9/11 is Christmas for assholes. Instead of Santa Claus, we have Rudy Giuliani, sticking his face on our 9/11 commercials and Coke cans. Instead of Lord Baby Jesus, the Prince of Peace, we have Lord Baby Penis—otherwise known as The War President—who sees the day as a preamble to that one time he got to throw out the first pitch for the Yankees. While we don’t exactly go caroling, we do tend to sing Toby Keith’s ode to sticking things in people’s asses. And we feel so self-righteous about it.
That’s what kills me. Every holiday gets reduced to a cliché, but what that cliché is matters. The Valentine’s cliché is “Buy supper for the reason you’re not dying alone.” The Halloween cliché, depending on your age, is some version of “Ghosts, Candy, Fucking, Watch our kids eat candy, worry about our kids fucking.” The Labor Day cliché is “Shit, we don’t have to work today? Cool.” The Thanksgiving cliché is “The only thing I love more than my family is all this food, booze, and football that allows me to avoid my family.” And Christmas, the king of holidays, has the best cliché: “Be joyous you are alive.”
I’m not strictly Christian, so my Christmas is different than many, but I see it as a celebration of life. In the darkest part of the year, where the world and nature is trying to kill us, we light every light we have and say, “We are alive.” Next Christmas will be different—some family may be dead, some family will be away—but for right now and only right now, we are alive and we are grateful.
The 9/11 cliché is the opposite. It says, “People are jealous because you are American. They will hurt you because you are free and they aren’t. Keep constant watch on them.” Where Christmas brings peace, 9/11 rewards suspicion and fear. Its entire reason for existence is to invoke pain. If you don’t feel that pain, you are told you are disappointing the dead. There is a direct correlation between how acutely we remember this pain and how easily we can be manipulated into horrible, self-destructive actions.
We on the left talk about how President Bush exploited our fear to invade Iraq. Fair enough, but let’s also remember that we were desperate—desperate—to be exploited. Bush didn’t sell us the lie that attacking Iraq would be the solution to 9/11; he sold us the lie that 9/11 has a solution. And that’s the lie we return to every September 11th.
We need to believe we are in control. This is the same bullshit every action movie sells us. “Sure, there is evil in this world and there is squalid depression and fear. But if you punch it in the face really hard…” The best example of this happens when Lois Lane dies and Superman, confronted with the reality of death—a reality he can’t control—flies around the world so fast that he reverses earth’s orbit, making everything go back in time, so he can take another shot at saving the day. Good news for Lois Lane; not so good for the man who just threw up or the woman who gave birth to triplets. But all the audience cares about is that Superman wins. The good guys are in control.
Before 9/11, I thought America was in control. I don’t mean abstractly. On September 10th, 2001, I was having a beer with my roommate. His sister was in the Peace Corps in Sudan, and he was worried about her facing terrorist attacks. We lived in Washington DC, and he said, “Did you ever think about how we could be attacked at any moment? Seriously, we are Rome in the Roman Empire, a sitting duck.” I laughed in his face and said, “You’re crazy, man. No one’s ever going to attack America. We’re too powerful, and we’d kick their ass.” The next morning, he knocked on my bedroom door and told me America was under attack, and I thought, ‘Sorry I laughed at you, but isn’t this taking it a little far?’ We turned on the TV just in time to watch the second tower fall. Over the next ten minutes, my thoughts slowly evolved from ‘This is the most tasteless, well-executed prank I’ve ever seen’ to ‘Holy shit, this is real.’ As a direct result of this, my roommate went through a period where he was convinced he was psychic and he would try to read people’s minds. That is a far saner reaction to 9/11 than anything our elected officials did.
I thought America was in control, but we weren’t. A trillions of dollars defense couldn’t control a lunatic with a boxcutter and absolutely no fear of death. We went to war to restore order. We went to a second war to make sure there was absolutely no doubt of the order. That those wars failed is unquestionable, sad, and almost a little funny (Not as funny as my favorite true life fact of 9/11: The lead headline of the September 11th, 2001 The Washington Times: “Pentagon To Trim Staff By Fifteen Percent”). America acted every bit the cartoon bully that our least imaginative enemies say we are, showed our own weaknesses, and left no doubt about how not in control we were. Of course, you don’t have to have the psychic abilities of my roommate to know we would fail. Wars don’t restore order. At their best, they are akin to sawing off a gangrenous leg—a horror endured to prevent a worse horror. At their worst—well, at their worst, they look a whole lot like what America has done since 9/11.
What do people mean when they say, “Never forget”? I don’t think they mean it as a reminder, as I’ve never met anyone asking, “When did September 11th happen? I’m pretty sure it was September. The ninth maybe?” No, they’re saying, “Remember the pain. Remember feeling scared.” The pain and fear are real, of course, and as much as memory is an honor, they deserve to be remembered. Still, I think there’s something deceitful in this request. They’re asking for a re-set button. “Remember the pain,” is a sly way of saying “Only remember the pain,” or rather “Forget all the terrible things we’ve done in reaction to the pain.”
9/11 scared us like children. We reacted life children, hoping that some action could take away our fear. But we’ve grown since then. Fear is honest, but when we say “Never Forget,” we are retreating to that child-like state—we are elevating our fear into something holy.
