps — and yes, often costly and inconvenient ones — to protect ourselves at home.

I am not quite satisfied by this; it feels strangely deflating.  The obligatory recognition of the excesses in America’s reaction to the terrorist attacks seems overly restrained to me, avoiding any real controversy or overt criticism of the American response.  It glosses over, for example, the intense persecution there has since been of Muslims (beyond burning the Koran), the suspension of human rights beyond “merely” torturing suspects illegally, and the numerous prosecutions and incarceration of Muslims in sting operations based on fictitious (non-existent) terrorist plots. [2]

That the Iraq War was “unnecessary” seems to be acknowledged almost in passing, ignoring its enormous cost. [3]   And the claim that the even longer and enormously costly war in Afghanistan is “just” seems casual, and almost flippant, given the enormous controversy over that war and its immense unpopularity.   (Osama bin Laden, after all, was finally tracked down in Pakistan).

To assert as well that all the “costly and inconvenient steps” taken to protect ourselves at home were things “a nation must do” ignores the sheer magnitude of security measures added in places like Albany (especially in access to government buildings) that had never been needed, or even thought to be needed, before 9/11.  [4]

The effects of 9/11 on America and on our collective psyche, by this account, seem greatly understated to me.   The editorial concludes with these lessons learned from 9/11:

So yes, we pause to remember, knowing that when we are done, there are challenges ahead.

The challenge to keep our nation safe.

To reflect on how America interacts with the world. To present a face abroad that is as good and noble as the one we see in our mirror back home.

To keep our eyes and hearts open to the plight of people who don’t enjoy America’s blessings, and to seek the wisdom to know how, and when, to help.

To do our best to create peace abroad.

And to try to find it at home again, too.

These are no doubt intended as humble, and humbling, sentiments.  But we might do well, if we reflect a little deeper on what America has done since 2001, not to speak of seeing such a “good and noble” face “in our mirror back home.”  To continue to look upon ourselves with such an apparently high degree of self-righteousness would seem to require glossing over a great deal about our responses to 9/11, and would suggest to me that we still haven’t learned nearly enough.  To learn any really valuable lessons, in my view, we must be capable of self-criticism.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we might have learned is that if America continues to seek imperialist goals in the world, it will continue to have enemies and to provoke and encourage terrorism.  Only if we have the best interests of the peoples of the world at heart, and they know it, will America be viewed favorably around the world.  The question is whether our powerful corporations, and their plutocratic leaders, have learned that lesson or care to act on it.

The suggestion that we should “keep our eyes and hearts open to the plight of people who don’t enjoy America’s blessings” appears to imply, unfortunately, that we are the lucky ones in the world.  For many of us, myself among them, that is certainly true.   Although it’s not clear, the editors may be acknowledging that millions of Americans don’t actually enjoy America’s blessings today, and to be arguing that we should be doing our best to help them.  If that was their intent, then bravo.

However, if we do not see “the plight of people who don’t enjoy America’s blessings,” when we look in “the mirror back home,” then we are ignoring our growing economic crisis and all of its consequences, including widening inequality, growing poverty, dwindling educational opportunities, and the severe decline of the middle class. How can we learn any valuable lessons from reviewing the events of 9/11, or our reactions to them, if we ignore the impoverishment of Americans going on right before our eyes?

Harvard Medical School researchers, for example, have found  that nearly 45,000 people die in the United States each year — one every 12 minutes — because they lack health insurance and cannot get good care.  “We’re losing more Americans every day because of inaction … than drunk driving and homicide combined,” said Dr. David Himmelstein, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, in an interview with Reuters. [5]

I do think we owe recognition to the victims of 9/11 and to their survivors, and to the heroes who gave so much to save and to try to save lives, and I applaud Yahoo’s   September 11 “Anniversary Profiles”, an impressive and commendable effort.  I have spent some time reviewing these profiles.  I do not think it out of line, however, to point out that the energy for such beautiful and heartfelt efforts as those derives from the commonality of the circumstances in which all of these tragic deaths occurred, and the anger we will always feel toward the terrorists who did this despicable thing.

We likely will not, however, similarly recognize survivors of loved ones who have died in different, less provocative circumstances, even though they miss their departed equally and equally applaud their accomplishments in life.  Thus, for example, we will never see a similar effort to honor those who lost their lives because they could not pay for medical care, even though there are almost 45,000 such deaths every year.  Though the losses are every bit as real to loved ones, we will not so openly or proudly review their accomplishments in life, nor will we collectively empathize with their survivors over the losses they are enduring.  Our collective self-righteous indignation simply has not yet risen to the point that we are willing to condemn those that cause these deaths — at least not so far.  And why not?

Because we ourselves are the perpetrators.

We have only ourselves to blame for these deaths.  We won’t point enraged fingers at these perpetrators, or live in fear of them, or spend billions in efforts to track them down to keep us out of harm’s way. Why not?  Because “they” are “us,” and we simply will not criticize ourselves, or hold ourselves responsible.  For these deaths, we see no need for eulogies, for special commendations, or for any kind of collective special consideration.

So I offer once more Denise Jordan Findlay’s beautiful song “Memorial Day,” the song she dedicated to the memory of 9/11, and invite you to listen to it again.  Her song reminds me that we are all victims of 9/11, and that so we shall remain, possibly never learning all that we should from this tragedy.

JMH – 9/11/11


[1] Alas, appreciation of Stosur’s magnificent accomplishment was somewhat marred by CBS Sports’ seemingly endless coverage of an unusual, controversial call made by the umpire in the second set, and how it affected the players.  We seem drawn to controversy, don’t we, no matter what?  But that’s not how I want to remember that match… and I won’t!

[2] See today’s  Muslim Observer.  For a more complete review of the sting operations, see this comprehensive report of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University’s School of Law, Targeted and Trapped.  See also Entrapping innocent Muslims, and Report says FBI baited Newburgh 4.

[3] The costs, almost incalculable, beyond the normal costs of war and occupation, include the enormous loss of American and Iraqi lives, and the heavy costs imposed on the health care and criminal justice systems by returning physically and psychologically wounded troops.

[4] In my agency, locks were placed on all the floors, and maps of gas and transmission line systems were removed from the walls, even after the doors on each floor were locked.  This seemed over the top, especially when it became clear that most of these same maps, and even some maps offering greater detail on the location and design of power generating facilities, generally were available for purchase by anyone on the internet.

[5] A 2009 study links 45,000 annual U.S. deaths to a lack of insurance: USA Healthcare Deaths.  Overall, researchers said, American adults age 64 and younger who lack health insurance have a 40 percent higher risk of death than those who have coverage.

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