Remembering 9/11, for Good and Ill

I wasn’t going to write anything for the anniversary of 9/11, and I’m still not going to do so, per se.  I was, however, struck by this provocative article at The American Conservative (always an interesting magazine even for a liberal such as myself, as long as I ignore Pat Buchanan) and this one at  In that vein, I decided to post something I wrote back in 2005 regarding a 9/11 memorial I went to that year.  I have edited slightly for clarity and length, but it’s substantially as I wrote it six years ago, including a little heated prose against what I saw as the then-Administration’s policies.  I wish I could say the policies regarding the Infinite and Eternal War on Terrorism, on foreign policy in general, and on civil liberties and the surveillance state had changed since then, but much to my disappointment and disillusionment, they have merely got worse.  Anyway, here’s my piece:

Yesterday evening my wife, my two-year old daughter, and I went to a community service in memoriam of the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.  It was interesting, and disturbing.

Some background:  I live in an Appalachian state a fair distance from New York, and as it happens, no one I knew was in the Twin Towers; there was no direct personal connection.  Still, like all other Americans, I was profoundly affected by what happened that day.  It is overly simplistic and facile to say that “everything changed”; too much and not enough have changed, both for good and for bad.  Still, there is truth in that–the world is not the same.  Anyway, I had been home that day–I teach college and it was between semesters.  I had been taking a nap and my wife called me from work to tell me what had happened.  I turned on the TV and watched until I became too appalled and shut it off.  A couple hours later, my wife’s boss let out work, and I drove up to bring her home, rushing all the way.  We live in a suburb of a mid-size city, and I’d dropped her off to work that day, I don’t remember why.  I didn’t think anyone actually would strike in our rural state, but in those hours after the impact, any dire scenario seemed possible.

In the time between turning off the TV and picking up my wife, all I could think to do was pray.  The thing that came immediately to mind as most appropriate was the Akathist to the Archangel Michael.  For non-Byzantines (or Byzantinophiles, like me), an akathist is a long prayer divided into alternating verses and chants (something like a litany, but different in structure) done in honor of Christ, Mary, or a specific saint.  St. Michael is always viewed as the Captain of the Heavenly Host, and being a quasi-military saint, is commonly invoked in times of war or danger; hence the appropriateness.  Ever since, I have always done the Akathist to St. Michael every year on the 11th of September.  It is my way of beseeching protection from evil.  Also it is a prayer for peace–although it does seek protection, the emphasis is putting it in God’s hands, through the intercession of the saints (in this case Michael) rather than asking God (or His angels) to smite all His foes (which we of course assume are the same as our foes!)  I also try to say the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary on the anniversaries of 9/11.

The point of all this is twofold.  One, I see the proper mode of remembrance of 9/11 as somber and penitential.  To me it should be in somewhat the same mode as Jewish remembrance of the Holocaust (I am not comparing the two–the Holocaust was incomparably worse–I mean merely similarity in tone).  The goal should be somber remembrance of the deaths and injuries; humility as we realize that despite all our power and wealth we are as much subject to death and destruction as anyone else; forgiveness, as we try to remind ourselves that this horrible deed was wrought be individuals, and that we must therefore not blame entire groups; and guarded hope as we pray for peace.  Not smiting of foes and destruction of enemies; peace.  A just peace, but peace nonetheless.

The second point is that with one exception, I had never gone to a public commemoration of the attack on the Twin Towers.  That exception was the Friday following the 11th, when a rapidly arranged service was held at a church across from my workplace.  All faculty and staff were invited, and I went.  Something communal had to be done.  It was a good service, sober, sedate, but hopeful.  It met all the criteria I mentioned above.  For various reasons, I never attended any public ceremonies afterward, keeping to the Akathist and the Rosary.

Well, my town was having an ecumenical service of remembrance, and I thought that it would be nice to go and publicly remember with my community.  So we went.  What I saw…what I saw was an orgy of jingoism punctuated by a few moments of sincere remembrance.

The gathering was in the gym of the middle school.  There was a choir on the stage, as well as representative members of the fire, police, and EMS departments and all branches of the military.  The ceremony was opened and closed by a color guard.  A screen on one side of the stage had a rotating slide show while the speeches, songs, and prayer were going on.

