Remembering Tragedy in an Age of Opportunism

“The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal.”  – C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time” sermon, 1939

Thirteen years after the national tragedy of September 11th, 2001, the United States is struggling to define its global position, and to define its power after years of embroilment in the Mideast. The legacy of the September 11th terrorist attacks has been intimately tied to American foreign policy, and the recurring debate over the justice of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, the legacy of the victims of terrorism has been dragged through controversies over victim’s relief funds and the construction of Islamic cultural facilities. In today’s fractious landscape of media and politics, where is the consensus on 9/11? When “#neverforget” graces social media timelines, what should Americans not forget about 9/11?

First, Americans face a choice to remember the patriotism of the aftermath of the attacks, a national outpouring of support for political decisions followed by a counterattack to the perpetrators of such a horrific crime or instead to recall the humanism of standing on peace, justice and dignity as a show of strength. The 9/11 exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas represents this latter response, showing the deep human injustice of the tragedy. Second, as citizens Americans have the right to support a national response to continued foreign threats: politicians are already posturing around President Obama’s new policy directives around the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The legacy of September 11th should be based on dignity ahead of patriotism. Yes, national solidarity is appropriate, but patriotism gives carte blanche to governments and turns a democracy into a nation of hawks. The “rally ’round the flag” effect is well documented in sudden shifts of public opinion in favor of a sitting government after a crisis. President Bush experienced a 30 point positive swing in approval ratings after 9/11. Yet there is not a partisan bent to crises affecting public support. President Obama’s longtime advisor and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel famously quipped that a crisis should never go to waste at the beginning of the current administration. Americans should be wary of the boundary between what is a human response and what constitutes formal political opinion.

The truest legacy of the tragedy of 9/11 is what remained in my mind as a fifth grader when in disbelief I registered the news reports of the unfolding crisis. The deepest impressions in my memory were not bombings in Kabul but fields in Southwestern Pennsylvania over which airline passengers boldly confronted the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 while reciting the 23rd Psalm. Similarly, the deepest impressions from the Israeli-Iranian rivalry are not threats of nuclear war but one graphic designer’s quest to show love. The deepest impressions of the ISIS hostage crisis is not the execution videos but the call for respect for “People of the Book” by Steven Sotloff’s mother.

Our memories want to feel for a story, a just resolution to the conflict. Our cognitive pathways seek a satisfying conclusion. Why not study what Abraham Maslow called “moral, ethical or saintly people” in seeking that peak of human experience? Why not choose character and goodness of individuals walking the “precipice” between civilization and anarchy as the narrative for 9/11 — the fragile boundary between hatred and reconciliation, between condemnation and forgiveness? If we are looking for a narrative, let’s never forget the firefighters and policemen in New York or the coworkers who carried each other down the stairs of the Trade Center towers as they burned. Honoring the memory of 9/11 means not turning heartbreak into a political program, but into healing.

The best treatment of 9/11 in a story I have seen is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — one boy’s redemptive journey through anger and grief after his father died in the World Trade Center. Perhaps this journey is what Americans need socially. We don’t need the debate over how to handle asymmetric threats from terrorist groups, we don’t need the partisan split over how to respond to ISIS, we don’t need the complex web of loyalties in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to the Kurds to Yazidis. Political and humanitarian questions are salient for political and humanitarian discussions. Today, on September 11th, there should not be a debate, but a recognition that we stand on the precipice of civilization in the looming shadow of our own frailty.

Let’s never forget those who stood bravely on this precipice when, thirteen years ago, four planes attempted to tear it down.

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