Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Chords of memory

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief...and unspeakable love.”
-Washington Irving

On our way back from Kansas City this morning we passed under a small group of firefighters positioned on the overpass at mile marker 160, which is about thirty miles north of Emporia. They were energetically waving large American flags at the north and southbound traffic below them. Nancy, her developmentally disabled brother James, and I waved at them as we made our way under the bridge. As soon as we passed, I felt a lump in my throat and the warmth of tears welling up in my eyes.

I remember that September day six years ago the firefighters on the overpass were commemorating; I’m sure you do to.

I remember the overwhelming grief I felt as I thought about the terror that the innocent men, women, and children, who had begun that day anticipating vacations, business meetings, or a visit to grandparents, must have felt in the agonizing moments leading up to the impact of the planes.

I remember those occasional times when Nancy and I would take an evening trip from our home in Denville, New Jersey to share a meal at Pal’s Cabin, an eatery situated just across the river from lower Manhattan. I remember the times Nancy and I would gaze across the river at the Word Trade Center and the rest of Manhattan that it towered over. The lights seemed to be beckoning anyone who wanted to partake of its bounty and opportunity.

How often since that terrible day have I cried out from the unseen depths of my soul? How often have I wished that I’d had the power to just make it all stop? How often have we all? The silent screams and the agony must now be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. But, now matter how often we cry out, we cannot change the reality of September 11, 2001. The power of our collective retrospect and hindsight are no match for the power and resolute evil of Osama bin Laden’s rank and file. We cannot take history and put it into freeze-frame.

I remember trying to sort through the questions that some raised in the years after the attack. Was it our imperialism, as those in the terrorist camp and many on the American political left have claimed? Was it, and is it, true that America is the source of all the evil in the world? What acts of imperialist aggression had the mothers, fathers, and children who died at the hands of the terrorists committed? And what of the rest of us? How culpable were we? Was it true that our support for Israel is at the heart of every terrorist grievance? Was it true that America was (and is) nothing more than a world-wide instrument of terror, imposing its evil will on the rest of the world?

It’s impossible for me to fathom how clinging to teddy-bears, gazing at New York from the observation deck of the World Trade Center, or dreaming of going to Disneyland could be construed as acts of imperialist aggression, but logic can sometimes turn on its head and make good seem to be evil and evil good. The camel can indeed be pulled through the eye of the needle.

I’ve heard all the claims and I see them as feeble attempts to revise history or freeze-frame morality. The more I hear them the angrier I get. I remember what happened on September 11, 2001 and when I hear terrorists and terror’s apologists blaming the innocent my blood boils.

I also remember American resolve in the months after the attack. We seemed to be united. But, it was a flimsy fellowship. Time, failed strategies, personal hatred, politics, and personal agendas have evaporated all of that. We’re divided. Some now blame George Bush. Some blame American imperialism. Some claim that America is a Nazi state and deserved everything it got on September 11th. Some say that those defending us are actually betraying us.

Somewhere, possibly in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden is also commemorating September 11th. In a video released today he lionized one of the hijackers responsible for this monstrous crime. Sensing that our will and courage seem to be failing, he used it as an opportunity to recruit others to his cause:

“It remains for us to do our part. So I tell every young man among the youth of Islam: It is your duty to join the caravan (of martyrs) until the sufficiency is complete and the march to aid the High and Omnipotent continues.”

Yes, I remember September 11th, 2001. I remember the grief we all shared. But I also remember the righteous anger. I remember how keenly and rightly it was focused. We knew who the enemy was then. Today, however, in the shadow of Afghanistan, Iraq, the lust for political power, presidential aspirations, failure in some measures, success in others, slander, and character assassination, our collective anger has turned inward. The one thing we should have remembered about September 11th seems tragically to be the one thing we’ve forgotten. September 11th did not happen because of American foreign policy. September 11th was not some monstrous way of the sins of our fathers being visited upon us.

The war on terror that followed the September 11th attack, being waged from Kabul to the Sunni Triangle to America’s Main Street, is very real, and very deadly. It’s not the figment of some politician’s imagination, nor is it the result of our failures and sins, either as individuals or as a nation. We must remember that, find our way back together as a nation, and then bring this war to a just conclusion.