Unless I have badly mistaken the mood of everyone I know and almost everyone I meet, practically nobody has any particular use for the second anniversary that will soon be upon us. But it is vaguely felt in many quarters that something ought to be done by way of an observance. The first mentality is in my opinion the right one, even if people feel bad about harboring it, and the second one is defensible but somewhat sickly and likely to suffer increasingly from diminishing returns.
In my small way, I tried to anticipate this two years ago. I didn’t at all mind what some critics loftily dismissed as “flag-waving.” Indeed I was surprised that there wasn’t more of it than there was. But I never displayed a flag myself and argued quietly against putting one up over the entrance to the building where I live. This was for a simple reason: How will it look when the effort tapers off? There’s nothing more dispiriting than a drooping and neglected flag and nothing more lame than the sudden realization that the number of them so proudly flourished has somehow diminished. (The one over my building went away, nobody can quite remember how or when, and it hasn’t been restored.) In the meantime, I refused to accept an invitation to a memorial service for the many murdered British citizens, which seemed to me to miss the same point in the same way.
There were other reasons to oppose flagification. (Very many of the immediate victims were not American, for example, and most of those murdered and enslaved by Islamic fascists have themselves been Muslims.) I was glad for similar reasons when the order was announced that “coalition” flags would not be flown in Iraq. What is required is a steady, unostentatious stoicism, made up out of absolute, cold hatred and contempt for the aggressors, and complete determination that their defeat will be utter and shameful. This doesn’t require drum rolls or bagpipes or banners. The French had a saying during the period when the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were lost to them: “Always think of it. Never speak of it.” (Yes, Virginia, we can learn things from the French, even if not from Monsieur Chirac.)
This steely injunction is diluted by Ground Zero kitsch or by yellow-ribbon type events, which make the huge mistake of marking the event as a “tribute” of some sort to those who happened to die that day. One must be firm in insisting that these unfortunates, or rather their survivors, have no claim to ownership. They stand symbolically, as making the point that theocratic terrorism murders without distinction. But that’s it. The time to commemorate the fallen is, or always has been, after the war is over. This war has barely begun. The printing of crayon daubs by upset schoolchildren and the tussle over who gets what from the compensation slush fund are strictly irrelevant and possibly distracting. Dry your eyes, sister. You, too, brother. Stiffen up.
I think about it every day, without fail, even though it’s difficult (because of the aforementioned and enfeebling “sensitivities”) to see a replay of the packed civilian jets slamming into the towers or of the men and women who jumped, in flames, to their deaths. It’s perhaps a little easier for me to be reminded than it is for some others: My apartment has a direct view of the flight path to Washington National Airport, and I go past the White House or the Capitol several times a week. But never—quite literally never—without imagining how things would be if that flight from Newark hadn’t been delayed and if the United Airlines passengers hadn’t got the word in time and decided to make a fight of it.
If our Congress or our executive mansion had been immolated that morning, would some people still be talking as if there was a moral equivalence between the United States and the Taliban? Would they still be prattling as if the whole thing was an oblique revenge for the Florida recount? Of course they would. They don’t know any other way to talk or think. My second-strongest memory of that week is still the moaning and bleating and jeering of the “left.” Reflect upon it: Civil society is assaulted in the most criminal way by the most pitilessly reactionary force in the modern world. The drama immediately puts the working class in the saddle as the necessary actor and rescuer of the said society. Investigation shows the complicity of a chain of conservative client states, from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, in the face of which our vaunted “national security” czars had capitulated. Here was the time for radicals to have demanded a war to the utmost against the forces of reaction, as well a full house cleaning of the state apparatus and a league of solidarity with the women of Afghanistan and with the whole nexus of dissent and opposition in the Muslim world. Instead of which, the posturing loons all concentrated on a masturbatory introspection about American guilt, granted the aura of revolutionary authenticity to Bin Laden and his fellow gangsters, and let the flag be duly seized by those who did look at least as if they meant business.
Let me take the strongest objection to my interpretation, which is that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were exploited by conservatives to settle accounts with Saddam Hussein and that many Americans have been fooled into war by thinking that Iraq was behind the attacks. Leave aside the glaring and germane fact that Saddam was and is in partnership with the forces of jihad; not even the sorriest illusion is in the same category as a book published by The Nation, written by Gore Vidal and flaunted at “anti-war” rallies, which argues that it was essentially George Bush who helped organize and anticipate the atrocity. That’s a level of degeneration unplumbed by any other faction. So, the pitiful peaceniks are the chief moral losers, whichever way you slice it.
Should this solemn date be exploited for the settling of scores? Absolutely it should. When confronted with a lethal and determined enemy, one has a responsibility to give short shrift to demoralizing and sinister nonsense. (To take the most recent example of conspiracy babble to have shown up on my screen: I know very well that Bin Laden’s family was evacuated from the United States, with FBI and White House help, in the “no-fly” days that followed the aggression. I wrote about it furiously at the time. But this disgraceful scramble surely proves, if it proves anything, that the Bush administration did not have time to prepare for an attack that it allegedly knew was coming. Meanwhile, those who mutter darkly about the Saudi connection overlook the rather salient fact that Saudi influence was exerted consistently and energetically against regime change in Iraq.)
Two beautiful fall seasons ago, this society was living in a fool’s paradise while so far from being “in search of enemies” that its governing establishment barely knew how to tell an enemy from a friend. If there is anything to mark or commemorate, it is the day when that realm of illusion was dispelled—the date that will one day be acknowledged as the one on which our enemies made their most truly “suicidal” mistake.