Is it OK to get over 9/11?
Peggy Noonan, from her column today, about 9/11:
They tell us to get over it, they say to move on, and they mean it well: We can’t bring an air of tragedy into the future. But I will never get over it. To get over it is to get over the guy who stayed behind on a high floor with his friend who was in a wheelchair. To get over it is to get over the woman by herself with the sign in the darkness: “America You Are Not Alone.” To get over it is to get over the guys who ran into the fire and not away from the fire.
You’ve got to be loyal to pain sometimes to be loyal to the glory that came out of it.
I don’t know about that. It’s something that haunts me, literally. I wrote a column for the Dallas Morning News last week (it’s behind the paywall, so I can’t link to it), in which I talked about how my fierce since of violation by the Islamic terrorists, and the sense of loyalty to the dead of 9/11 — especially the firefighters who ran into the danger — drove my thinking about the Iraq War. Specifically, I was unwilling to think about, even to listen seriously to, those who said the U.S. was foolish to attack Iraq as a response to 9/11. A lot of that was fear, the kind of fear that most people had in those days, and a lot of it was anger. But part of it too was a sense of loyalty — loyalty to the pain, and loyalty to the memory of those who were murdered by Islamic terrorists.
I have said many times before on my old blog and in my old column that I was wrong to have pushed for the Iraq war, and that I have spent quite some time these past few years trying to analyze why I was so eager to support the war at the time. Some of that has required me to struggle with my duty to the memory of the dead, and what it requires of me. If I forgive, will I not also break faith with the dead? Is forgiveness possible while maintaining that loyalty? Is the loyalty to pain of which Noonan speaks a way of expressing bondage to that pain? Can you hold the pain in emotional and philosophical equipoise, drawing something good and ennobling from it while not being poisoned by it?
I feel guilty for letting go of that loyalty. But I see also that loyalty made it hard for me to think clearly about important things — war, I mean — and acting on those thoughts. I really did think back then that staying loyal to the 9/11 dead required a war that, in the end, was unjust and foolish. But you couldn’t have convinced me of that at the time. I was supporting the noble and courageous thing, in my mind. And so were many of us.
Do you know the Carl Sandburg poem Grass? Surely you read it in high school. Here it is:
- Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
- Shovel them under and let me work–
- I am the grass; I cover all.
- And pile them high at Gettysburg
- And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
- Shovel them under and let me work.
- Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
- What place is this?
- Where are we now?
- I am the grass.
- Let me work.
- This poem captures the moral ambiguity of forgetting. If we forgive, in order to forgive, to bear the pain of war and suffering, we have to forget to some degree. The passage of time, as the poet notes, makes that possible. Ten years after 9/11, the pain and anger I internalized from being in New York that day and that autumn, I can stand outside of those emotions, which exhausted me. I don’t feel quite right about that, not so much because I feel guilty about abandoning the dead by hating and fighting on their part, but mostly because the fear that Sandburg is right: that forgetting the pain, that forgetting the killing, makes us vulnerable to letting down our guard, and allowing the whole cycle to happen again.
- We have to find some way to own the past without the past owning us.