In my years writing for newspapers, I’ve always hated the commemoration ritual. What new insight can we offer about Thanksgiving? What words can still capture the essence of D-Day? And, this weekend, what can we really say that ameliorates the horror of 9/11?
Mainly, I hate how commemorations, and national holidays, turn real events, and the flawed people and contentious debates that surrounded them, into sanitized histories that offend no one. World-changing events morph into extra sale days at the mall. Even worse, cantankerous old cusses write letters to the editor complaining that, say, Memorial Day has become synonymous with $2,000 rebates on pickup trucks.
A Transportation Security Administration officer discovers unallowable liquids in a passenger’s carry on luggage at the security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Aug. 3, 2011, in Atlanta. The TSA was created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
There are no speeches, proclamations, lectures, luncheons, political events and media tributes that can do justice to horrific or heroic events. How can we not recognize that the 9/11 commemoration frenzy, which grows in intensity as our memories of that horror fade, will ultimately end up as an additional day off for government workers and extended hours at Macy’s?
When I lived in Washington, D.C., I used to chuckle at the Malcolm X Day picnic at Anacostia Park. Whatever one’s views of Malcolm X, we should all agree that a picnic in the park doesn’t quite capture the essence of this black nationalist’s controversial life and violent death. Reflecting on that picnic, one writer celebrated how American life takes even the most radical actors and turns them into inoffensive characters.
By softening the edges of history, American society avoids some of the enduring bitterness found elsewhere. We know how marches commemorating centuries-old events lead to new violence in places as diverse as Ireland and India. But I’m not ready to reduce serious events and intriguing figures into banalities.
The events from 9/11 were terrible, awful, horrific, war crimes, whatever words you choose. We can wallow in the video images and recount where we were at the time. I woke up late, glanced at the TV and thought, “Oh my gosh, I better get to the newspaper and start covering this.” That’s not much of a memory, but it’s the truth.
It’s also true that the world is filled with death and destruction, some of it at the hands of American leaders who launched deadly reprisals against a country that had nothing to do with the attacks on the American homeland. Somehow, that debate has faded, also, as has the debate over the proper role of the American military in the world today.
Since 9/11, America’s vaunted freedoms – the reason, we are told, that “they” attacked us – have been diminished, and not just around the edges. The nature of our society has changed. We have become accustomed to the poking, prodding, investigating, snooping and endless spending by a government so large that it cannot possibly claim to be limited.
I’m reminded of this in little ways. Last week, I went to the post office. The building in Sacramento houses federal offices, so I waited to go through the metal detector, with the usual rigmarole – removal of belts, inspection of cellphones, etc. Once, while at the same branch, I talked with a man who took a picture of the display of the Constitution in the lobby, and then was descended upon by guards who made him delete the images. They no doubt missed the irony. Most of us just do as we’re told and move on. We’re used to these endless intrusions that, in reality, do nothing to improve our security.
I’ve covered many “public safety” issues in California since that harrowing day, and have watched as law enforcement and firefighter unions have repeatedly referenced the memories of 9/11’s victims in order to achieve additional pay and benefits for themselves, and additional powers over the public. The former are bankrupting the state, but the latter are distorting the nature of our society.
In the ensuing years, California has to some degree become a police state, as the courts have ruled that virtually all information about police officers – even about the behavior of the most abusive ones – is secret. Police have gained expanded powers using the fear of terrorism as an excuse. The state’s high court recently ruled that police can take an arrestee’s cell phone and go on a fishing expedition – searching all the many files and databases available on a modern smart phone. That one might get overturned, but it’s the rare intrusion that receives any push-back these days.
Even as the federal budget explodes, the Orwellian-named “Homeland Security Department” doles out grants to rural backwaters to protect this reservoir or that government building by buying fancy high-tech equipment that gathers cobwebs in some storehouse. Americans are acquiescing and losing our skepticism. We’re encouraged to report suspicious activity and to do whatever those TSA guards tell us to do – never mind that more of them have been found involved in illegal activities than the Americans who sheepishly pass through their screening systems.
We can recount the laws that have passed since 9/11, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, which give government even more warrantless powers. But the biggest problem is the attitude of our people. Of course, this growth in government and diminishment of freedom didn’t start with 9/11. It probably started the day after the new nation was founded.
But there have been different time periods and events that have pushed it down the road – the Civil War, the Progressive Era, World War II, the Great Society, the “war on drugs” and then the Sept. 11 attacks.
By all means, mourn the losses on that frightful day 10 years ago. But the best way to commemorate that event is to recommit yourself to cause of liberty and to recognize, as our founders did, that your own government remains the main threat to your freedoms.