It's going to be a long week of 9/11 retrospectives. Some will be thoughtful, moving and/or eloquent. Others will be sentimental and/or jingoistic.
I'm puzzled by how many remembrances admonish us to "Never forget," as if that terrible day weren't seared into our brains forever. Absent a diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease, how could any of us who are old enough to remember 9/11 ever forget it?
I suspect that some of the calls to "Never forget" are more about justifying everything that's happened since 9/11. Well, I don't buy that.
9/11 doesn't justify torture. 9/11 didn't justify the invasion of Iraq. 9/11 didn't justify the orgy of consumption in the 2000s which we are paying for now. 9/11 didn't justify the maligning of Islam, a noble religion practiced by a billion people. 9/11 doesn't justify continuing to fight in Afghanistan, propping up a corrupt government long after the architect of 9/11 has gone onto his eternal reward--such as it is.
What I will remember about 9/11, aside from the sheer horror of the day, is how badly we handled it. When we looked to our leaders to rally us in the face of evil, all they could come up with was, "Go shopping." Living well is the best revenge, they say, so living large must be so much the sweeter!
Like sheep we obeyed. The 2000s were the decade of the McMansion and the Hummer, conspicuous consumption on a truly baroque scale. Why, we made the Greed Is Good 80s look like an era of Puritan restraint.
And that's partly why we're in the mess we're in. Take away easy credit and cheap energy, and McMansions and Hummers will put you in the poor house. People have talked about bin Laden's goal of bankrupting America. He's come close, but indirectly, not by miring us in a land war in Asia, but by miring us in second homes in Vegas that we could never afford.
I'll also remember this decade's unique cast of incompetent and immoral public servants. The boomers have MacNamara and Nixon and Kissinger; the Gulf of Tonkin and My Lai. Gen Xers have Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld; WMDs in Iraq and Abu Ghraib.
Young men join the military for a variety of reasons--love of country, hatred of the enemy, a scholarship, a paycheck, to see the world or test oneself in extremis. Some of these reasons are valid, others less so. But what we must never forget is that old men start wars for a variety of reasons--national security, fears real or imagined, vanity, ignorance, vengeance, meanness, lies. This seems to hold whether the cause is just or unjust. And every young man or woman needs to consider that before joining the military. I will not forget to tell my sons that unpleasant truth once they come of age.
I will also tell my sons that patriotism cannot be reduced to military service, for that would call into question the patriotism of the overwhelming majority of Americans who've never donned a military uniform--a strange proposition. I will tell them what the World War II vet John F. Kennedy said, "War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today."
We owe members of the military love and respect as human beings created in God's image and capable of extraordinary courage. We also owe it to them that we do not send them into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary. We owe them adequate health care to heal their injured bodies and minds. We owe to ourselves and to them the work of making the society they've pledged to defend more just and equitable. On all these counts, we failed them over the past ten years. We shouldn't forget that.
We shouldn't forget that the evil of the terrorists rubbed off on us. There's no consensus on torture in our society today, thanks to the illegal acts and fearmongering of our elected leaders, aided and abetted by the media. The Viet Cong water-boarded our POWs. If we'd won that war, we'd have convicted their leaders and generals for war crimes that ex-Bush administration officials brag about in their memoirs.
History won't forget. History will judge them harshly, and judge us all the more because we failed to hold them accountable. After all, it's not as if America at the turn of the 21st century is a feudal state, lacking the institutions and mentalities to protect human rights and due process. We're without excuse.
I also will remember how inadequate "our" religion has been in the face of "their" evil. We Christians seem to have had three choices this past decade:
- The crusader mentality of the religious right.
- The shrill hectoring of liberal Protestantism.
- The "I'm so over politics" pose of the communitarians.
Roman Catholics have been on the sidelines, first paying lawyers to strong-arm victims of abuse and their families and then paying out to the same.
The religious right is quite wrong about bin Laden representing Islam. They're quite wrong to want to dish out in the name of Christ the same type of treatment Christ received in their favorite snuff film The Passion. Liberals are right about consumerism and militarism, but no one's listening. Blame it on the low Christology, I suppose.
Communitarians are right that that church needs to re-group before it re-engages, lest it lose its soul, but they never get around to engagement. In fact they poo-poo it. It's no accident that thoughtful young Evangelicals flock to Hauerwas. Evangelicalism careens between Theocracy and Quietism. Hauerwas's ouvre is really a "thick Quietism" that gives young Evangelicals a way to choose the path not taken by their Moral Majority parents without succumbing to a "Just Me and Jesus" sentimentality. But it doesn't give them a way to tell obvious truths like, "Election results matter."
Christians are ill-equipped to humanize politics these days.
Finally, we should remember the dead and their loved ones and friends. Remembering the dead is one thing that makes us human. And as the scripture says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep." But that should go without saying, shouldn't it?
If I sound bitter it's because I am. And yet, what right have I to be bitter? As Matt Yglesias is fond of pointing out, ours are the best times in human history. Is bitterness a conceit of the privileged?
I don't think so. Lamenting mistakes, missed opportunities and unnecessary death is appropriate, even given our relative comfort and affluence.
But despite all the stupidity and nefariousness of the past decade, some good things have happened. Americans put aside their age-old prejudices and elected a black man President. Quite apart from our bombs, Arabs are demanding democracy and reshaping their societies. Who knows how it will turn out? For the best, I pray.
Providence has its own tale to tell apart from the depressingly familiar narratives in the headlines and history books. We shouldn't forget that, either.