9/11, Symbols and Scars

Earlier this summer, during our Colorado vacation, Melissa and Ben and I decided to attend the rodeo. We were three greenhorn New Yorkers out West; we wanted to see what bronco bustin' and bull ridin' looked like, and, I imagine, we probably thought it would be funny. So we drove out to the hills above Fraser, Colorado, ate hamburgers and excellent chili with cornbread, and settled on the bleachers around the dirt arena. Eventually a large man in a Western shirt rode out on a horse -- the announcer -- with a rodeo clown in oversized overalls toddling along behind him. They made banter for awhile (I hesitate to call it witty); the sun descended; we shifted in our seats.

Then, as the starting time approached, two teenage girls carrying the Colorado and American flags rode into the arena. The announcer said, "And now I'd like to introduce you to Carrie and Ashley from the local Fraser Valley riding club. They're carrying those flags -- girls, carry them high: We live in a great country, and we honor it whenever we honor our flag. Do you know what those colors stand for? I'll tell you what I think they represent.

"The blue -- well, that's for the blue sky that covers us all.

"White -- you know, when you combine every color in the spectrum together, what color do you see? White. White stands for the unity of all the races in the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave.

"And red -- red represents the blood that was shed in this country almost four years ago." Ben and Melissa and I became very still. "Yes, on September 11, 2001, terrorist from Al-Qaeda crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, and two thousand, nine hundred and sixty-six men and women sacrificed their lives for our freedom. We shouldn't ever forget that.

"And now I'd like us all to sing the national anthem."

We stood; Ben took off his Red Sox cap and held it over his heart; and we sang. We meant it, just as I know the announcer meant it. But I imagine the America I was singing for was very different from the America he was singing for, and I know his September 11 is not my September 11.

For this man, and for George W. Bush, and for much of the rest of America, 9/11 is a symbol. They call it "freedom," as this announcer did, but what that really means to them is America's ideological superiority and purity -- a superiority and purity that has made us the envy of many, and, in 2001, the target of hatred of a few. So therefore it also stands for America's martyrdom -- our "necessary" sacrifice for the cause of liberty and patriotism, a sacrifice that can be sentimentalized and fetishized endlessly.

And most of all, it is, or rather has become, a symbol of fear, a threat to be held over the heads of the United States public whenever the Bush administration wants something done. In the days immediately after the event, it was what would happen again if we didn't pass the Patriot Act. In the run-up to the Iraq war, it was what would happen again if we didn't oust Saddam. In the 2004 election, it was what would happen again if we didn't elect Bush. (I don't think they've invoked it in the service of Social Security reform and tax cuts, but it wouldn't surprise me.)

But for New York and for many New Yorkers, 9/11 is not a symbol. It is a scar -- the living memory of the time we personally came under attack, and we personally lost friends and family, and we personally were terrified and lost and confused and thought we might never see our loved ones again. And you don't sentimentalize a scar, or the wound that formed it; the memory, the experience stands for too much in itself. Rather you learn to live with it, its occasional twinges and nightmares; you wince when you see it and treat it tenderly. You do not fetishize it or speak about it with the unctuous self-righteousness of that idiotic announcer. You protect it, as you would protect yourself, for like all of the body, it is both sacred and mundane.

And you get angry when other people use your wound for their ends. Melissa said she saw "The Aristocrats" recently, and of all the outrages and obscenities in the movie, the only one she couldn't laugh at was the one that mentioned 9/11. The Republican National Committee actually dared to invoke it in fundraising letters last year; they stopped after New York firefighters in particular expressed their displeasure, but that alone would have convinced me to vote for Kerry. And beyond the enormity of the Iraq war itself, I have never been more ashamed to be an American than after Seymour Hersh exposed the Abu Ghraib prison abuses last year -- for that was Sept. 11 turned inside out, a single mass act of hatred that grew from the terrorists' powerlessness reversed to many individual acts of depravity because we could.

I suppose what this comes down to is that symbols are simple and scars are not. A symbol says "This equals that, and therefore *that*"; a scar says "This happened because this happened because this happened . . . ," with all the nuance that history and personality require. The terrorists saw their act as a symbol: They wanted to destroy the center of American financial power in place of destroying America altogether. We can best honor their victims -- those two thousand, nine hundred, and sixty-six men and women -- by acting with all the thoughtfulness and compassion and humanity the terrorists did not show, and for which our American flag should truly stand.


An organization called One Day's Pay is working to establish 9/11 as a national day of charity, service, and compassion. You can visit their website, and get involved.