By Nikki Stern
Mention Sept. 11 these days and you certainly won't be feeling the love.
The nation is suffering from 9/11 fatigue. My husband was killed in the attacks, and I can feel it. For at least two years, the event and its aftermath dominated the news; for two years after that, not a single day went by without at least one story. Nine years later, Sept. 11 still flexes its muscles, grabbing headlines with stories about the war on terrorism, problems with airport security, intelligence agency dysfunction and unbridled hostility toward all things Muslim.
We've been living and breathing 9/11 for years — some of us quite literally. Even that doesn't garner much sympathy: An emergency measure designed to provide financial aid to rescue workers sickened by exposure to toxic fumes at the World Trade Center site was soundly defeated in the U.S. House of Representatives in July. A small but vocal group of family members remains on high alert, ready to react publicly to any perceived dishonor to the memories of their loved ones, notwithstanding the efforts of various parties to tread lightly where sensitivities are concerned.
Though the site continues to reveal itself as a replay of what came before — mostly office and retail — the symbolism of Ground Zero remains a potent mix of grief and outrage. Meanwhile, the anniversary promises sad speeches, sorrowful music and the roll call of the names of the dead.
9/11: been there, done that.
I'm not a big fan of commemorative occasions, but they do serve a purpose; they help us to remember, to honor and, hopefully, to establish a legacy for future generations. But judging by our news cycle, Sept. 11's legacy seems to be either anger or apathy. You're with us or you're against us — or you're so over it.
The memories I'd keep
I can understand the impulse: I'm tempted to forget the whole thing, except as it relates to me personally. I'm a widow and I miss my husband and my marriage; but I don't really need an anniversary to remember either how awful it was then or how much it can still ache now. Yet while I may never be able to forget the shock I felt in the face of such senseless violence, I would honestly like to remember the remarkable moments of selfless outreach that marked the initial response to theterror attacks. And if 9/11 is to remain in any form in the public consciousness, I'd like others to remember as well.
For hours, days, weeks and months after the attacks, all sorts of people joined together to help and to comfort. In particular, Lower Manhattan was witness to a variety of people of all faiths and ethnicities who came to help. They embodied the very essence of community; their outreach was to families and survivors, to moderate Muslims, to rescue workers and neighbors, to friends and to strangers. The watchword was resilience, not revenge.
For a short time, many people reached out past their own grief and terrifying uncertainty to a seemingly contradictory sense of possibility: that out of this horror we might reach a new level of understanding.
Nine years out, what comes to mind when we read about or talk about or even think about 9/11 is anger or fear or mistrust; all the failures and grievances that have hardened our worldview. We've retreated to our small groups of like-minded people whose absolute certainty enables our own; we see nothing in common with those "others" whose politics, faith, background, or outlook don't match ours. We see no reason to make an effort.
If that's 9/11's legacy, if that's how we honor our dead, our country, or our values, I want no part of it.
I don't know whether or when this nation, its leaders or its citizens, might be willing to dial back the outrage and stow the self-serving grandstanding. Maybe we can start with Sept. 11, on which day we can spend more time and energy commemorating the spirit that once brought forth our better selves and bonded us in common purpose.
That's a legacy I would embrace as a far more fitting tribute to those who were killed than any memorial I can imagine.
Nikki Stern is the author of Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority.
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