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I sometimes still worry that all the publicity centering around 9/11 drowns out the cries of those who died that day. I don’t want that to happen. The tragedy of their dying was corrupted from the very start by our leaders who failed to understand why they died and who used their dying for their own objectives…

Seventeen Years On

9-11By December 7, 1958, the day that would “live in infamy” was a distant memory. Although we swore we might “forgive, but never forget,” we had moved on as a nation, far more obsessed with the space race (Sputnik hovered menacingly overhead) and the arms race (that mythical missile gap). In October 1979, few of us reflected on those frightening days seventeen years earlier when we came closest to annihilating our species. Instead, the “missiles of October” were lost in the fog of our collective memory, and we were caught in the throes of the Iran crisis and a greater crisis of self-confidence. Even the pain of the Vietnam War, which had haunted and hounded us as a nation for so many years, was hardly felt in 1992 as we continued our unseemly victory lap for “winning” the Cold War, and the Fall of the Wall drowned out all other voices in our ears.

September 11 is different. Seventeen years on and the sound of those towers crashing down still echoes through our country, and the silence of those dead still haunts those of us still living. This is difficult for Americans. Our collective attention span is notoriously short, and we prefer to flit from issue to issue, from crusade to crusade. For us, seventeen years is a very long time. We have an urgent yearning to be distracted and to move on. But I haven’t been distracted; I haven’t moved on.

What Went Wrong

We never got closure. We never got that cathartic release that comes with victory. We never even got the chance (as was the case with Vietnam) to move on to new crises and new enemies. Instead, our policies and actions over the last two decades have enabled that which we sought to vanquish to metastasize. It is a terrible realization to know that a child born in 2001 is now old enough to die on the endless battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

I sometimes still worry that all the publicity centering around 9/11 drowns out the cries of those who died that day. I don’t want that to happen. The dead deserve to be remembered, to be honored, to be missed. And not to be used. The tragedy of their dying was corrupted from the very start by our leaders who failed to understand why they died and who used their dying for their own objectives. On the Left, many shook their self-righteous fingers and said that while it was a tragedy, what else could you expect when the United States is so belligerent and domineering? Many on the Left are too ready to find an excuse for any crime committed. They are forgetful of the loss of these innocents, and forgetful of all those left behind who miss their fathers and mothers and spouses and children.

And on the Right, it is no better. So many of them still shaking their self-righteous fingers and using this tragedy to curtail liberty and provoke violence in places that have nothing to do with 9/11. Mischaracterizing the killers as “hating our freedom” did a great injustice to the dead. September 11 had nothing to do with a threat to freedom; it had everything to do with justice, albeit a distorted sense of justice. The killers were not evil in a Manichean sense: They were not the opposite of good. Rather, they were evil in the classic Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense: They were twisted in their goodness. They wanted justice and in pursuing what they thought to be justice, committed horrific crimes. They are an object lesson for all of us: Being too sure, being too certain that one is absolutely right and everyone else is completely wrong leads to much pain and great sorrows. Nearly every barbarism and almost every crime is committed by those who believe themselves to have been somehow injured.

What is it about this tragedy that makes it different? It is not merely because so many people died a horrible death, because so many die in so many horrible ways every day. Perhaps the answer is that this was a real tragedy, and real tragedy has two indispensable components. The first is avoidability. The inevitable, no matter how horrible, no matter how painful, at least offers the solace that it was beyond our control, beyond our wisdom, beyond what could be expected from us. But 9/11 was not inevitable; it was preventable. Some will be angry with this assertion. Inevitability is so comforting. Inevitability is so reassuring because, inevitably, it absolves us from responsibility. But this horror was not predestined.

The second essential ingredient: futility. That the suffering seemingly was in vain—that no lasting good has yet come from it. Yes, we now pay greater attention to the Islamic world, striving hard to better understand it. Yes, we have improved intelligence coordination and law enforcement cooperation, and we strive to make the world safer and more prosperous. But the threat remains, and discord in the world has not abated. In the initial aftermath of the tragedy that did not seem to be the case. Our country came together as it rarely has in our 242 years of history. More surprising, much of the world came together as it had never done in 5000 years of history. But these were fleeting visions and have not endured.

A Prayer for the Dead and the Living

I still wake up some days angry. Angry at those that flew the planes and those that rationalized the slaughter, those who danced in the streets and those who silently smirked, those who even today try to justify it and those who try to minimize it. And I cannot shake the notion that somehow we failed: we diplomats, soldiers, law enforcement officers, and other public servants. We somehow faltered and three thousand died.

And there are hard questions we need to keep asking ourselves. We owe it to the dead. What have we learned? How have our priorities changed? Is our vision less myopic? Are our policies sounder? Are we any wiser? Are we any more secure? Can we bet on a future devoid of another September 11?

