The Church Of September 11th

David Moats did some hard thinking on Oliver Stone‘s World Trade Center. “[I]t occurred to me that the problem with the movie is that five years later we remain stuck in the moment. We haven’t really moved on.”

We’ve not been able to move on from 911 because we’re still mired in the mistakes that followed from 911. Many people responded with bravery, including the service men and women who found themselves caught up in one struggle or another. But too many of our leaders responded with fear — that they might be blamed, that they didn’t have a grip, that enemies were everywhere.

The only way we can make 911 part of the past is to stand up to our fears, to meet what lies ahead with courage, and also with wisdom and compassion.

Elsewhere, David Weinberger speaks of “congregants at the church of the WTC,” taking note of the language — “this hallowed ground” — used in some of the stories of September 11th and the collapse of the World Trade Center.

The attack on the World Trade Center was a despicable act of mass murder. As is true for too many of us, people I know lost loved ones there. But those deaths did not make the ground sacred. There’s something dangerous and unseemly about referring to it as such: Unseemly because it implies that the lives that were stolen need a special nimbus of grace to be valued; dangerous because imbuing a horrible crime with religious significance puts it within the realm where the murderers want it. They want a jihad. It’s real important that we not give them one.

And I’ve got to thank William J. Dobson for swimming against the stream when he claims 9-11 was “the ay nothing much changed.”

Certainly, for some, there could not have been a more life-changing moment. Collectively, we feared what was about to end. Globalization would surely grind to a halt. Borders—in particular, the need to maintain them—would undergo a renaissance as governments looked to shield themselves from the next attack. Global trade, capital flows, and immigration could no longer be what they once were. National economies would cool, as the realization of a “clash of civilizations” grew hot. Industries like tourism and air travel would be crippled.

Shocked and stung as we were by the tragedy of that day, we understood that something terrible had happened. We felt changed and we expected more change to come, but Dobson puts it into a perspective few others have:

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were theatrical terrorism of the worst kind. But, even in an age when image usually trumps substance, the tragic drama of that day did not usher in a new era. No, if there was a day that changed the world forever, it was 15 years ago, not five. New Year’s Eve, 1991. It was on that day, far away from any cameras, that the Soviet Union finally threw in the towel, dissolving itself and officially bringing an end to the Cold War. From that moment on, the United States reigned supreme — “the sole superpower,” “the hyperpower,” “the global hegemon,” call it what you like. And from that moment on, the world was out of balance—and it still is. The tragedy of 911 was a manifestation of the unipolar disorder the world had already entered a decade earlier. A day after 911, we were still living in the post-Cold War era, we still are today, and that is precisely the problem.

Pax Americana, as it turns out, carries a price. Meanwhile, Dobson reminds us that the newspapers on the morning of September 11th carried stories about Israeli tanks in the West Bank, Iran’s nuclear program (or their denial of it), and a call for more stem-cell research. In short, the things that troubled us then still trouble us now.

What has changed since then was the US invasion and occupation of Iraq under the pretense of rooting out terrorists and WMD, a new policy of abuse and torture of prisoners, spying on US citizens at home and other infringements on our civil liberties and well-being.

I, like so many people, can’t hear mention of the events of September 11th without remembering the pain I felt at the time. And, like the commentators quoted here, I want us to look carefully at how we got there and what we’ve done since.