The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
If I had been in the pulpit last Sunday, I’m not quite sure what I would have done. I couldn’t have simply ignored the fact that the nation was in formal mourning with flags at half-staff as some of my colleagues announced that they would do while others gathered resources and made them available to the rest of us, treating it as a major event. I would, I suppose, during the meditation, have remembered those innocents who died and honored the police and firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty, and called for a wider understanding and deeper respect for cultural and religious differences, and even for compassion for those whose fear expresses itself in violent hatred. Whatever I said, I could not have preached on it. One does not trample on the flag or deface the Bible. I was, however, so deeply disturbed by what seemed to me to be the obsessive behavior of the media and large numbers of the populace, that I could not think of the topic announced for this morning in a need to address it.
Oddly enough, it was not the reiterated stories on television or the full-page picture of the towers burning that made the greatest impact on me, but the comic pages. “Blondie”, which is usually about as bland as a comic strip can be and still manage to be amusing, had a single panel. Its entire cast of characters was gathered around an American flag in attitudes of the deepest sadness, and the words, “Never forget”, were blazoned in huge red characters. What in the world do they fear that we are going to forget? Oh, we manage to forget a lot: the lessons of history, what politicians did last year, but there is not an American who saw the pictures on television, being assured again and again that this was real, not the special effects in a disaster movie, who does not have the image etched upon our memories. There can be no fear of our forgetting that it happened. It seemed to me that Garry Trudeau got it right in “Doonesbury”, when B. D., the ultra-conservative army guy who lost his leg in Iraq, refuses to watch the continuous retrospectives. He saw it at the time and has been suffering the consequences ever since. He had no need or desire to live it all over again. Do any of us? We have constant reminders in our soldiers still in Iraq and in Afghanistan, even though the perpetrator of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the abortive one on the White House is dead, as are the young men who carried out his plan, and in the continuing erosion of our liberties in the name of security. Those who lost friends and loved ones on that day need no reminder.
What are they afraid we are forgetting? There was a song written a short time after our unprovoked invasion of Iraq called “Have You Forgotten?” that justified it in the name of the twin towers, reminding us of our feelings of anger and betrayal on that day and dismissing any calls for a measured or even a focused response to the incident. I felt as angry as everyone else. I felt vengeful and wanted retaliation, the gut responses that I think most of us had. But it didn’t take me long to have a certain amount of rationality kick in, and begin to feel that a blind lashing out to get back at anyone and everyone who could be imagined complicit was not the best response. You might think I could have at least forgotten that song, but they’ve been continuing to play it, as they have the one by Toby Keith whose most memorable line was “We’ll put a boot up your ass; it’s the American way.” I didn’t listen to the radio last Sunday, but I would be very much surprised to find that they weren’t playing them again and again on that day. Even if we could forget, we would not be allowed to.
And what precisely is it that we are being adjured to remember, that makes this particular incident, tragic as it was, so much more important than others that it becomes an obsession? Was it the loss of over three thousand innocent lives? Innocents die from violence on a fairly regular basis, after all, on our highways if nowhere else, and although there is a Hiroshima Day (and how many innocents died then?) hardly anyone can tell you the date. Even on the tenth anniversary of the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was no such outpouring of public grief — not even in Japan. Or perhaps it is the heroic behavior of our public servants, the police and firefighters who lost their lives in unprecedented numbers. I think that it might be just as important to remember that our police and firefighters put their lives on the line for us every day, and sometimes they’re killed — not in such numbers, but the loss to us and particularly to their families is just as great.
One commentator suggested that it was in memory of the fact that it was a foreign attack on our own soil, as if this had never happened before. It happened in the War of 1812 when the White House was burned by the British, and Hawaii may not have been a state at the time that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, but it was just as much our soil then as it is today. And we have been targeted by terrorists before, including a previous attack on the World Trade Center, also planned by Bin Laden. One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we really have forgotten one very important fact. It was not an act of war, an attack by a foreign government’s military, but rather, a huge crime, planned by one man and his associates, and carried out by nineteen of his young, fanatical adherents, and having an effect far greater than they had even hoped. At the time most Arab countries expressed as much shock and probably more anger at the incident as anyone else, and had we confined our response to Bin Laden and the government in Afghanistan that harbored him, rather than carrying the war to his avowed (and real) enemy, Saddam Hussein, the sympathy of the world would probably not have been withdrawn from us. It is even possible that with a more measured response we would not have fertilized the ground for more terrorists to be produced.
If we had remembered that perhaps it would not have become a matter of jingoistic patriotism, where American flags blossomed on every other car, and as it became more commonly displayed received less and less respect. Merchants began to feel that it was the basis of good public relations to display not one but five or six or ten American flags, and the ceremonial raising and lowering of it between sunrise and sunset became passé. It was unfortunate that Obama first thought to name September 11, Patriots’ Day. For one thing, there’s already a Patriot’s Day. It’s April 19th and commemorates the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and it’s when the Boston Marathon is run. His second thought, to call it a Day of Service and Remembrance was much better, but for many people, I fear, it is a matter of patriotism to hold on to resentment for this crime.
