Burying the Worst Urges in American Life
It's commonplace, even today, to speak of Ground Zero as "hallowed ground." How untrue. Ten years later, it is defiled ground and it's we who have defiled it. It could have been different. The 9/11 attacks could have been like the Blitz in London in World War II. Something to remember forever with grim pride, stiff upper lip and all.
And if it were only the reactions of those in New York City that we had to remember, both the dead and the living, the first responders and the last responders, the people who created impromptu memorials to the dead and message centers for the missing in Manhattan, we might recall 9/11 with similar pride. Generally speaking, New Yorkers were respectful, heartfelt, thoughtful, and not vengeful. They didn't have prior plans that, on September 12, 2001, they were ready to rally those nearly 3,000 dead to support. They weren't prepared at the moment of the catastrophe to—as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so classically said—"Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."
Unfortunately, they were not the measure of the moment. As a result, the uses of 9/11 in the decade since have added up to a profile in cowardice, not courage, and if we let it be used that way in the next decade, we will go down in history as a nation of cowards.
There is little on this planet of the living more important, or more human, than the burial and remembrance of the dead. Even Neanderthals buried their dead, possibly with flowers, and tens of thousands of years ago, the earliest humans, the Cro-Magnon, were already burying their dead elaborately, in one case in clothing onto which more than 3,000 ivory beads had been sewn, perhaps as objects of reverence and even remembrance. Much of what we know of human prehistory and the earliest eras of our history comes from graves and tombs where the dead were provided for.
And surely it's our duty in this world of loss to remember the dead, those close to us and those more removed who mattered in our national or even planetary lives. Many of those who loved and were close to the victims of 9/11 are undoubtedly attached to the yearly ceremonies that surround their deceased wives, husbands, lovers, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. For the nightmare of 9/11, they deserve a memorial. But we don't.
If September 11th was indeed a nightmare, 9/11 as a memorial and Ground Zero as a "consecrated" place have turned out to be a blank check for the American war state, funding an endless trip to hell. They have helped lead us into fields of carnage that put the dead of 9/11 to shame.
Every dead person will, of course, be forgotten sooner or later, no matter how tightly we clasp their memories or what memorials we build. In my mind, I have a private memorial to my own dead parents. Whenever I leaf through my mother's childhood photo album and recognize just about no one but her among all the faces, however, I'm also aware that there is no one left on this planet to ask about any of them. And when I die, my little memorial to them will go with me.
This will be the fate, sooner or later, of everyone who, on September 11, 2001, was murdered in those buildings in New York, in that field in Pennsylvania, and in the Pentagon, as well as those who sacrificed their lives in rescue attempts, or may now be dying as a result. Under such circumstances, who would not want to remember them all in a special way?
It's a terrible thing to ask those still missing the dead of 9/11 to forgo the public spectacle that accompanies their memory, but worse is what we have: repeated solemn ceremonies to the ongoing health of the American war state and the wildest dreams of Osama bin Laden.
Memory is usually so important, but in this case we would have been better off with oblivion. It's time to truly inter not the dead, but the worst urges in American life since 9/11 and the ceremonies which, for a decade, have gone with them. Better to bury all of that at sea with bin Laden and then mourn the dead, each in our own way, in silence and, above all, in peace.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November. To listen to Timothy MacBain's 100th Tomcast interview in which I discuss the role that the original 9/11 ceremonies played in the creation of TomDispatch.com click here, or download it to your iPod here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.