My personal acre of hell froze over for an instant last month: I felt a lusty pang of love for Phyllis Schlafly, baroness of the religious right and most things wrong. Schlafly, you see, offered the best advice to schools regarding this week’s anniversary of Sept. 11: “There is nothing that schools can add to what happened on September 11, that the children haven’t already seen in the media. They should stay off it and teach what’s true.” Like English and math.
But the Eagle Forum Lady’s words have soared no further than the wingtips of her quote marks. Schools, pre-schools and probably au-pairs everywhere will be riveting their wards to a wasted day (or week) of warmed-over grief and hero worship, to maniacal patriotism and manufactured gravity. It isn’t enough that adults muck up the world on a daily basis in the name of power and pride, or electoral necessity. Let’s draft the kids, too, and muck them up with the same conceits.
I’m happy to say that my daughter’s school is showing admirable restraint, as such things go. It is going no further than the wearing of red, white and blue for a day, the moment of silence at noon, and the student-led — if they so choose — talking about “feelings,” that wormy substitute for reflection that so often turns classrooms into talk show sets. Pointless, but still an improvement over last May, when the school’s year-end assembly culminated in the showing of one of the World Trade Center towers afire and with Lee Greenwood’s nasal pride for a soundtrack. I don’t know which of the two — the burning images or Greenwood’s voice — was more traumatic, but my 8-year-old was in tears all the same. It was, of course, the desired effect. It was also a needless and cruel parting shot from an otherwise fine school year.
No risk-taking this time around. I’m taking Wednesday off and taking my daughter with me. We’ll loiter on the beach or compare the musty smells of a couple of used bookstores, find a fun cemetery to walk around or look up the number of crematories in the Yellow Pages — anything but play reverent to the day’s pieties.
This isn’t to deny the day’s importance, let alone the loss it marks for so many thousands. But in truth most of us millions arraigned in the safety of our routines cannot know much about that loss and don’t want to know much beyond the rituals of easy empathy. Life as we know it in its everyday grinds and pleasures hasn’t changed. We’re not at war, never were, and only get away with pretending to be because we’ve too easily accepted the speechmongering of a president for whom perpetual war is the only viable re-election strategy.
September 11 is one of the great tragedies of history, an act of cowardice and evil possible only when the fanaticism of religion — and yes, absolutely, Islam in this age — combusts with bigotry. Whatever the grievances of one part of the world against another, of Arabs against America if you like, many of which are perfectly legitimate, none, not a one, not by any definition of retaliation, self-defense, attention-grabbing or desperation, justifies the events of September 11.
Muftis and mullahs with their turban-tongued sermons have no business lecturing America about its many failures when every minaret from Algiers to Islamabad is a mile-marker of repression, a stake through the human and civil rights of people at the mercy of the world’s most totalitarian governments. Out of that came the preachy terrors of Osama and his rags of bandits. In a previous age that’s all they’d have remained — rags. But technology is their short-cut to mayhem, so we must deal with them.
We must, but what we have done has been quite different. America has never had a less worthy enemy, yet we’ve elevated him, or it, into an enemy as worthy of a war supposedly as important as the fight against Hitler and as open-ended as the Cold War, with demands on the national treasury, the national defense, the national esprit de corps nearly as intense as was required for those previous wars, and with sacrifices in our own civil liberties that make this “war for freedom” a farce of a contradiction. We’ll look back on this one day and wonder how we could have so easily been duped, how we could have let a president use September 11, misuse and abuse it like no tragedy ever has, mostly for the wrong reasons — namely his re-election and his administration’s pay-back to energy and military contractors, for whom fattish profits are always a question mark without a good, fattish war to bank on.
The question not asked in the year since September 11 is this: Are we better off than we were a year ago? Of course not. We’re probably not any safer from freak attacks. We’re economically weaker, thanks to an administration’s reckless give-aways and overspending. And as if that could have even been possible a year ago, we are more reviled around the world than we were then, because our national arrogance, unlike Wall Street, has been on a bull run unparalleled since William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt bullied about.
I only need to look at such perversities of arrogance as “America Bless God,” that astounding bumper sticker peddled by religious fanatics of our own, to know that something more than perspective has been lost in the past year. While the nation’s routines are unscathed, the nation’s ideals are not. They’re corroding from within. So forgive me if I don’t play along in Wednesday’s spectacles. It’s not for lack of sorrow. But the mourning is misplaced.
Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal columnist and editorial writer. He can be reached at email@example.com CounterPunch Special Report: 9/11 One Year After
Bill Christison A Year Later: It’s Happening Here
Alexander Cockburn The Tenth Crusade
Susan Davis Mr. Ashcroft’s Neighborhood
Bruce Jackson When War Came Home
David Krieger Looking Back on September 11
Mike Leon Bush and War
Peter Linebaugh Levellers and 9/11
William McDougal September 11 One Year On: That’s Entertainment!
Riad Z. Abdelkarim and Jason Erb How American Muslims Really Responded to 9/11
Jeffrey St. Clair The Trouble with Normal
Tom Stephens Rise Up…Dump Bush