Saturday, September 15, 2012

On September 11th, Belatedly

Another anniversary of September 11 has passed. We mourn the loss of life and wish the best for the families of those who died. We spend some time thinking about the aftermath of that day. American troops have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. It is appropriate at this anniversary to mourn the loss of live of American soldiers who have gone to these places in the hope of seeking justice or preventing further cowardly and murderous attacks against our country. 

I find myself reminded that, shortly after the events of that day, there was a ban on aviation, and when the flights resumed, the sight of commercial flights passing above sent a cold chill. In the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks, the American people stood united. Every American felt a sense of personal tragedy. It wasn’t just the wounded pride of a powerful nation. For the first time in many years, the American people remembered that what happens to New Yorkers in Lower Manhattan matters to every American. We felt that loss of life, whether we lived in Kansas, Florida, or California, whether we were abroad or at home, whether we were country folk or city folk.  

Heroism is to risk one's own life and still believe that you haven't done enough.

This is also an election year. It’s now political fodder to note that Paul Ryan voted against a relief act aimed at people who were injured on September 11th, or that President George W. Bush had access to intelligence briefs that indicated an imminent attack. And some will note, with evident satisfaction, that President Obama also had access to intelligence briefs indicating imminent attacks in Libya and Egypt, but ignored them. There is no limit to the cynicism of politicians and muckrakers, and if the strong disapproval of the American people is not voiced, they will continue to defile the memory of September 11th, 2001 for their own petty purposes.   

So here is my modest proposal. Let us remember, during future anniversaries of September 11th, that old metaphor of the ship of state. What happens to this ship affects everyone on board, regardless of what God they worship or what their political views happen to be, the color of their skin, whether they are wealthy or poor. 

But it is not enough for us to remember that all exemplary Americans are personally affected by what befalls our country. It is equally important to remember that people who are not personally affected are not exemplary Americans. Those who remain callously indifferent to the fates of Americans, and seek only to ensure their personal safety and comfort, and who will not be harmed or inconvenienced should some calamity befall the ship of state, cannot be relied upon as leaders. 

What is lacking today is wisdom: specifically, the wisdom to recognize when the fate of others will eventually determine our own fate. This particular piece of wisdom is an example of one of those truths that resonate whenever they are spoken. It resonates because the human heart immediately grasps that it is the truth. It also resonates because it is the kind of truth that daily life causes us to forget, and therefore, we must continually remind ourselves. 

Many of us are familiar with the words of Martin Niemöller, even if his name is not familiar:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

In historical context, Niemöller, a Protestant minister in Germany during the Nazi Era, was talking about the gradual usurpations of power by the Nazi Party. But the words strike a responsive chord because they remind us of that fugitive realization that we are not isolated social atoms, but are dependent on one another. Stepping back a little further into the past, there are the words of John Donne, 

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
What is it that causes us to forget this wisdom, and remain always in need of reminding? In part, it is because the press of daily life focuses our attention on more immediate concerns. We worry about finding or keeping a job, paying the mortgage, getting the kids to school on time, about tax increases and the price of gasoline. There is little space left over in our thoughts for reflection. 

In part, this forgetfulness is the result of partisan politics. The words “petty” and “partisan” have been linked since the time of Confucius. A union school teacher will respond to the Democratic Party’s message; a business owner struggling with the costs imposed by bureaucracy will respond to the Republican Party’s message. White males who lack a college education and lack steady employment will feel threatened by immigrants and by policies supporting Affirmative Action, and experience feelings of aversion toward the Democratic Party. Likewise, immigrants and members of minority groups will be attracted toward the Democratic Party. In short, the two parties have learned to subsist upon the motivating power of self-interest. 

Who is there, anymore, to speak about what is in the best interest of all Americans? Who is there, anymore, who can inspire Americans to overlook the things which divide usand cling to the things which unite us?

No comments:

Post a Comment