What We Really Lost After 9/11

Today’s New York Times marks the empty, token sacrifice we’ve made since 9/11, and names what we were really cheated of.

It was a time when the nation was waiting to find out what it was supposed to do, to be called to the task that would give special lasting meaning to the tragedy that it had endured. But the call never came.

The attacks themselves have begun to acquire the aura of inevitability that comes with being part of history. We can argue about what one president or another might have done to head them off, but we cannot really imagine a world in which they never happened, any more than we can imagine what we would be like today if the Japanese had never attacked Pearl Harbor.

What we do revisit, over and over again, is the period that followed, when sorrow was merged with a sense of community and purpose. How, having lost so much on the day itself, did we also manage to lose that as well?

The time when we felt drawn together, changed by the shock of what had occurred, lasted long beyond the funerals, ceremonies and promises never to forget. It was a time when the nation was waiting to find out what it was supposed to do, to be called to the task that would give special lasting meaning to the tragedy that it had endured.

But the call never came. Without ever having asked to be exempt from the demands of this new post-9/11 war, we were cut out. Everything would be paid for with the blood of other people’s children, and with money earned by the next generation. Our role appeared to be confined to waiting in longer lines at the airport. President Bush, searching the other day for an example of post-9/11 sacrifice, pointed out that everybody pays taxes.

That pinched view of our responsibility as citizens got us tax cuts we didn’t need and an invasion that never would have occurred if every voter’s sons and daughters were eligible for the draft. With no call to work together on some effort greater than ourselves, we were free to relapse into a self-centeredness that became a second national tragedy.

What the Times doesn’t say is that it could have been no other way with a leader as morally vacant as ours, a president whose first words of inspiration were to buy, buy, buy and show our patriotism and courage by indulging in mindless consumerism.

There was a time when America could do better than this, and I’m still not convinced we chose the alternative. It’s a plain fact that George Bush received less of the popular vote in 2000, and from everything I’ve read about Ohio in 2004, I think the chances are good he did that year also. Those of us who want something finer are still out here. We just have to get better at claiming it.

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