The question, “Where were you on Sept. 11?” ordinarily asks for your location on that date one year ago. But as we mark the anniversary, the question needs an important update: Where are you on Sept. 11, 2002? What has changed at ground zero—as dramatically chronicled in William Langewische’s current series in The Atlantic—must have an analogue in our national psyche. As cleanup efforts give way to plans for rebuilding in Manhattan, picturing my physical location and emotional reaction one year ago has given way, many times over, to imagining what I want to emerge from the events of that day. Far more important now than a year ago is how we answer the question, what do we want more, revenge or healing?
Plans—possible or actual—to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein began to emerge in the spring, once it became evident that many Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, had escaped. The putative goal is to liberate the Iraqi people from a murderous despot and rid the world of a deadly menace. But it would be naïve to think America’s motives are absolutely pure. How, after all, can we separate the noble desire to eradicate evil from the need to slake our thirst for revenge? What do we need more: to do whatever it takes to promote democracy or to identify an evil to be rooted out, whether it is Hussein or bin Laden? To be sure, sometimes the two goals go hand in hand. The problem, from my standpoint, lies in the assumption that American citizens will tolerate the administration’s inarticulateness and fuzzy thinking and simply support a generic invasion of anything deemed evil because “it’s the right thing to do.”
Prevention and being proactive seem unambiguously judicious. Who could argue with taking pre-emptive measures to stop further attacks and suffering before they can be inflicted? The problem is, reasonable people can differ over what constitutes reasonable steps. Some favor taking measured steps to stop tragedy before it can happen, while others advocate doing “whatever is necessary.” There’s the rub.
At about the same time that tough talk on Iraq started heating up, I began listening to AM talk radio. I’ve managed to familiarize myself with a range of nationally syndicated conservative hosts spouting their opinions with the help of like-minded and a few unfelicitously unlike-minded callers. Of the many things I’ve learned, the most striking revelation is the popularity of the term patriot. Until I started tuning in, I can safely say that I had not heard the term patriot except in reference to early American history and a missile used in the Persian Gulf war. To judge by the way so many callers introduce themselves as “a patriot,” the word has become a shibboleth for willingness to enforce the American way as they narrowly define it by any means necessary. Terms like freedom and virtue dominate their shrill remarks, a fact that in another era might have made them revolutionary heroes, but today places them in the center of a radical rethinking of what it means to be an American.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as I watched live and taped footage of mass murder being committed upon thousands of innocent Americans, I felt something I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager: I felt the emotion of patriotism. Seeing one tower, then the other, pierced by a plane, I felt personally attacked, personally violated. Watching human beings desperately leaping from window ledges 100 stories high, I felt my own world turned upside down. I felt powerless and vulnerable; and, more than this, I felt angry, because people with whom I could imagine having a casual conversation, people I might have grown up with or known at college, had been targeted and snuffed out simply because they were going about their lives. I wanted to go back to the way it was before such events seemed possible. Then, knowing this could not be, I wanted harsh justice for everyone—or at least someone—who might be gleefully watching his plan come to fruition. One need not be American to have felt all this, but like many others, my human empathy was accompanied by a profound feeling of national kinship.
To some this will no doubt seem obvious. To me it came as a jolt, unaccustomed as I am to confronting, let alone embracing, my national identity. My country throws its weight around in ways that embarrass and enrage me, operating under a spectacular double standard of volubly decrying injustice in certain quarters while elsewhere supporting repressive regimes that suit our economic interests. On 9/11, however, I didn’t shrink from being an American; I simply was one.
Where was I—where am I—on Sept. 11? I was—and still am—watching innocent people suffer and die from the presence of evil in our world. And I was and still am feeling ambivalent about my patriotism, but certain about my not being a “patriot.” For that horrible event a year ago must certainly have confirmed for us that being a patriot does not mean having the courage to kill and die in the name of freedom and righteousness, but knowing that freedom is not an imperative but a condition in which healing and justice need not be at odds.