Reflections on 9/11

"For every attitude that is supposed to be distinctively American one can find an opposite stance that is no less so0‡7 There is no such thing as an essentially American world view0ˆ5anymore than there is an essentially American landscape. Anyone who thinks otherwise shows they have not grasped the most important fact about America, which is that it is unknowable."

-John Gray, Granta

As I commuted to work this morning, I pondered how today should be special. I didn't want to watch television all day, as I did one year ago. I did not suspect shocking new terrorist attacks on the anniversary of September 11; only a solemn and commercial-free live broadcast from New York, Pennsylvania and Washington marked by moments of silence, long lists of names and news anchors repeating clich0—5s about the enormity of the tragedy and how we've all come together. The tragedy of 9/11 has already sunk in for me. A four-hour television special event won't make it sink in any more.

I decided that I'd mark the anniversary by posting an entry to this weblog. My thesis would be a reconciliation of the idea that '9/11 changed everything' and 'nothing has changed since 9/11' (as Margaret put it). Things have changed; for the victims families and for Afghanis. There has been extensive public debate on virtually every aspect of the government's response to 9/11 (evidenced by the Op/Ed page in any major newspaper). Many U.S. citizens have personally reflected on the attacks, America's repsonse and the morality of our "war on terror" (evidenced by webloggers).

On the other hand, some things remain the same. The power-mongers of the executive branch of government infringe our civil liberties and rally the people into blind patriotism around an ill-conceived war of ideologies. Mass media sensationally and relentlessly cover the tragedy, glorifying 'every-day heroes' and talking about the renewed American need for authenticity. I agree with one Slashdot reader who points out that there have been backlashes to our civil liberties, but they are less drastic than they have been for other wars. (In response to that comment, I refer you to Susan Sontag's critique of the difference between a real and a metaphorical war.)

My train of thought was interrupted when a 9-year-old girl was asked on NPR how she felt about September 11.
"I'm really mad. They only used one bomb against us, and we're using lots of bombs against them. That's not fair."
It actually made me teary-eyed.

At work, an announcer came over the loud speaker at 8:46 calling employees to observe a moment of silence, marking the time when the first plane hit the World Trade Towers. After we returned to work, I began a discussion with my boss, Dale, about Ashcroft infringing our civil liberties. Historically, I said, we've taken away liberties during wartime only to regret it later. Therefore, we shouldn't take away freedoms now, regardless of how tempting it may be.
He said, "Why don't you tell the families of the victims that we can't prosecute the terrorists because of their civil rights?"
I replied that he should tell the innocent man in jail that he's in jail to protect the families of victims of future terrorist acts.

It was lively banter until he offhandedly asked if I voted in the New York primaries yesterday. I had not. Then he literally refused to speak to me because I didn't exercise my right to vote. It was hugely hypocritical of me to bitch and moan about civil liberties, and on the other hand not exercise my basic right to vote0ˆ5to put actual force behind my words.

Dale had owned a bar for 26 years, so he had endured his share of complainers. With obvious disappointment, because he respected me, he included me with the thousands of impotent, cowardly complainers he had argued with in the past.

Somewhat indignant, I continued encouraging him to debate me, as we had done on previous occasions about politics. In my tactful argument style, I accused him of blind patriotism and using clich0—5d rhetoric to support unjust government action.

Then he really went rip-shit on me and talked about his friends dying in Vietnam to preserve our freedom, while I sat there, a bored, apathetic gadfly who didn't even vote. He was quite mad, so I didn't argue back. I didn't feel I had grounds to either.

If I didn't put my vote where my mouth was, at least I could put my money there. When I got home from work, I donated two days wages to join the ACLU and the EFF. It's not a huge deal, but it's something.

After that argument, I wondered if there were any causes that I would be willing to die for. The only one I could think of was my family. I wouldn't die for my country or an ideology. Does that make me a coward?

Later that day, Dale came up and apologized for getting angry over our debate, and said that he respects me. I said he had no need to apologize, and that he was right in many ways. He agreed that I too was right about the necessity of preserving our liberties.

On the way home, again listening to NPR, UC Berkeley Professor John Mcwhorter spoke about how patriotism is considered tacky by the intellectual class (RealAudio link, about 5 minutes into section 11). The affluent intellectuals criticize Americanism because of our 'white guilt', even though we still enjoy the luxuries of living in America.

All I can think to say is that American culture, balancing security and liberty and Middle East conflicts are very complicated. We are right to call for public debate. Inaction risks the lives of victims of future terror attacks, but we should err on the side of acting slowly and justly, rather than acting swiftly and recklessly.

Constant vigilance is the price of freedom.

See also:

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