Last year, on September 11, 2011, I was on a plane, just like I had been on September 11, 2001. I was uncomfortable. It wasn’t the plane or fear or the coincidence that I would be on a plane both on THE day and on its 10th anniversary.
My discomfort grew from the way this terrible tragedy has been exploited by everyone from politicians, to the media, to many individuals who lost no one but enjoy being entertained by the intense feelings such an event can evoke.
Let me make one thing clear: if you lost someone dear to you on 9/11, you can grieve all you want. You can isolate yourself on that day’s anniversaries or you can join others to commemorate it. You are in a different category from the rest of us.
But the exploitation of that day by some Americans is disgusting. Maybe it is because of my upbringing, in which people endured sorrow quietly and with dignity. I wasn’t around for Pearl Harbor, where almost as many people were killed and many more were wounded, but I remember my parents’ commemoration of it. They did nothing to commemorate it, even though it affected their lives profoundly, uprooting them, plunging my father into military service and putting them into a four-year struggle that pitted America against an evil more potent and challenging than the one we faced after 2001.
Last year as I was getting ready to return to Boston, the television coverage at my hotel was 9/11 non-stop, as it had been for the two weeks leading up to the anniversary. So was the radio coverage as I drove to the airport. The ceremonies were mostly dignified. But they sometimes featured the public wallowing in grief even though they had witnessed the event only on television. Our family complains about the “grief industry” swooping in with platitudes and pop psychology after any tragedy. We didn’t wallow after Pearl Harbor. The wallowing probably started with President Kennedy’s assassination, by which time we were sufficiently connected by the media to begin grieving en masse and seeming to enjoy it.
But it’s not just my attitude toward how to handle tragedy. It’s my shame over the behavior and judgment of public officials and of regular Americans in the aftermath.
George Bush was a prime exploiter. After the plane attacks, his handlers made him incommunicado, insisting that he fly aimlessly over the plains with no one mentioning that a leader should lead. He was so absent that Peter Jennings finally asked on the air, “Where is our president?” He limped in long after Rudy Giuliani and Tony Blair spread eloquent words of comfort throughout the land. Later, he took false credit for leadership during those days. It was embarrassing.
Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft were the next exploiters, trying to scare us with orange alerts and poorly prosecuting a war in Afghanistan because they were making up stories about Saddam Hussein. As bad as Saddam was, he balanced the power of Iran, which we are now left to deal with. Then they disgracefully tried to rewrite history last year in their books as they conveniently forgot how they had lied to manipulate Americans into believing threats that were not there.
There’s more shame to go around. The introduction of torture, the eavesdropping without court approval, the rounding up of both perpetrators and innocents, the establishment of Guantanamo, which Obama should eliminate, and the suspension of habeas corpus that was scary to people who worry about such things, were actions that repudiated American values. Silly us. We believed in the strength of Americans to face threats with our laws and values intact. Others, fearful and with less backbone, couldn’t abide American values when the chips were down.
The imprudent 9/11 political leadership was shortly joined by corrupt, foolish and/or naive bankers, lenders, regulators and ratings agency officials, who squandered our wealth in the interests of their own pockets.
They were followed by a group of apologists waving the flag of a capitalism they don’t understand, refusing to regulate these voracious industries which can benefit us mightily if they submit to a firm hand on the regulatory tiller. In refusing to do so they threaten western values much more than Mohammed Atta ever did.
The media oversaw it all. Dramatic stories get the attention of a public wanting to be entertained, so they supplied them. Even authors got into the exploitation frenzy, like Claire Messud’s “The Emperor’s Children,” in which 9/11 is a preposterous backdrop.
But there is change in the air. I’m writing this five days before it will be published on September 11. The Democratic convention, funny, fashionable and entertaining, has eclipsed coverage of 9/11. I’ve seen nothing about it in the newspaper, heard nothing about it on the radio. Of course, there is still time to resurrect the wallowing.
But it is going to be less of an event than last year. Maybe we are ready to put it to rest, recognizing its tragedy, but rising above it to become brave, reasonable and optimistic once again. Let’s hope so.
Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.