EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the September 16, 2002, issue of National Review.
September 11 aroused Americans from a deep coma induced by a long and luxurious calm. On the anniversary of the attack, we should take stock of just how much the world has changed–before we decide upon the nature and means of commemoration. Almost all the assumptions about human nature that were staples of our schools and academic culture have been exploded, and we have returned, sobered, to a more tragic than therapeutic understanding of the human condition.
A half-century of American policy in the Middle East has been found wanting, as we keep 5,000 troops defending a Saudi regime that subsidizes a deadly anti-Americanism. “Allies” in Europe turn out to be merely fair-weather friends who in times of war triangulate and equivocate.
Yet amid this depressing chaos remains the startling American response to the catastrophe of 9/11–the passengers’ heroics on the fourth doomed jetliner, the bravery of the New York firemen and police, the Herculean efforts to clear away in less than a year the debris from the World Trade Center site, and to repair the Pentagon. In early October, the world was talking of the Afghan winter and its warlord culture as the graveyard of foreign armies; by December, the burqas were off and the terrorist thugs in hiding or dead–with a legitimate government in their place. Thousands of Americans in full mobilization across the globe and here at home have thwarted terrorists. All that is something to reflect upon this September 11.
More formally, how can we commemorate our losses? How can we do so in a manner that expresses not merely sorrow, but our resolution that the lives and memory of the dead will not be forgotten?
Our schools, of course, will set aside periods for thought and discussion. But we must hope that such sessions will avoid the politically correct “Why did they do this to us?” hand-wringing that will undermine the solemnity of the occasion and deflect blame from the killers to the innocent. There are 364 days in the year to instruct our children in the beauties of diversity, the mystery of the Koran, collective guilt for the sins of humanity, and pacifism. September 11 is not one of them.
Teachers need not be bellicose or chauvinistic in leading discussions on the unique culture and history of the United States, or in reminding students that those who killed our fellow Americans came from societies where there are no free citizens, no open elections, no independent courts, and no equality for women. Nor were they poor or uneducated–leaving us with the unsettling truth that evil can arise from causes other than ignorance and deprivation.
It might be wise also to reflect on the fact that a free society is not immune to the attentions of retrograde forces such as superstition, tribalism, and the like. If anything, we have learned that our affluence, hospitality, and liberality were magnets to the killers, whose hatred and sense of frustration grew in proportion to their own desires to travel, be schooled, and enjoy the West. Students should be reminded that, if we had no real armed forces–or if we had reduced our military to the levels of Europe–the Taliban would still be in power, al-Qaeda would freely be planning more destruction, and hostile regimes would be providing terrorists with havens, all without worry over American force.
There are probably already too many national holidays, but we should commemorate September 11 for what it was: the worst attack on American citizens on their home soil ever–and a turning point in our national life. The attack was worse than Pearl Harbor, not merely because of the toll of 3,000 dead, but because it struck so unexpectedly at innocent civilians in our major cities, without signs of conventional military tension. In response, on the morning of September 11, 2002, the country should stop all public activities and observe an official period of silence, the first of a yearly institutionalized hour of remembrance.
Numbers and dates carry symbolic weight, which is why battle leaders have often looked to the calendar to find historical resonance–the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month ended World War I; the 100th hour marked the close of the Gulf War. We should choose the eleventh of any of the upcoming months as the proper date to settle with Iraq, thereby reminding the world that the consequences of murder by terrorists are not confined to a few ragtag thugs, but must be borne by regimes that fund such killers and are themselves terror states.
With this in mind, the plans for rebuilding the World Trade Center site should be unveiled on the one-year anniversary of the disaster, with promises of a completion date of, say, September 11, 2004. One hopes for a majestic and iconic building as tall as the collapsed towers, not so much out of brashness, but out of a sense of place and history. A single obelisk-shaped tower might convey the idea that the two fallen buildings are now one in our memory and emphasize that they rose and fell together. The names of the dead, together with an enormous bas-relief portraying the past World Trade Center in its last hours as firemen made their way up the stairs, could, like the Elgin Marbles, lead all around the base of the building.
The nation needs some unifying national symbol of both our loss and our will to resist. I suggest the creation of a new national cemetery in the Washington area. Arlington National Cemetery is facing serious space problems, and is a resting place for veterans. Why not a similar national memorial park for all American heroes–dedicated to the memory of the 9/11 fatalities–with a central tomb commemorating those who perished during the attack? Such a cemetery would not be confined to military personnel, but would serve as a cemetery for Americans with distinguished government service, as well as reporters and civilians who died as a result of the hatred of our national enemies.
Some of the great ideas of Western civilization have been articulated in funeral speeches–what the Greeks called epitaphioi, or words spoken over the dead as summations of national culture. From Pericles’ Funeral Oration to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, leaders have sought to make sense of the loss of life by reflecting upon the larger culture of which the fallen were part. What could President Bush possibly say in a few words that has been left unsaid in some 2,500 years of Western warring and sacrifice? He could remind us that we must not be blinded by the chaff of modernity–the professions of utopian internationalists, the shrill demand for absolute moral perfection, and the trust in cultural relativism and moral equivalence. We should not cower before the charges levied by enemies and friends alike of “unilateralism” and “exceptionalism,” because, in fact, the promotion of freedom and equality is often lonely and exceptional–and so we must wear those intended slurs as badges of honor. Finally, the president should connect our present strivings with those of our past, explaining to Americans that the freedom we enjoy was won with the blood of our ancestors and can be protected only through occasional sacrifice on our part. To fail to do so would be to break faith with all those who died in the filth of Shiloh, Okinawa, and Korea.
In some sense, our present task is harder than that of our forefathers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when poverty, early death, and physical ordeal were daily reminders of the fragility of the human condition. Appreciation of America’s unique greatness came more easily to the families of immigrants and settlers than it does to disconnected suburbanites and office workers. The former felt lucky to wake up in a land where there was food, freedom, and security–blessings the latter take for granted.
For all of our wealth and prosperity, for all of the unfathomable military might that resides in the Pentagon, and for all of the technological know-how that provides our citizens high up in the sky at work with cell phones and instantaneous worldwide communication, we remain, alas, frail human beings. As we saw on September 11, our aspirations can be snuffed out in a second by modern incarnations of our age-old adversaries whose essence remains barbarous and cruel. The only constant, then, in our brief corporal existence is our commitment to values that transcend our materially rich but nevertheless finite lives. And if we are to pass on the civilization that we have inherited, we must remain immune to the sophistry that is the present twin of affluence. The ghastliness of September 11 must somehow provide the spark for a new burst of American faith in consensual government and freedom, both here and abroad. The dead must not have left us in vain.