There has never been a period of history when so many people have lived so freely; never a time of such great and general prosperity. Thousands each day risk their lives fighting those whose religious nihilism threatens us. Thousands more every day work long hours to protect the innocent and to lift up the downtrodden. Yet we still find our lives wanting, our security and safety still out of reach. We live in a broken world; we live in a broken time. We come from broken places. But we should resolve that these dead did not die in vain. The deaths of these three thousand should have meaning. Good can be brought forth from evil. We believe this because it is part of our continuing duty and responsibility to those who died. And there is no better way to honor these dead than to work humbly and honestly for a more just world.

Perhaps it is enough simply to say that I still see them in my mind’s eye, falling from the windows, unable to escape any other way. I see them fall and I lose faith and hope in this world. I have lost faith in everything except faith; I have lost hope in everything except hope. A once-famous but now obscure medieval Jewish scholar, perhaps inspired by Psalm 51, wrote of building an altar from the fragments of our broken hearts. To elaborate on this sentiment:

From the fragments of broken dreams, He builds a bed for restful sleep.

From the fragments of broken hope, He builds a bridge to a better land.

From the fragments of our broken lives, He builds a shelter to keep us safe.

And from the fragments of my broken heart, I will build an altar to God.

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10 replies to this post
  1. I don’t understand how this was preventable. That requires explanation. In a free society there was only so much that could have been done without having foreknowledge. You even criticize “the right” for “curtailing liberties” but that’s exactly what it would have taken to prevent the tragedy.

    Otherwise this was a good essay. Also don’t forget, we haven’t even completely rebuilt downtown Manhattan yet from the destruction. And people who were near the destruction are dying of cancer at high rates. These are more reasons why we haven’t moved on. Not only has victory been allusive, but our lives (at least those who live in NYC) haven’t been resettled yet.

    I especially liked your prayer.

  2. I think Manny would appreciate someone’s taking the time to explain to him why it was preventable, because that does take.time.

  3. Dear Manny, thank you for your kind comments. And you’re right that I probably should have elaborated on what I meant by “preventable.” For what it is worth, I would say three things from my decades in government. First, under Clinton we had a couple of chances to hit bin Laden (at least according to CIA officers I know), but we equivocated because we didn’t want to risk upsetting the Pakistanis or Saudis, or violating some legal technicality. Second, bin Laden declared war on the US years before 9/11. His reason: infidel soldiers in Saudi Arabia. I would never support removing our troops from anywhere due to a threat from anyone, but we have a really bad habit of staying in places where we are not wanted or needed. Our troops needed to go to Saudi Arabia for the first Iraq War, but there really was no value in keeping them there afterwards. But our military and civilian bureaucracies operate on inertia and so we stayed there, needlessly antagonizing and further alienating Saudi citizens and religious authorities. Third, and this will seem to contradict the second point, we pampered–and continue to pamper–Saudi Arabia. Had we been tough with the Saudis throughout the Nineties, they would have been able to remove bin Laden, but neither they nor we took him seriously enough. But in fairness, there is a continuing debate and disagreement among many reasonable and decent former US officials about whether 9/11 was truly preventable. I just fall on one side of that argument.

    • Thank you for your response. I had forgotten to come back to this and check, so I apologize for the delayed response. With all due respect, none of that convinces me that 9/11 was preventable. Even if we had “taken out” Bin Laden – which would have been a heck of an intervention in some other country’s affairs – 9/11 was way more than just Bin Laden. He’s now dead some seven or eight years and we’re still fighting this, and if we had taken him out the people who supported him, which seems to be numerous, would have been even more motivated.

  4. I am not exactly sure what the the thesis of this essay is. It is not clearly outlined, and leaves more questions than answers. There is one word, justice, that appears to be a misguided reason for the acts of terror, war upon this nation, on 9/11.

    I do not believe that this act of these young Muslim men, flying airplanes filled with infidels to die by their suicide, was a failed act of their want for justice. It was not a twisted goodness, nor a senseless action by these adherents of Islam. It was an act of heroism for Allah; justifying their evil act of drinking alcohol, sex with prostitues, lying to infidels, during the days before commandeering the planes. Through their successful killing, and suicides, justice will be awarded to them by Allah; that is their belief. These are acts of honor for other young men to follow.

    There have been many, many acts of this kind, although in a more minor scale,? throughout the Western world, Africa, and elsewhere. There will probably be many, many more, increasing in severity. This country has been attacked by Islam from the beginning of our founding. It was a surprise to me when I read about that history. It is like a slow growing cancer that it’s host is totally unaware of its presence. Denial, ignorance, too fat and happy, a people who have turned away from the grace of the God of creation??? Lord have mercy.

  5. I was referring to what the FBI knew and refused to take action upon. As Casey Stengel put it : “You could look it up.”

  6. Joseph, please forgive a late response to you fine article. Question: What is the name of the “once-famous but now obscure medieval Jewish scholar”? He wrote a remarkably wise meditation which speaks to what Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life.”

    • James, I apologize for the very late response. I just noticed this today–we don’t get notifications when someone posts a comment. The Jewish scholar was named Judah (Yehuda) HaChasid. Best regards, Joe

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