If you’re alive and kicking in America this week, you cannot miss the sheer mass of public events commemorating September 11, 2001. There isn’t a media outlet operating in our country that isn’t planning something—big or small—to mark that day when four planes flown by 19 nationals of Middle Eastern countries killed some 3,000 people on American soil.
As I read and watch and listen to these retrospectives, this question keeps bothering me: What is this orgy of remembering actually doing for us?
My specific memories of September 11 are somewhat vague. I recall sitting in front of the TV all day, watching that second plane dive into the tower over and over and over again. The enormity of what had happened was greater than I could fathom, so I just sat watching dumbly, or perhaps numbly, as those images and the news reporters’ commentaries washed over me.
I cancelled a doctor’s appointment that I had for that afternoon because the doctor’s office had huge picture windows facing southwest, the direction of Los Angeles International Airport. I didn’t want to see the planes coming for me. The fact that the doctor’s office was on the third floor of an office building in Beverly Hills made no difference; I felt vulnerable all the same.
I felt even more vulnerable one week later when I attended Rosh Hashanah services at my temple. If your goal is to make a large splash by killing a bunch of American Jews, you probably couldn’t set your sights on a better place than Temple Israel of Hollywood during the High Holy Days. The powers that be thought so too: There were beefy private security guards inspecting everyone’s bags and a small armada of cop cars parked in the surrounding streets.
As I take in all the public remembrances of that day ten years ago, I’m struck by how tragedy is essentially a personal event, and yet we in America make it exceedingly—some would say excessively—public. Why do we do that? So we don’t forget? Would we forget? And if we did, what would that mean?
The cynic in me (who is also the journalist) says that this celebration of the tragedy of September 11 is of most benefit to the media—or rather to the bottom lines of the advertising departments of the networks, TV stations and print concerns in America. In short, it’s good for business to have some special event to feature: Advertising rates are much higher for, say, the Oscars than they are for day-to-day programming.
However, I believe our relationship with our media is symbiotic in that it both reflects and refracts us. Thus, there must be an equivalent benefit for We the People. Perhaps it’s that once again, for just a couple of days, we get to feel like a united country. In fact, my strongest memory of those days ten years ago is the total sense of unity I felt with everyone else in America. We were one people who were not going to let some terrorist organization destroy our country. We would fight back in whatever way we had to. They would not win. We were first and foremost Americans, and our way of life, our belief in ourselves and our country, would—cue music—survive.
These days that feeling seems almost totally gone. Now we identify ourselves by our political party or the part of the country we live in, or our race, or religion, or the TV programs we watch or don’t. And our enemies now are not Al Qaeda but each other. It seems to me that we have taken all of our fear and anger and abject horror and projected it onto each other.
Taking our darkest emotions—our fears, our disappointments, our angers—and ascribing them to someone or something else is something we humans have done at least since Biblical times. It’s called scapegoating. The intensity of whatever we’re feeling gets off-loaded onto someone or something else where it becomes less threatening to us personally. That’s great for us—we no longer feel so bad—but it’s hell for whoever we’re dumping those emotions on. And ultimately, it diminishes us because the only way to deal with bad feelings is to face them down. In some ways, then, They have won, because self-hatred most damages its object. It is a loaded gun pointed at ourselves.
Perhaps I sound overheated here, but that is because I am frightened about the state of our nation. I believe we are dangerously close to national disaster. I’ve studied American history and particularly the founding of our nation, so I know that the pitched battles and name-calling are nothing new. What is different now is that we are on a 24/7 news cycle, and the internet has democratized us. Thus, everyone can have his or her say, and everyone can publish it to the world. The diatribe against the Republicans or the Democrats, against Obama or Boehner, against conservatives or progressives, becomes part of the public record. Then it becomes, for some people, fact.
So perhaps the purpose of this period in which we are remembering and celebrating the lives of those who died on September 11, 2001 is to give us a brief respite from our heated attacks against each other. Wouldn’t it, in fact, be the best way to honor them if we acted as if we still are We the People, fighting for liberty and justice for all Americans—even those we don’t agree with?