Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Tenth Anniversary

Today America observes the tenth anniversary of the day that sudden death and the tangible possibility of spectacular murder-suicide entered our consciousness forever. With elaborate and beautiful ceremonies this country marks the event in all its pain and glory, all its loss and hope, all its death and rebirth. It's all about us. That was kind of the problem in the first place.

9-11-01 was a wasted teachable moment. If the president had come out of his trance in that school room and said something wise and insightful to a shocked nation instead of cheerleading for revenge in echo of popular sentiment the nation might actually have been united by the experience.

To be fair, for a few minutes that morning I myself wanted to nuke the troublesome areas of the world until they were a sheet of volcanic glass. I got caught up in the flood of nasty possibilities that a truly effective terrorist network could have prepared to unleash. Why should we have expected a mere human leader to transcend the human response to a serious threat?

The 9-11 attacks joined us to a world where tragic, nasty things happen more frequently, on a less cinematic scale. It was a time when we could have felt not only an insular connection to our fellow citizens but a wider connection to all people similarly wronged everywhere. It could have been a time to examine our human relationship to life and killing, not just a specific fight between certain adversaries. The stated motives for the attacks, and the willingness to die to commit them, highlight the philosophical difference between people who want to enjoy this life and those who only care to leave it in such a way that they earn some sort of cosmic reward that no one can prove exists. The believers believe with every fiber of their being. In a case like that some will say that how one lives matters much less than why one dies, and for whom.

Death surrounds life. We come from a place we can't remember. At some point, each and every one of us leaves for a place of similar mystery. Is there blackness, oblivion? Is there heaven and hell? Paradoxically, some of those who believe that the real action takes place in the eternal afterlife make all kinds of trouble during their brief mortal span over injustices that are guaranteed to be temporary, just as life itself is temporary. None of it really makes sense. It merely justifies the unfortunate human propensity to lash out angrily and hurt or kill someone. That anger may be a brief, passionate flash or a long, slow-burning smolder. Not everyone feels it to the same degree. But those who do feel it are capable of inflicting vast amounts of unnecessary suffering into a world already well supplied.

Terrorism wins the battle to take lives because taking lives is pathetically easy. There are too many ways to kill and walk away. That number goes up exponentially when the killer no longer wants to walk away safely. The only way to screen out most of those possibilities is to give up a lot of freedom where large numbers of people assemble. Who wouldn't submit to a little pat-down if in return for that you have some sense that a killer might be stopped? So the terrorists record a victory either way. They may not have changed our society as much as they hope to, ultimately, but they have certainly changed the way we live and think.

Certainly this incremental erosion of freedom starts a slippery slope. We do it because it's part of our strategy of resistance to our insidious attackers.

On September 11, 2001 a war began that can never end. When neither side will ever surrender, the result is an endless exchange of atrocities.

Make no mistake: the terrorists are wrong. Terrorism exploits dark peculiarities of the human psyche that find their expression in murder-suicide all the time. It feeds on some people's willingness to set deadly traps basically for the fun of it. It gives these creeping killers an ideology to exalt something they would probably do anyway. The terrorists should quit. But don't expect them to surrender. The delusion that propels them is too irrational to see any sense in getting along. Why bother to coexist when you can actually get someone to strap on a bomb and explode their own guts to score a blow against someone with whom you disagree? That power must be intoxicating to someone twisted enough to want to cause mass casualties in the first place.

No one was in the mood to hear that kind of truth after a spectacular defeat with a large loss of life. That doesn't mean it should not have been said. People say the attacks changed the world, but do they have any idea how much? In a way, not much at all. The tendency to do nasty things to each other over petty disagreements is a long-standing human tradition. In another way, it marked the end, forever, of America as we knew it and the hope of a peaceful world in which we enjoy and gain strength from our differences. After a few days at best of stunned unity, the attacks heightened our own disagreements in this country.

We unite again today to commemorate a horrific day that no one who witnessed will forget. The day was marked by courage and devastation that demonstrated the very best and worst about humanity. We won't know for a very long time which quality will prevail. We may simply continue to attack and defend, to wound and heal, to kill and bury and have sex and produce new life and to argue bitterly about what it all means without questioning the irrationality of reasons we state for it.

Life goes on, for now.