Heartless?

I have a strong cynical and contrarian streak, and yet, by the time I end this entry I may very well delete it. Though I did not lose anyone close to me two years ago today, I know many who did, and I know also that this has traumatized an even greater number of New Yorkers and others around the world.

Why, then, does it make me sick to hear the National Anthem, and the proto-National Anthem (God Bless America) on every station today? Why does the label “heroes” sit so uncomfortably for me?

It seems, in some way, that we have taken an incredibly horrible single event in our history, and we are through celebrating it creating a national fetish. Let us treat in turn, the idea that those in the towers were heroes, and the idea that they were American Heroes in particular.

The vast majority of those who were working in the towers were heroes only in the sense that they were everyday heroes, in the sense that anyone who dies before their time is a hero. They are heroes no more than the tens of thousands who die in automobile crashes each year. I don’t begrudge them the “hero” mantel, necessarily. I think it is good to celebrate people’s lives upon their end. But it seems to me that many of those who died are elevated not because of what they have done in their lives, but because of their attainment of perfect victimhood.

I am not the first to identify what seems to be a marked view that Americans revel in their victimization. It seems that every celebrity must invent a horrible childhood if they do not have one, and find a source of their own faults elsewhere. And as the perfect victims, those who died two years ago have given us a target for our rage. Our problems are not within us, they are the other, the terrorist. In this, we do not just remember those who died in the destruction of the towers, the attack on the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania — which is entirely proper — we revel in their heroism for becoming our nations greatest victims.

There were everyday heroes on that day: firefighters who willingly gave their lives to help their fellow man; passengers who, when faced with a difficult decision, took their lives and their futures into their own hands to defend those they did not know. In both cases, their heroism was defined by their choice to put their lives at extreme risk or offer them for certain loss in order to do the right thing. I think it is just and right to celebrate these heroic people, and to hold them up as models to the rest of us of how good citizens behave. But being a victim, as sad as it may be, does not alone make one a hero.

Was an attack on the World Trade Center an attack on America? Of course, that was the intent of bin Laden. The WTC represented the center of the American Empire, and all that was wrong with a global, expanding American culture. Yet so many of those who died were not American at all, and many of those who were American probably thought of themselves as something like global citizens. They might work in the heart of New York, but their eyes were as much on the other global cities as they were on the United States. It seems especially odd to conflate their deaths with the deaths of soldiers who have lost their lives in the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Were these really soldiers of global capitalism? Were they targets of similar legitimacy as those in the Pentagon.

(I recognize it is tantamount to treason to consider the Pentagon a legitimate target. We were not at war–or at least did not consider ourselves to be. Of course, now that we have declared war on “terrorism,” does that not make soldiers legitimate targets of terrorists?)

It would seem to me that we play into the hands of those who organized these attacks when we agree that they were attacks on America. These were attacks on civil society. (Not on “the civilized world” as Bush has it.) I may not agree that American-style capitalism is the only way to go globally, but I accept that those working in the WTC, from the new immigrants — legal or no — who were performing service jobs, to the new and old immigrants and visitors who were engaged in global trade and the industries that support it, were if anything the opposite of the nationalism represented by our newfound narrow-minded patriotism.

If the WTC stood today, many of those who lost their lives would be detained and deported because of their lack of proper immigration documentation. Of those who were working here legally, many would not now receive their visas and would not be able to enter. Of those who remained, many would have opposed the wars we have fought over the last two years, if only because they were bad for global business.

The success of the attacks of 9-11 is not measured in the number of people who lost their lives that morning. It is measured in the way those lives have been used to shape a new America. This new America is xenophobic, insecure, unwilling to take even measured risks, cowed by authority, uncivil, and unjust. And many of those values are celebrated by the pseudo-patriotism of today. We have become, in short, precisely what bin Laden both hated in us and wished us to be.

Give me real patriotism, a patriotism that declares Americans as just, fair, kind, adventurous, tough. Give me patriotism that doesn’t need to wrap itself in a flag because it is a patriotism of action, of bravery, and of heroism. Give me a patriotism that does not play the victim, but stoically refuses to use its own victimization as an excuse for victimizing others.

I write here my feelings today, though I would never say them aloud. Too many people hurt too much today for me to want to cause them more pain. And yet, somewhere in my gut, I want to say “Walk it off, America.”

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4 Comments

  1. jeremy hunsinger
    Posted 9/11/2003 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    i would venture a guess that the reason why you think this is because you are familiar with the techniques of rhetoric and realize they can be used for good and for naught and have the ability to judge whether they are on your own terms, while still appreciating the positions of others.

  2. Posted 9/12/2003 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree with you more Dr. H (that’s as informal as I can force myself to be for some reason. I couldn’t even call Dr. Ozanich “Gary” as laid back as he was).

  3. Posted 9/12/2003 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Simply thinking about what happened on 9/11 sends chills down my back — a physical manifestation of deeply unpleasant memories. And I was thousands of miles away when it happened.

    I share your reaction to the barrage of hyper-patriotism, the cheapening of the word “hero,” and cynical attempts to milk the tragedy for political gain. I suspect that many others feel the same way.

  4. Posted 9/14/2003 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    Observing the US from abroad, the need for heroes (and the frequent use of the word in the most absurd contexts) almost seems to be a national characteristic. Therefore, I found this posting (and the replies) encouraging. As for the need for making all the victims of the 911 attacks heroes, might it also have something to do with the fact that the US establishment – especially the President and the intelligence services – came across as distinctly unheroic on that day?

2 Trackbacks

  1. By ethnic lounge on 9/13/2003 at 1:48 am

    Crusade of the heartless
    It’s 1am. I should write the second part to that 9/11 entry I posted yesterday, but honestly I don’t feel like writing about 9/11 anymore. It’s remembrace, two years after the attack, can only summon demons better left unawakened, especially…

  2. […] port this crap in our airline terminals. I’ve said it before, America. Suck it up. Walk it off.

    Cite as:Halavais, A. C. (Nov. 30, 2004). “No, you […]

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