What more can anyone write about September 11? Our vocabulary nears exhaustion in the outpouring of commentary on the tenth anniversary of this most horrific of memories. In 2006, on the fifth anniversary, I wrote in this space that September 11 “…surely has become one of the most complex and difficult of all days on our calendar of remembrances. The date does not really commemorate something that happened in the past, because the events of that day in 2001 triggered still-unfolding reactions that are likely to continue for many years.”
Now, on the tenth anniversary, the deadly fallout from the murderous actions of long-dead madmen continues its insidious contagion of the American spirit and soul.
The toxic clouds of death made us thirsty with anger and vengeance, propelling the nation on ill-fated quests in Iraq and Afghanistan as we sought to quench that bitter thirst with the blood of perceived enemies. Thousands of American military personnel — more than twice as many soldiers dead as people killed on 9/11 — along with countless Iraqis and Afghanis now lie dead or have suffered debilitating wounds, badges of the fruitless vengeance spawned on September 11. We got rid of Saddam Hussein and, at last, Osama bin Laden, but we were not quenched; our relentless thirst for vengeance remains.
We said we’d “bring ‘em to justice.” Justice soon proved to be yet one more casualty of September 11. Torture — a concept we once associated with Hitler, Stalin, or tyrants of the Dark Ages — became a conventional American weapon. Detainment without due process shredded the once-inviolable tenets our legal system. Fundamental notions of fairness and equal protection gave way to suspicions of people with Arab-sounding names and Islamic beliefs. Trillions of dollars spent on the wars abroad drove the national deficit and eroded the foundations of economic stability at home.
Dissatisfied with our inability to slake the thirst for vengeance, we turn on each other, indulging increasingly uncivil domestic discourse as we continue to express our anger, resentment, helplessness and need to wreak vengeance on those who stole our national innocence, who obliterated our carefully constructed veneers of advanced civilization in the horror of collapsing towers.
Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote yesterday, “Something was unleashed 10 years ago that bears our scrutiny. It wasn’t only evil, though the attacks were certainly that. The event was so cataclysmic and horrifying that it caused a sort of emotional breakdown in the American constitution. Simply put, it damaged our collective soul and seems to have released a free-ranging hysteria that has contaminated our interactions ever since.” (“An America that no longer knows itself,” Kathleen Parker, Washington Post, September 10, 2010.)
Columnist George Will writes that, today, on the 10th Anniversary of September 11, our nation “is more demoralized than at any point since the late 1970’s” when Americans also felt helpless and enraged as Iranian radicals took our embassy and its employees hostage in Tehran. (George F. Will, “September 11th’s self-inflicted wounds,” Washington Post, September 10, 2011.)
Today we come together in solemn memorials and pledges that we will never forget. Tomorrow we return to the business of economic recovery, healthcare reform, educational improvement, and the looming presidential campaign. If today’s observances are to be more than pageantry and salutes to the past, we must vow to make this September 11 — in 2011 — the coda for the sad and troubling decade that began when the first plane hit the first tower.
The only real cure for our terrible thirst for vengeance is the self-discipline of moving on. The best tribute we can pay to those who lost their lives is to restore the confidence, civility, prosperity and true idea of justice that this nation once embodied.