WASHINGTON, September 11, 2013 — The destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon worked a profound change on America. It hasn’t all been for the better.
Morning news shows that day broke from their normal chatter to report that a plane, probably a private plane, had struck the WTC north tower, but details were sketchy. News cameras were rushed to the site, and they were running when UA 175 hit the south tower.
Millions of us watched the strike on the 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 agonizing collapse of the WTC towers.
Numb shock unfolded into horror. For days, it seemed that every network and cable station, from ABC to Bravo to HGTV to Fox, showed the same thing: We saw that plane hit the south tower over, and over, and over again. The towers collapsed, over, and over, and over again. Every channel showed the wreckage at the Pentagon, incredible scenes of devastation in New York, and journalists, politicians and military experts trying to make sense of it all.
The horror unfolded into rage.
Rage is a fair 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 outrage to boil into wrath. Television gave the 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 together and it heightened our sense of outrage.
And so it helped quickly to marshal our rage.
The destruction of al-Qaeda would be a good thing. The death of bin Laden was nothing to regret. 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 continues to pay.
“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…”
The rage of Achilles dealt a death-blow to Troy, but as Homer tells us, it “brought countless sorrows on the Achaeans” and turned countless heroes into carrion. And worse, it made the great hero Achilles into a butcher.
In his rage, he forgot about decency and honor, he lost all sense of justice, he forgot who he was.
If we water-board the thugs of al-Qaeda, it may be no more than they deserve. If the sick entertainments of Abu Ghraib had been perpetrated only on the architects and executioners of Ba’athist brutality, it would have been only just. The problem, though, is that those just acts of retribution and interrogative zeal were performed by men and women who were once as good and decent as any of your neighbors.
How do you torture a man and remain good and decent?
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 problem: Even if those who are tortured deserve to be tortured, do their torturers deserve to be torturers?
Do good men and women deserve to be made into killers?
This is no 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; Fate decreed its destruction. Fate did not demand that the victors make themselves into monsters in the process. It did not require the bitterness that the rage of Achilles left in its wake.
Decent men would still have gone to war and killed and died, but the destruction of Troy did not demand making good men into butchers.
9/11 spawned in America a season of rage and fear. Leaders in government did little to reduce it, and sometimes much to enhance it. In so doing, they helped us to shrink our moral horizons and contract our sense of community.
That brief moment of unity that joined Americans with each other and with the world was replaced with suspicion. Out of fear, we now permit more to be done to us and our liberties than we ever would have imagined possible 12 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, but also on their children and their neighbors, all without bringing any comfort to ourselves. Cycles of hate and retribution seem to be the lot of humanity.
Twelve years after 9/11, it would be nice to say that some good came from it. The courage displayed on UA 93 was 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. The NSA follows in their legacy.
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.
Abandoning rage, embracing peace
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the names of all the victims were read in an hours-long memorial. Texas A&M University does something similar every year during “Silver Taps,” and there have been name-readings of Holocaust victims that have involved people all over the world.
These rituals preserve memory — reminding us of bonds to people we never knew — and they are often deeply moving.
The civic rituals of our country and our diverse rituals of faith can, at their best, reforge 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 are all men and women, not 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 remembering, let us find peace.
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