Saturday, May 20. 2006
Tom Engelhardt wrote a piece about New York City's extravagant plans to memorialize the 9/11 tragedy by building a memorial museum, reflecting pools, and a 1776 foot "Freedom Tower" -- projected price tage, one billion dollars, give or, most likely, take a few hundred million. My gut reaction to this is that I've never heard of anything so obscenely self-indulgent, and there are many other overtones to it. Engelhardt starts to get a grip on it:
While this monumentalism says much about America, I'm at least as interested in what this might mean for the actual victims of the 9/11 attacks. I knew a secretary killed in the World Trade Center, though her husband, who I've known since he was a small child. I was in New York when the attacks happened, and spent quite a bit of time with the family. I've only been back once since then, but was shocked at what I saw. Since then I've lost touch -- partly my fault, but also indicative of what happened. Tragedy happens, but 9/11 wasn't just statistically significant. It played into a set of political agendas, which produced a unique reaction. One part was that the families of the victims were showered with cash. Given the ensuing Bush wars, it's tempting to view their windfall as blood money, but the reaction of the families was more powerfully conflicted. The money was unearned, except perversely through a sacrifice that no amount of money could compensate. The money was welcome, of course, because in America money is always something one needs, and one never quite knows how much is really needed.
But it's more complex, and more convoluted than that. For one thing, the suffering was amplified by the scale of the attacks, by their conspiratorial agency, and by the intense publicity that ensued. So-called Acts of God tend to be consigned to fate, but the idea that these attacks were the work of a foreign network -- of Osama Bin Laden, of the militant Salafist-Jihadism in general, perhaps even of a massive, intractable "clash of civilizations" -- politicized the tragedy, turning mere victims into martyrs to help promote wars of revenge. Some 9/11 families reacted against these politics, but most went along with the flow. Either way prolonged the agony.
9/11's scale was matched by Hurricane Katrina -- in terms of deaths, that is; in terms of the number of people affected, the property damage and loss of livelihood far exceeded 9/11. Katrina attracted a lot of press, but it launched no avenging crusades -- at least not against the Army Corps of Engineers or the mystery behind global warming, although the Bush administration sunk to its usual embarrassing level of corruption and incompetence. In other words, Katrina was, like most disasters, something to put into the past. But 9/11 was kept alive, looming as a portent of the our fearsome future. Monuments help do this: their fundamental idea is to keep memory alive, where it's useful for people with axes to grind. That's why, for instance, the US South is dotted with Civil War monuments, but no monuments to the greater tragedy of slavery. That's why we have monuments to imperial wars, but not to genocide against Native Americans.
But this is just excess baggage for the individuals caught up in 9/11. I had an uncle who was killed in a car wreck when I was very young, leaving his three small children with no father and his wife with no husband. They all (we all) pulled together and made do. I saw no real, practical difference when my friend lost his wife. Indeed, there was little difference between then and when I lost my first wife, except for the sudden shock -- in my case spread out, but hardly diminished, by long illness. These things happen, and sadly, painfully, we cope with them. But we're constantly told that 9/11 is something different: not a personal tragedy, but some sort of national stigma. One consequence is how this interferes with the recovery of the people who actually bore the costs. Paying them off supposedly helps them out, but it also legitimizes the cause of war in their names.
The revenge of 9/11 has done nothing to salve its pain. The count of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq has nearly doubled the dead from 9/11, and rises inexorably. The count of Americans injured, often severely, is far greater. Meanwhile, the US has behaved far worse than the masterminds of Al Qaeda ever imagined -- an escalation of the cycle of revenge that only promises further tragedy. But putting all that aside, it's not just political opportunism that drives 9/11 activism. There seems to be a cultural dread of death, which especially in the case of sudden, pointless death seeks a peculiar form of immortality to find meaning where none is evident. Monuments and revenge are two traditional ways of bringing the dead purposefully back -- to meaning, if not to life. A more novel way is something like "Megan's Law" -- deny death by changing the rules. Makes one wonder whether what we really need isn't a new understanding of politics so much as a shrewd psychiatrist.