Nine Years

It was a beau­ti­ful day in Sep­tem­ber, a bright blue morn­ing of promise and sun­shine. At least it was in Saint Paul, Min­neso­ta; from all the pic­tures it appeared to be just as gor­geous in Man­hat­tan, too. A far-away city to which I had nev­er been, the unex­pect­ed news from there that autumn morn­ing cast a pall over my day, as it did for every­one else who heard it, a pall that mir­rored so per­fect­ly the chok­ing cloud of dust and smoke that would pour out over the heart of New York City that morn­ing.

Nine years. So much has hap­pened, at least in my nar­row sphere. I have mar­ried, fathered chil­dren, changed jobs, and start­ed grad­u­ate school. But when I cast my eyes on the world, it seems so lit­tle has changed. The hasty wars of revenge that the Unit­ed States launched still drag on, their end seem­ing no more imma­nent than when they first began. Dras­tic regime change has hap­pened in Iraq, Afghanistan, and here at home, and yet I find no more rea­son to feel any patri­ot­ic stir­ring than I did before.

The attacks that day are con­tin­u­al­ly referred to as an act of war, and I sup­pose in a way they were. An orga­nized group will­ful­ly struck vio­lent­ly and inge­nious­ly at key sym­bol­ic points in the infra­struc­ture of a super­pow­er. Eggheads can quib­ble over whether the acts of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ists with no clear nation­al ties or sanc­tion can tru­ly be said to con­sti­tute an act of war; every per­son in Amer­i­ca knew before the Tow­ers hit the ground that the Unit­ed States would be at war with some­one, as soon as their lead­ers found some­one to be at war with. For a time, they could even make do with call­ing the nation to arms against an abstract noun.

Today the con­tro­ver­sy rages over the build­ing of an Islam­ic cen­ter two blocks from the World Trade Cen­ter site. This pro­pos­al has been called tri­umphal­ist, an insult to the thou­sands who per­ished that day, a fur­ther attack on the Amer­i­can way of life. In much of the rhetoric, Ground Zero is referred to, explic­it­ly or implic­it­ly, as holy ground. And yet if this is the case, let’s set aside what may or may not be built around the cor­ner or down the street: what are we our­selves erect­ed right on this only ground? That’s right, office build­ings. Com­mer­cial office space. Some­how that fails to con­vey to me the sense that there is any sacred bub­ble over this site, if we can only put up anoth­er tow­er­ing stack of cubi­cles to replace the ones that were struck down by evil vil­lains.

The attacks of 11 Sep­tem­ber 2001 are the cul­mi­na­tion of a com­plex web of gov­ern­ment poli­cies, cul­tur­al devel­op­ments, and var­i­ous reli­gions grow­ing both more rad­i­cal and more lack­adaisi­cal. There is no one focus for blame, much as we would wish there was. There would be noth­ing more sim­ple that to wrap a neat bow on a group, how­ev­er vast, demo­nize them and wipe them out. We are cer­tain­ly capa­ble of doing so. But the chal­lenge before us, as a nation, as a world, is to rise above that lizard-brain reac­tion, to rise above our ani­mal natures, and to labo­ri­ous­ly work to build a world of peace, jus­tice, and love.

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