“The rage sing, goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles, the accursed rage that brought countless sorrows on the Achaeans and sent down to the House of Death so many great warriors’ souls, and made their bodies carrion…”
NATCHITOCHES, La., September 18, 2011—Millions of us watched UA 175 hit the World Trade Center’s south tower live, in real time. We knew then that America was under attack. We sat glued to our TVs, we learned that other airliners had been hijacked, we watched people plunge from the towers rather than die in smoke and flame, and finally we watched the painful, slow collapse of the WTC towers.
The unfolding horror was for many people numbing. For days, every network and cable station, from ABC to AMC to HGTV to Bravo, showed nothing but the impact on the South Tower, the wreckage at the Pentagon, incredible scenes of devastation in New York, and journalists and experts trying to make sense of it all.
And then came rage.
Rage is a predictable response to atrocity. Anyone who can watch the calculated destruction of thousands of fellow men and women without a sense of outrage is dead inside, and it’s natural for that outrage to be released as wrath. TV gave that destruction a sense of immediacy; it helped us feel like more than just fellow human beings, but fellow Americans, fellow New Yorkers, neighbors and friends. It drew strangers closer, it heightened our outrage. And so it helped marshal quickly our rage.
The destruction of Al Qaeda would be a good thing. The death of bin Laden was nothing to lament. The world would be a better place without the Taliban. But there’s a cost to accomplishing these things in rage. It’s a cost America has paid, and that it will continue to pay.
The rage of Achilles dealt a death-blow to Troy, but as Homer tells us, it “brought countless sorrows on the Achaeans” and turned many of their heroes into carrion. And worse, it made the great hero Achilles into a butcher. He forgot who he was.
If we water-board the thugs of Al Qaeda, we might argue that it’s nothing more than they deserve, and we would probably be right. If the sick entertainments of Abu Ghraib had been perpetrated only on the architects and executioners of Ba’athist brutality, it would have been little more than just. The problem is, though, that those “righteous” acts of retribution and interrogative zeal were performed by men and women who were once as good and decent as any of your neighbors.
Torture makes men and women into objects of force, tortured and torturers alike. It strips its victims of dignity and decency, but we forget that its victims include those who apply it. There’s the rub: Even if those at the receiving end somehow deserve it, do those at the giving end deserve it as well?
This isn’t an argument for pacifism. America’s leaders don’t have the option of just turning the other cheek and hoping that terrorists will see the errors of their ways. There are organizations in this world that have to be understood, then fought and destroyed. Violence is often the only way to achieve that.
The argument is against acting in fear and rage. Troy was doomed, the gods decreed its destruction, but fate did not require the bitterness that Achilles’ rage left in its wake. Decent men would still have gone to war and killed and died, but the legacy need not have included the dark ages that would follow. (Pace, I know it’s just a story and that the dark age of Greece may have had other causes, but there’s more truth in Homer than in any number of history texts.) It need not have included making good men into butchers.
9/11 spawned in America rage and fear. Leaders in government did little to assuage it, sometimes much to enhance it. In so doing they helped us to shrink our moral horizons and contract our sense of community. Out of fear, we permit more to be done to us and our liberties than we ever would have imagined possible ten or 20 years ago, and out of rage we’re more willing to countenance worse against our enemies - real, imagined and potential - than we would once have considered decent.
The rage of America has rained down unimaginable destruction on our enemies, and also on their children and their neighbors, all without bringing any comfort to ourselves. Cycles of hate and retribution, of hurt-and-hurt-back, seem to be the lot of humanity.
Ten years after 9/11, it would be nice to say that some good came from it. The courage displayed on UA 93 is inspiring, as was the dignity displayed by doomed passengers of the other flights. The emergency responders of New York were magnificent that day, and in the days immediately following, New Yorkers belied the stereotypes of the cynical, callous city. Even the city’s political leaders rose to the challenge. The sense of shared humanity in New York City, across the country and around the world was, for the short time it lasted, a thing of beauty.
Then came anthrax fears, Abu Ghraib, no-fly lists and the TSA.
Let us hope that the lasting legacy of 9/11 has not been a lingering fear and the bitter aftertaste of rage. It’s time to let that go and ask, were the benefits of our enraged and fearful response worth the costs? The world isn’t safe; it never will be. Our security is flawed; it always will be. We should embrace the risky state that is life, sometimes with calculated, steely resolve, always with optimism and joy.
I listened last Sunday to the reading of names of 9/11 victims. Texas A&M does something similar every year during “Silver Taps,” and I once spent hours listening to a similar name-reading of Holocaust victims. These rituals preserve memory - reminding us of bonds to people we never knew - and are deeply moving.
The civic rituals of our country and our diverse rituals of faith can, at their best, create bonds of community, and help us heal in times of grief. They expand the social horizons that fear and rage pull inward, reminding us that we are joined in a human web and that our brothers and sisters aren’t just the children of our parents.
Just as it plunged us into war and ripped at our self-confidence, 9/11 also gives us a focal point for remembering who and what we are - a city on a hill and a free people, bound freely in brotherhood, not in force and fear.
So let us remember - that day, those people, why they died, and who we are. And in that memory, we can rejoice.
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