The slide show was the worst.  There was more red, white, and blue than in a flag factory.  There were pictures of Jesus (the light-skinned, Anglo-Saxon Jesus, of course) superimposed on a map of the USA; innumerable quotes along the lines of “God bless America,” “The Power of Pride”, and so on; and innumerable sentimental images of Jesus, usually superimposed on a flag or an American eagle.  The songs were in much the same vein; patriotic-cum-spiritual songs in the contemporary Christian (that is, pop-flavored) idiom.  Now, apologies to my Protestant friends, but I abhor most hymnody (Protestant and Catholic both, though I think Protestants are worse offenders) written since the middle of the 20th Century; I think most such stuff to be banal, goofy, tacky, theologically trite, and just plain bad.

What really bothered me the most was the overall tone.  It was not of sorrowful remembrance or muted reverence, but mostly in the “America can’t be knocked down!  We’re still going strong with God on our side!” mode.  Now, I love my country.  I am as patriotic as the next man or woman.  However, in the 2000 years of Christianity, whole empires have risen, crumbled, and vanished.  Yes, God loves America; but He also loves Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, and yes, even Iraq.  If we are serious about what we believe, He is the God of all peoples, whatever we happen to think about them.  And if we are serious, we should be Christians (or Jews or Muslims or Buddhists) first, and only then Americans (or Iraqis, or Germans, or whatever).  The greatest nations are composed of flawed human beings and are transient in the grand scheme of things.  Our faith, whatever it may be, deals with ultimates beyond the  needs (in some senses petty) and fates of nation-states.  Having a huge celebration of what is essentially Caesaropapism (total union of Church and State) is not, to this man’s thinking, any way to memorialize the most tragic day of our recent history.

One of the two pastors made it even worse by linking the whole thing to the war in Iraq.  He read a long letter, both bitchy and sentimental, from his son, posted in Iraq, which basically took everyone to task for forgetting the soldiers over there and not caring about what they were doing for us all.  My wife and I were both livid at this.  She was an Air Force brat, and all men on both sides of my family in my parents’ generation served in the Armed Forces.  We both have absolute respect and honor for the brave men and women who put their lives on the line daily.  I am all for remembrance and fair treatment and full support of them. However–however–this is not the same as supporting the actions and wars into which our brave men and women are sent, or supporting the President and Congress that has sent them there.  Yes, pray for our troops, pray for our leaders, pray for peace, even pray for our enemies (one of those inconvenient things Jesus told us to do, but which we seem so easily to forget)–but don’t tell me, on what should be a somber day of mourning, don’t tell me that this means supporting the policies of the worst President in my lifetime (yes, worse than Nixon!), or supporting a war whose main effect seems to be to drain billions of dollars from our treasury monthly while leaving insufficient troops to respond to the domestic disaster in the Gulf region.

In all fairness, the other pastor was very clear in his statements that our faith comes first, before our allegiance to any temporal order.  Yes, as he continued, we must respect legitimate authority; but this does not mean we blindly kowtow to it either (he didn’t say that, but I like to think it was at least implied).  Also, in fairness, there was recognition of all the firemen, policemen, and EMS people, whose contributions have rightly been borne home to us after 9/11.  Some of the prayers were nice, and the opening and closing color guards were tasteful and respectful.  Finally, the last half-hour announced plans for trips down to the Gulf Coast to help out with the disaster relief there [this was originally written soon after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans], as well as giving information on charitable donations being set up by the community, including plans for housing displaced victims of the hurricane.  This was a wonderful and moving thing.

Still and all, I came away from the whole thing with a bad taste in my mouth.  I realize I live in the quasi-South, in small-town America, in a very red part of a very red state.  I also realize that, much as I may have found the service aesthetically appalling and politically repugnant, for the most part the hearts of the planners and participants were in the right place.  Still, it is sad that well-meaning people can allow what should be solemn remembrance to be hijacked and morphed into a crass exhibition of national pride (as we also tend to forget, pride is one of the deadly sins) and political cheerleading for the war in Iraq.  My God, how long?  When, when will we as a people learn?  When will we see beyond our own narrowness and see the big picture?  When will we quit serving Ares (which is really what we are doing, when we are gung-ho about wars) and serve God?  When?

What a short distance we have come in four years!  May we open our minds and  hearts in the coming years, and may we remember this day of infamy as it should be remembered.  We can only hope.

Posted on 12/09/2011, in social commentary and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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