In his book, The Life of Reason, the American philosopher, poet, novelist, and critic George Santayana (1863-1952) wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.” Fourteen years after September 11, 2001, the matter is not whether we remember our near past — but what we do with the memory.
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon marked the end of our innocence, or at least our insular naïveté. We became citizens of the world’s vulnerability for the first time in nearly 60 years. We found grief and hope in the stories of loss and survival, happenstance and heroism, frailty and courage. We were served notice to take care of our own, while we can — at home, in the workplace, and in the world. We were taught the brutal actuality of a terrorist attack that claimed thousands of lives, destroyed billions of dollars in property, and wreaked havoc with our systems of transportation and communication, expectation and faith. We continue to face a realization equally brutal, disarmingly real, and politically contentious: Such an attack could happen again.
Should this be cause for morbid apprehension or constant alarm? Clearly not. We won’t permit it. Even if the threat of another 9/11 warranted such edgy anticipation, we will not abide long-term interruption of our traditional distractions. We will not be kept from the comfort of our daily routines, from the trivialities of our political quibbling, from our preoccupations with celebrity, notoriety, and the pursuit of things material and superficial. We’re Americans. We’ve earned the right to indulge ourselves in any way we see fit, thank you very much. Because we’re pragmatists, we’ll keep an eye on the news bulletins. Because we’re idealists, we won’t do so at the expense of our self-absorption.
In remembering the past, two seemingly unrelated but beautifully American questions obtain. The first was asked on Monday, September 10, 2001. At a benefit performance by the jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, a questioner asked, “What is jazz?” Marcus answered readily and succinctly, “Jazz is the history of a people expressing itself through adversity. It’s about living on the edge and maintaining sure footing.”
The second question has been asked repeatedly since the day that followed. America was attacked by religious fundamentalist terrorists. In the aftermath, we continue to ask, “What do we do now?” The second answer is the same as the first, as ready and succinct: We express ourselves through adversity. We live on the edge and maintain our footing.
We do this by recognizing the luxury to which we’ve become accustomed in the United States:
- Recognizing that our right to be opinionated sarcastic, cynical, petty, superficial, materialistic, and unreflective — and to manifest all other evidence of our philosophical ennui — is an absolute luxury.
- Recognizing that our right to fritter our attention on form over substance, on the peccadilloes and proselytizing of entertainers, on the purchasing patterns of consumers, on the past weekend’s box-office receipts, and on all other evidence of our societal boredom is an absolute luxury.
- Recognizing that our right to agonize over the isms that appear to divide us is an absolute luxury.
- Recognizing that the right to have a country free and open enough to make the attack of 9/11 possible is an absolute luxury.
Fourteen years after that attack, after transforming 9/11 into yet another made-for-TV event — in between the latest political side-swipes and stock-market reports, before the latest iterations of commercial-television inanity — we maintain our footing through faith in the resolve that never leaves Americans. As we exercise our luxurious indulgences, we remain watchful over those with whom we work and share life every day.
Mindful of the past, we combine our idealistic conviction that, as Americans, we will prevail, with our pragmatic understanding that even idealism needs a Plan B. With neither morbid apprehension nor undue alarm, we maintain our footing through the shared though unstated conviction that — should the need arise again, as it did on 9/11 — we will do what otherwise opinionated, sarcastic, cynical, petty, superficial, materialistic, unreflective, bored, self-absorbed, divided, and free Americans do:
- We will come together in strength and determination to protect those rights and that freedom.
- We will instantly abandon our self-absorption to extend every healing hand to every hand harmed in any way by this consequence of our determination to live freely.
- We will instantly forget our boredom, reflecting only on those who need whatever help we can give, literally — be it blood, sweat, cash, comfort, or hope.
- We will instantly swap materialism for materials, sending equipment, food, clothing, and whatever else is needed on the frontlines of the most immediate battle in this newly declared war.
- We will drop our luxurious pettiness to stand united and prepare ourselves for the sacrifices we will be asked to make in protecting our rights and our freedom.
- We will turn on our televisions and see citizens of every stripe, age, persuasion, and profession calling themselves Americans.
- We will save the energy it takes to be sarcastic and cynical because we know it will be needed later. While the illusions of peace might incline us to squander that energy on ourselves, we dare not cheat our fellow Americans should they need it.
The British writer and critic, L.P. Hartley (1895-1972), said famously, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” September 11, 2001, proved the future will be equally foreign. They do things differently, quite unpredictably, and sometimes brutally there. They did something equally unpredictable and brutal here. We will remember. But we will remember in our own way.
Go ahead and call us opinionated, sarcastic, cynical, petty, superficial, materialistic, unreflective, bored, self-absorbed, and divided. We are. We’ve earned every one of the absolute rights we have to be so – and to work out our problems in our own way and time.
We’re free. As a free people, we express ourselves through adversity, just as we expressed ourselves through the adversity visited on us from the skies on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
And we will maintain our footing. We will. We do. We’re Americans.
If you doubt, test us.
Photo by Michael Foran, via Wikimedia Commons.