The beautiful September Tuesday in Wisconsin today was eerily like the one I remember eleven years ago in South Carolina–brilliant blue skies, bright sun, a hint of fall in the air. Everything changed, we all said, as we watched the planes go into the twin towers and heard about the Pentagon, as we watched, glued to the TV for days. Eleven years later, it’s worth pondering what changed.
We are diminished as a people and as a nation. As I worked out in the gym this morning, I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, those powerful songs of sadness, hope, and resilience that he wrote in the weeks and months after 9-11. I saw on the televisions scenes of our president against a backdrop of American flags, saying something. Fortunately, my earbuds drowned it out.
I thought of how we came together as a nation and as a world, united in grief and in wanting to help the victims. I thought of how we also sought vengeance in small and large ways, of the two wars, the countless dead in addition to the victims of 9-11. I also thought of how we as a nation, as a people have let our freedoms slip away, our consciences, our better selves.
Last week, the Democratic Convention did everything but parade Osama bin Laden’s body through the convention center, glorying in his assassination. A president who was elected on promises to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, to end torture, to bring our troops home, campaigns on bellicosity and assassinates people in far-off lands with drone aircraft while his administration quietly lets the torturers go without judicial accountability. Just after the convention, we learned that another detainee had died in Guantanamo. Apparently, death is the only way out of that prison. But to criticize the president is as unpatriotic for Democrats today as it was to criticize Bush eight or six years ago.
This summer we have witnessed more outbreaks of Islamophobia and the attack on the Sikh temple.
Who are we? What have we become? Fortunately there are voices that challenge the conventional–voices like Glenn Greenwald and Al McCoy who tell the story of torture, rendition, and targeted assassination.
There are others who speak out, too. Tim Kreider has a powerful piece on the way we have allowed fear to govern our lives and our foreign policy:
I believe that we collectively decided, without quite admitting it to ourselves, that somebody, somewhere in the world, had to die for 9/11, and we didn’t really care whether they’d had anything to do with it or who they were, so long as they were brown-skinned and worshipped Allah and lived in the Middle East. We imagined that killing thousands of strangers on the other side of the world might somehow assuage our fear, in the same way that someone who’s been assaulted might buy a gun as a security blanket, a prop to accompany his fantasies of protection and revenge. Our invasion of Iraq was an act of human sacrifice, undertaken for pretty much the same reasons the Aztecs slaughtered prisoners by the tens of thousands: to propitiate the gods. If George W. Bush had slit the throat of a single lamb on live TV it would’ve had much the same net effect on national security, at considerably less cost.
This charge is also a confesssion. I reacted to 9/11 the same way as a lot of my compatriots: by going completely berserk.
And Will Willimon’s sermon from the first Sunday after 9-11, calls us to remember that the God in whom we put our faith is the God who created light in the formless and dark void:
I would have thought the first word might be vengeance, or cowering fear, or at least bitterness. But no, the first word the exiles heard God say to formless void was, “Light!”
It is a word that we cannot say to ourselves. It must be spoken to us, overheard in God’s conversation with the formless void. No word, not mine, or the president’s, or some grief counselor, or therapist can help us when the chips are down, and the mountains tremble and the earth shakes, no word can help except one spoken from the outside. And just at full midnight we hear that word, and it is a sovereign command, a promise, a creative act, “Light!”
The trouble between us and the resilient formless void is serious. If there is not a God who delights at bringing light out of night, who likes nothing better than to go one-on-one with the void, then we are quite frankly without hope and my little words of comfort in the face of your despair are pointless.