In the window of Citarella on the Upper West Side, a flag had been created out of shrimp and other fish. Above it, was the legend, “September 11 We Will Never Forget.”
It was 9/11/11 and people kept stopping to take pictures as if they were hungry for something — anything — to represent the momentous day they knew they should be marking. “It’s amazing,” someone said. And in a way, it was.
But what did it mean? We certainly wanted to say something about that horrible day when thousands of Americans were killed: middle class, hard working firemen and policemen simply doing their jobs, trying to put out a fire, save lives. Men and women at work in the Towers, at the Pentagon, people who were on those planes, pilots, flights, crews.
Afterwards, there was a spirit of togetherness. A French woman interviewed at the time declared, “Aujourd’hui, nous sommes tous Americains.” At a quickly organized concert at Madison Square Garden, rebroadcast around the anniversary, Elton John sang “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and its elliptical message about life in New York City, this “trash can dream come true” seemed to unite the room. But then the unanimity of feeling dissipated. Richard Gere asked the audience to channel their emotions towards peace and love, which did not go over well. A beleaguered firefighter told Osama Bin Laden he could kiss his ass. Jim Carrey wriggled his face and body, surfing whatever crowd sentiment it was he sensed at the moment.
There was Rudy Guiliani, back when he was still a leader; there was Natalie Portman warmly hugging a firefighter and helping him get through his speech. The Concert was an effort to unite us in grief, which it did, but what were we grieving for, beyond the frustration, fear and loss of life? Anything? How should we understand what happened? And aside from killing Osama Bin Laden, which we’ve finally done, should we have had any other response?
Ten years later, it’s still not clear. And our national politics have only grown more muddled. The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements both represent similarly inchoate desires to protest what’s wrong with the country and both, like the concert, reach for comfortable solutions to new, intractable problems. The Tea Party wants the country to get its fiscal house in order, but it wants to do so by restricting government spending — slowing the economy all the more. Occupy Wall Street wants to blame the country’s problems on the banks which have not suffered enough for their transgressions, but, while I strongly agree with that sentiment, we will certainly need strong (regulated) banks to get us out of this mess. People should of course protest in a Democracy and Occupy Wall Street is a long overdue and appropriate response to the Tea Party. But these protests seem disconnected and reductive; our problems more complicated.
We’ve long pursued a cold war era policy in the Middle East that is still haunting us; a realpolitik that seems now to be largely irrelevant in the context of Arab Spring. We’ve relentlessly globalized, but are now running from the consequences, fencing our borders and demonizing immigrants while declining to take responsibility for the environmental or economic fallout of our own activities. Our freedoms — for women, for minorities — are the envy of the world, yet we seem to treat those freedoms cavalierly, restricting women’s reproductive rights, scapegoating Planned Parenthood, even as we send Hillary Clinton abroad as our proud representative.
Congress makes the problem worse of course, reducing all discussions to the lowest common denominators: shrinking government, blaming the poor. While at the same time declining to engage the country in such questions as what can we really learn from 9/11? What financial role should we be playing in the modern world? What really are American priorities?
In a way, 9/11 was the end of our trash can dreams. It’s past the time when we can go off in the corner and sulk when world affairs don’t go our way. For better or for worse, our fortunes are inextricably tied to the rest of the world’s. Unfortunately, our instinct has been to turn inward; our capacity for navel gazing and self-pity as strong as ever. It’s as if 9/11 gave us license to abandon humility, empathy and pragmatism; to move away from whatever previous capacity we had to see beyond our prejudices in order to find solutions. We now appear to be stuck in a period in which differences, extremism and rigidity matter most.
What if that’s the end result? Or, to put it another way, imagine a fireman told the morning of 9/11 that he would be dead by the end of the day, killed in the collapse of a well-known office tower, a collapse that would turn out to be intentional and would lead to a vague and rather drawn out series of wars, that after ten years bankrupted the country, and led to its eventual split along largely outdated ideological lines. On the plus side, he would however be praised as a hero and remembered with a flag made out of fish.