Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Meaning of 9/11

This day in September does not pass lightly for a New Yorker. A decade ago a bright blue sky quickly turned black. Since then every September New Yorkers take pause and distinctly remember where they were on that day. They exchange stories year after year with fellow denizens and visitors who come to pay a visit to the gaping hole that is now rising again.

Ten years later the day was marked with the customary reading of the names of the dead at the site of the catastrophe. Grieving family members chanted names with tears and emotion. This year an impressive memorial appropriately titled "Reflecting Absence" was unveiled. 3,000 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993 are inscribed in bronze on parapets surrounding twin memorial pools. The two pools are constructed on the footprint of the twin towers. People found the names of their loved ones on the panel and broke down all over again. The sudden and tragic loss of a family member never comes to pass, but for those who died in this horrific act of violence, the pain never seems to surpass.

After the reading of the names at the memorial site, the politicians began to appear on the dais eulogizing with poems and speeches. Past and present presidents, mayors, governors and senators were photographed with somber expressions. A "photo-op" too salient to be missed. As I watched Bush and Obama in the same frame, I wondered what the meaning of this day truly was. What does memorializing the departed mean to those who only bore witness from afar to this terrible tragedy and did not feel some tangible loss? What does it mean to drape oneself in the American flag and talk about patriotism, resilience and freedom, when all 9/11 did was spawn more death and violence? What does it mean to look at the world ten years from that day and observe its true nature? What does an impressive monument such as "Reflecting Absence" do to the human soul?

What most memorials of this nature inadvertently symbolize, is that the human appetite for violence is infinite. When one visits a holocaust memorial one is shaken at the deepest depths, for the evil that was engineered at that time was unfathomable. Then there are countless atrocities that have taken place before and since that have only been memorialized in history books. Millions died when India and Pakistan were separated, there is no memorial that marks that moment. Thousands died in the killing fields of Combodia, a memorial made of skulls reminds of that moment in history. The countless who died in the Gulags of Russia and China and in the forests and villages in Congo, still remain unknown.

The idea behind memorials is to remind generations to come, never to forget and never to repeat. But the human race never relents. A decade after that September day, the dead are still piling up in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since then over thirty plots to attack America have been foiled. People are still willing to give up their lives in the name of violence and the military budgets of countries fighting this so called "war on terror" keep increasing exponentially with no end in sight. Even when the world grapples with the worst financial crisis in a generation.

For America, which is otherwise known as the "land of the free", 9/11 marked a defining moment. In the decade that has followed, the resources spent both human and monetary in the name of "keeping American safe", have reached a criminal level with little or no oversight. In a telling book titled Top Secret America- The Rise of the New American Security State, Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin uncover a whole new security apparatus that has uncontrollably mushroomed in the guise of keeping America safe. In the book the authors reveal the enormous size, shape, mission, and consequences of this invisible universe. According to their investigation, over 1,300 government facilities in every state in America; nearly 2,000 outside companies used as contractors; and more than 850,000 people granted "Top Secret" security clearance, monitor Americans at home and the "enemy" abroad. The result is a system put in place engineered by the infamous "Patriot Act", that puts us in greater danger by creating a "Big Brother" society that is antithetical to the idea of the United States. Americans are living in a quasi police state without an inkling, thanks to 9/11. The notion of being safe has come at the cost of fear and freedom, while we are told it is to protect that very freedom we are at war.

The irrationality of the response to the nineteen individuals who caused mayhem on 9/11, has been disproportionate and misguided to say the least. Volumes have been written and countless have died in futile wars, to prove that fact. Yet the architects remain free to write books and go on talk shows still proclaiming their innocence and sound judgment with audacity. And now nations are bankrupt as a result of these excursions, yet they stay the course. The Jihadists who respond to nations who stay the course, also seem to get stronger and hardened about their ideology, as it has become a way of life. Each day, each side keeps score by killing. This cycle can only reach its natural end, when the will to kill diminishes. As a result risk of another 9/11 taking shape in some corner of the world has not diminished, and so the full purpose of the memorial remains to be materialized.

While New Yorkers grieve on this day every year, they also have moved on and come to accept the new reality they live in. As 9/11 is consigned to the history books, New Yorkers do not need a reminder of what happened here. Everyday they are told "If you see something, say something", and the occasional security alert does not faze anyone even for a moment. While 9/11 means many things to many people, for most New Yorkers who where here, it means one thing and one thing alone - a day of immeasurable loss. A feeling no different from what most people feel around the world, when they lose someone or something dear to a stray bullet or a drone attack.
Yet we must live outside the fear that has been engineered as a result of 9/11. And only when - in the words of the rock band U2 "Where you live, does not decide whether you live or whether you die" - the true meaning of 9/11 will be realized.

It is what it is.