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Commentary

Enemies Without and Enemies Within

Terrorism is evil. And so is big-business thievery.

September 09, 2002|DIANE McWHORTER

Among my compatriots in New York, the anniversary of Sept. 11 is being faced with a dread unrelated to anxieties about homeland security. No, we do not feel at all safe. Yet almost as troubling as the fear that things will never be "normal" again is a sense that things have gotten too normal too soon. Couples who brunch have reclaimed the abandoned apartments around ground zero. Firefighters get around unmolested by huggers and amateur paparazzi. New Yorkers in general have recovered from the tenderness that marked our casual interactions throughout last fall, and the families of the victims are fighting over their payouts.

If there is a reluctance to look back on the last year, it may be not because of what we will see but because of what we won't see. What is missing is spiritual resonance, evidence that something constructive came out of the slaughter.

Why did a trauma experienced so deeply and endured so magnificently inspire no commensurate civic vigor? The emptiness we feel a year later is the absence of redemption, of proof that we have been transformed by the pain.

A valuable key to how national identity is shaped by epic disaster lies at the bottom of the ocean, in a wreck that also had been the technological marvel of its day. The collapse of the World Trade Center irresistibly evokes the sinking of the Titanic 90 years ago.

Like the twin towers, the Titanic was a gaudy monument to progress--to state-of-the-art modernity and the crass materialism that came with it. And as with the World Trade Center, the great ship's downfall dramatized the inequities of a system in which ballrooms for the few crowded out lifeboats for the many.

Both cataclysms immediately inspired national "narratives" of democratic redemption, in which authentic virtues of discipline, selflessness and brotherhood were reasserted in a heroic defense of civilization. For the Titanic, as Steven Biel writes in "Down With the Old Canoe," his 1996 cultural history of the shipwreck, the moral lesson centered on the conversion of the first cabins' millionaires--epitomized by John Jacob Astor--from heartless plutocrats into gallant martyrs who gave their own lives so that women and children might be saved. The men in uniform who became the heroes of Sept. 11 were the polar opposites of those gentlemen dressed for dinner and death, but their role too was to restore an ethos of action, courage and sacrifice that had been marginalized in a techno-culture dedicated to the pursuit of toys.

There was a crucial difference in the way the country processed the earlier blow that may explain why the Sept. 11 aftermath has felt so stale and unsatisfying. Even the most sentimental versions of the Titanic disaster carried a harsh critique of capitalism's dehumanizing excesses. The national soul-searching that followed Sept. 11, however, brooked no such hard look at The System.

The reason is obvious: The thing that brought down the twin towers was not the icy indifference of nature but the hot zeal of human beings bent on annihilating our civilization. To criticize that civilization in this context would have seemed traitorous, even murderous. But in our hearts we knew that part of what the jihadists hated about us was what we ought to deplore in ourselves: not "freedom," as the president insisted, but MTV--the trash culture that is our most visible global export.

In the surge of patriotic feeling after Sept. 11, the public seemed hungry for something more sustaining than this junk food for the soul. We wanted to be told what we could do for our country.

It was a brilliant opportunity for civic renewal, a re-declaration of what it means to be an American. But instead our leaders gave us pep talks advancing the mindless materialism our enemies accuse us of: Don't stop shopping; don't stop taking vacations. Even on this anniversary they cannot find the words to engage us, except in the sacred texts, such as the Gettysburg Address.

The genius of our democracy is its tolerance for flux and tension, a recognition that ideals and trash coexist. But if we as a society do not confront the corruption within as forcefully as we fight the terrorism from abroad, then history will force the job on us.

Soon after Sept. 11, we were met with an almost pornographic pageant of corporate shame. The enduring mythic image of the past year, to be sure, is the firefighters charging up the stairs of the world's tallest inferno. But superimposed on it is another American icon: a disgraced CEO, trapped in his Texas-size mansion, crying in his white wine over his sad fate. If we are to do true honor to the heroes and innocents who died for their country, we must also acknowledge the civic idols who betrayed it.

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Diane McWhorter is the author of "Carry Me Home" (Simon & Schuster), which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

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