9/11/01: 'The loss with no grave'

Five years ago today, the world changed.

Those incomprehensible events have since colored much what of we as Americans think, feel, and do. It has not, however, made us all alike. The phrase “united we stand” has become passé. The old worldwide sentiment “we are all Americans” is scoff-worthy. Nevertheless, looking back after five years, we wish there could be one consensus: a respectful, a worthy commemoration of the victims.

First, there are the movies. We’d like to believe that these films were created out of respect and the spirit of remembrance, but cynicism leads us to believe that someone decided enough time had passed, and it was time to make a buck.

Flight 93 did not raise too many eyebrows, with its small cast and relatively focused approach. But World Trade Center, directed by the controversial Oliver Stone, has caused a stir. We don’t need special effects to authentically recreate images which no American can erase from his or her memory, and which at the time of their actual unfolding didn’t even seem truly real. We don’t need to see a scripted reenactment of that fearful day in front of the television. The breathtaking uncertainty is still fresh.

There is so little that these films can illuminate so soon, but so much at stake. We have to wonder whether these portrayals will negatively affect how the events settle into written history and, more importantly, popular memory.

In this week’s Time magazine, Nancy Gibbs called September 11 “the loss with no grave,” not because squabbling hampers the construction of its memorial, not because of the monstrously contentious wars it spawned, not because of the evaporation of global goodwill or the erosion of American civil liberties or even the re-stoked inferno of religious rivalry. The loss has no grave because it was an act of aggression that, completely unlike its historical predecessors, could never be avenged by a single act of decisive heroism, no presidential pushing of the Big Red Button. That day revealed to us not a political enemy but many ideological ones. While political enemies can be fought on ballots and battlefields, ideological foes inhabit a disturbingly amorphous front line.

Too often September 11 has been exploited as a trigger for Americans’ emotions. It has become a stone to throw in political discourse, a rhetorical trump card. After all, this is a war of ideology, and often ideologies — at least the ones the war on terror is concerned with — aren’t couched in reason; they are carved into a culture. When certain members of our society seek to hardwire the American brain, to induce acquiescence at the mention of past pain, they commit an act of ideological violence. They fight terrorism on terror’s terms.

There is only one way we can achieve a righteous victory on all fronts. We must become better. We can defeat our enemies, preserve our proud liberties, and regain international esteem, but we will never do it by succumbing to the fervor of ideology or by lobbing missiles first and verifying intelligence later. We will do it by becoming a nation of better individuals, a nation of citizens who don’t sit on the sidelines, who learn, who think, who shelve partisanship and have a deep, frank conversation about our nation’s values.

People say we lost our innocence on that day. Let future generations also see the death of our naïveté, our complacency, and our ignorance. That is the grave September 11, 2001, truly deserves.