I cannot help but believe that despite our careful attempts to confine our commemoration to remembering the innocent victims and honoring the heroes who died in the attempt to save as many as they could, the real reason for making this day so important that it consumed almost all the attention of the media for two weeks before and some days after, is that we are holding on to our fury and our fear at that horrific breach of the social contract that resulted in the fall of the twin towers and the damage to the Pentagon. The perpetrators of the crime are now dead, and although terrorists continue to exist, and will continue to exist, as they always have, there is no longer a name or a face to hold onto as the enemy.
It has been difficult enough over the past ten years to keep people from blaming the whole Muslim world for the events of that day. The difficulty was exponentially increased by the invasion of Iraq and the implication that that was part of the same operation. In spite of the fact that it was common knowledge that Hussein hated bin Laden, the answer to the question of why we were in Iraq was often, “Have you forgotten 9/11?” Even if not stated, it was too often implied, and the anger against the perpetrators of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was broadened to include all who shared their faith. Although that’s putting it pretty broadly. The sort of Islam that al-Qaida promulgated was downright medieval, and, though it is taught in schools, primarily in Saudi Arabia, and funded by its rulers who in no way live by it themselves, is adhered to by very few. It’s like comparing mainline Christianity to the people who expect the rapture in October. People did, however, put it just that broadly, and perpetrated such things as the protest against the building of an Islamic center within walking distance of what they persisted in calling Ground Zero. And there was that stupid, petty, self-advertising little man in Gainesville, since moved to Fort Myers, who insisted upon burning a Koran. Actually, I have no idea whether he is little or big, but I can’t help but think of him as little since his significance was so blown out of proportion. It was indicative, I fear, of our tendency to take in the whole Arab world as guilty parties, that his threat could even be noticed.
The present series of revolutions in the Arab countries may muddy the waters enough to confuse those seeking an enemy to personify, but no one knows what the outcomes (and I use the plural advisedly) will ultimately be, who will rise to power, or what their policies may come to be. However it is, we need to stop remembering that we were victims of a vicious attack. We cannot forget what happened. We should not forget those whom we loved who died, that day or any other day; we should honor those who gave their lives in trying to save the lives of others, that day and every day, but though we cannot forget, I hope that we will stop intentionally remembering, teaching our children our own anger and pain. There has been unrest and mutual hatred in the Balkans for a very long time. The incident that ignited the hatred and is told and retold over the generations happened in the fourteenth century. We could do that, too. We could hold on to and feed our anger for seven hundred years, teaching our children to hate and fear, just as those young men who flew the planes were taught, believing, therefore, that their deeds were acts of noble martyrdom, or we can choose to let them forget. We forget history so easily, usually, being bewildered by events that are inevitable consequences of what has happened in the past, not understanding how things are as they are because of past occurrences and relationships, but sometimes there are things that we hold onto like grim death, and too often they are those things that feed and nurture resentment. If we must continue to commemorate that day of infamy, let it become like Guy Fawkes Day in England, when most of the children letting off the fireworks or burning the Guy aren’t even sure what he did or whether he should be admired or excoriated.
Let them forget, but let us, who cannot help but remember, learn the necessary lessons that we need to learn to make the world a better place, so that fewer young men in desperation feel that hating others is a noble cause worth dying for. It was no accident that the World Trade Center was a target not once but twice. It is symbolic of the global changes that threaten the old, unchanged Islamic culture. We need to understand what it is that we are doing that creates the kind of response that resulted in mass murder. Not that we should necessarily stop doing those things — there’s nothing wrong with women’s equality or blue jeans or rock music — but we should try to understand how our culture, which intentionally or unintentionally pervades formerly isolated cultures of another sort, raises such anger.
We often, those of us who really believe in understanding and respect for other cultures, think of ourselves as cultural colonialists, and that is indeed how we are often perceived, but there is one thing at least that we must not only learn ourselves but try to inculcate in others, and that is that same understanding and respect. Two things that cannot live together are tolerance and intolerance. We laugh when we say that the only thing we cannot tolerate is intolerance, but it is absolutely true. The world is too small for an intolerance that cannot allow others to go the way that seems best to them, even if what seems best to them is adopting some of our more offensive behaviors. We can no longer be wholly separated from one another. The Arab spring was fueled by the internet. We must inevitably enter a world in which Christians not only understand Muslims, but the understanding must be reciprocated and replicated with Buddhists, Hindus and all the other strains of thought. Asians, Europeans, Africans, Americans, all of us must learn to understand and at least to tolerate one another. It will come — it must come — and we must not stand in its way by holding on to past horrors, but let it go so that we can enter a new day of peace among the nations and the faiths of the world.