Friday, September 10, 2010

Brain Food: 9/11 reading material

Posted on Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 10:32 AM

With the ninth anniversary of 9/11 coming tomorrow, it seemed prudent to find some weekend reading for those looking to acknowledge the date.

The first I'm going to point you at is an essay from the late David Foster Wallace, wherein he posits the notion that we've perhaps been viewing those who died on 9/11 in the wrong light.

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

It's a radical idea, certainly. But it may not be as crazy as it seems at first glance. After all, even the anniversary of the attacks is already becoming as divorced from the event itself as Presidents' Day ("Ooh look, it's George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays — except not really. Let's go get 25 percent off any one item at Macy's!") or hiding eggs and venerating rabbits on Easter. ---

Of the innumerable 9/11 "commemorations" in town, one barbershop is offering free haircuts to service members, police officers and firefighters on Wednesdays, while a noble effort to assemble kits full of supplies for volunteers caring for people with AIDS will take place at NorthTown Mall. Though both of these are certainly "good" things, neither has more than a tangential relationship to the event itself. Instead, 9/11 has become just one more item we as a nation use to define ourselves (the list of which commingles events like the Boston Tea Party, abstract concepts such as "freedom" and a general sense of supremacy/dominion over all other nations) and get discounts because of. 

Another piece you may want to take a gander at is from Ted Koppel, the former managing editor of Nightline, whose 9/11 look-back somehow got posted a few days before he wrote it (it's dated Sept. 12).

The goal of any organized terrorist attack is to goad a vastly more powerful enemy into an excessive response. And over the past nine years, the United States has blundered into the 9/11 snare with one overreaction after another. Bin Laden deserves to be the object of our hostility, national anguish and contempt, and he deserves to be taken seriously as a canny tactician. But much of what he has achieved we have done, and continue to do, to ourselves. Bin Laden does not deserve that we, even inadvertently, fulfill so many of his unimagined dreams.

Though Koppel's piece will likely stir up controversy (of the "if we consider what the terrorists want and base our actions upon that — one way or the other — the terrorists win" variety), it seems to veer a wee bit off-track. It's probably the tiniest bit ludicrous to ascribe to bin Laden the psychic ability to discern we were going to war with Iraq as a direct result of 9/11. In light of the overarching message, though, it's somewhat irrelevant, as he later ("If bin Laden did not foresee all this, then he quickly came to understand it.") makes clear.

Amy Kellogg, a London correspondent for Fox News, writes about a former colleague of bin Laden's repudiating (refudiating?) him:

Noman Benotman, a former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group commander, who fought in the Afghan war against the Soviets alongside Osama bin Laden, writes to the Al Qaeda number one: “I write to you as a former comrade-in-arms. We fought together. We were ready to die together. Under the banner of Islam, we came to the aid of fellow Muslims in Afghanistan. To this day, I take pride in having fought against the Soviets and the Communists. We were in the right and no enemy could have stood in our way. This is no longer the case. After our victory, we became a curse for the very people we sought to help.”

Though some of the opinions sourced by the article* are a bit ham-handed (it seems highly unlikely the letter will "trouble bin Laden because the letter asks questions that will embarrass al Qaeda and expose its failures," as I doubt he cares much what people who don't agree with him think about his activities), the crux of the letter (the paragraph above) raises a good point about the PR strategy of terrorists in general.

But regardless of how you choose to spend your Saturday, can we at least agree that protesting (at the heart of where a tragedy occurred, no less) is something that can wait a day or two? Rallies for and against the proposed NYC mosque, protests and counter-protests regarding the burning of Qurans … this couldn't wait until Sept. 12?

"We want to keep everyone in their corners. You don't want the opposing sides to clash," an NYPD spokesman told the New York Post.

"All eyes are going to be on New York City that day. No one wants to see a fight on September 11."

It just seems a particularly strange way to commemorate the lives lost in a national tragedy, is all. I'll leave you with a (perhaps irreducibly) optimistic outlook on what 9/11 could be, from a column written by an assistant professor at UW-Tacoma and published in the News Tribune:

We can thus turn 9/11 into a day of reflection and fasting to honor 9/11 and post-9/11 victims and their families, to establish a spiritual solidarity against terrorism and violence, and to work together to mend the world.

*One sentence in the post ("Many people have asked since September 11, 2001, why there haven’t been more credible voices from the Muslim world speaking out against Al Qaeda.") is a classic journalistic feint I urge you not to fall for. Whenever "many people" are credited, it means either "I just thought of this" or "here's a controversial opinion no sane person will go on record expressing." Or, simply, "this is an untruth but by phrasing it like this it seems more credible."

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