Imagine your spouse was killed in a car crash, and as a result you went into a deep depression, became a miserable drunk (If you became a fun drunk because your spouse died in a car crash, that’s a different topic). Imagine you started fights with everyone you saw, got constantly arrested and couldn’t afford to feed your children. Would you want your friends to say “Never forget. Remember the pain. If you aren’t constantly feeling this pain, you’re doing it wrong”? Or would you want them to say, “Everything you’re doing is wrong. Stop it.”
Our pain is real, but it doesn’t matter. We aren’t in control of that. We are in control of the way we react to it. So if we can’t remember 9/11 correctly, then maybe it would be best to not remember 9/11 at all. Let’s treat 9/11 like The Mexican-American War, like the second person you had sex with, and everything our grandparents told us about gay people—let’s forget it.
Some may read this as an attack on one of the sacred cows of American pride, but they’d be wrong. It is an attack on the entire concept of American pride. I hate American pride. American pride is a disease; Lee Greenwood is just the most visible polyp.
My problem with American pride isn’t America. I love America. Football is better than soccer. Bob Dylan is better than The Beatles. Cold beer is better than warm beer. Diabetes is better than Malaria. Go America! I love America. I hate pride.
Pride is a feeling of superiority that you did nothing to warrant. I hate American pride for the same reason I hate American shame (If you’re an American who has sewn a Canadian flag on their backpack before going abroad, I kindly invite you to put your genitals in a Cuisinart). You should neither feel proud of nor ashamed of anything you did nothing to achieve. I gladly attended Lexington’s gay pride parades this year, but in a sane world, gay pride shouldn’t exist. (As a reaction to so much of this not-so-sane world telling people to be ashamed to be gay, an assertion of pride is very necessary). I’m happy to be American, and I’m content to be an American, and I actually love the July 4th cliché (“This country’s so great I’m going to get drunk and play with gunpowder”) but I am not proud to an American.
9/11 is the epitome of pride. As a result, our grief feels self-righteous. It’s kind of like after the Penn State pedophilia scandal, and everybody tried to out outrage each other: “This is horrible—it really upsets me.” “It upsets you? I have a nephew that age, so it bothers me more.” “You think it bothers you? I have a kid who loves sucking off old men, so it really bothers me.” Meanwhile, we punish people at the university who had nothing to do with it, just so we can say we did something. It pleases the lizard part of our brain that hisses “Action” every time we are upset, and we ignore the mammal part of our brain that comes later, asking “What good did that do?”
Our pop culture tells us to hold grudges. Luke Skywalker thought his parents were killed, and we wanted him to get revenge. Harry Potter knew his parents were killed, and we needed him to get revenge. Fine, fine, fine. But Harry Potter is kind of a bitch. His parents dying is a huge bummer, but he never knew them. In our world, people’s parents die all the time, and they get over it. That his main concern is still avenging them when he’s seventeen, makes him, I’m sorry, kind of a bitch. Our incessant need for revenge has turned us all into a nation of bitches.
These are trivial examples, but they resonate in important ways. Why do we still talk about World War II like it happened last week? We talk about Germany like they are war-hungry sociopaths, forgetting that they have been the one talking us down from our global bar-fight for half a century. That doesn’t matter because in the infancy of the American empire, we had our heroes and our villains. Germany is our villain, and to acknowledge that that may have changed is to acknowledge that we are no longer infants. More importantly, it dilutes the crimes that we committed during the Cold War (“Would you appease Hitler in Vietnam?”) and it brushes aside the apartheid that happens in Israel every day.
What would have happened if we forgot? If on the morning of 9/11, I turned to my roommate, who had just seen the future, and said, “Huh, that was weird,” and went about my day? What would have happened if all of America did that?
We would have certainly avoided one war and probably avoided two. More Americans than have died on 9/11 would be alive. So essentially, we could have prevented a second 9/11 by ignoring 9/11. That doesn’t even speak to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died. Our fear was real—it still is—but is that worth that price in blood? Would we be better off if we ignored 9/11?
No, actually. For one, we wouldn’t be human. One of the highest human functions is empathy, and the fact that we feel such strong empathy fourteen years removed speaks to our ability to love one another. If the sum-total of my thoughts after watching people commit suicide to avoid burning alive is “Shit, we don’t have to work today? Cool”, then I would be so degraded that I would barely be a human.
The problem isn’t that we remember; it’s that we half-remember. We remember our pain, but we don’t remember the pain we caused. We remember our fear, but we don’t remember that we became the bully, inciting fear in others. We remember our pride to be Americans, but not our joy to be Americans.
When we say “Never Forget”, let’s actually never forget. We remember the horror of 9/11 and remember the horror we inflicted because we were scared. Let’s remember that we are no longer the same country that was attacked, and we don’t want to be. Let’s not let anyone scare us into war ever again.
What we talk about when we talk about 9/11 is bullshit. We talk about American flags, shitty country music, the opening pitch of The World Series (Nice form, W, have you considered becoming a pitcher? Or seriously any motherfucking thing in the world other than president?). We can forget that.
Instead, let’s remember September 11th, 2015. What has happened over the last 14 years to shape this country, for good and for ill? What can we do to make the world better on September 11th, 2016? A nation without pride and without shame would not only make for a better world, it would make for a country that would utterly confound Osama Bin Laden and any Bin Ladens to come. That is a better revenge than anything we can punch in the face.