Probably everybody has a 9/11 anniversary breaking point, the moment when the excess becomes unbearable and it seems time to hide in Dick Cheney's abandoned bunker for the rest of September, at least. I thought mine was the day I learned "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson would sing the National Anthem at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday. It seemed the logical extension of the whorish product placement and commercial tie-ins that "Idol" perfected: Now its new product, Clarkson, would be magically placed in the official 9/11 anniversary tableau, à la Forrest Gump, as though she were a real American pop star, not someone nobody ever heard of a year ago, and Americans needed her art to heal us.
But that wasn't the low point. In fact, in a stunning display of decency and common sense, Clarkson tried to pull out of the 9/11 performance, afraid it seemed a cheesy marketing stunt that would diminish the solemn occasion. (But the management company that owns her now, 19 Entertainment, either cajoled or cudgeled her into singing.) If only President George W. Bush had Kelly Clarkson's good judgment. Bush's management group has announced its plans to use 9/11 to hype his coming war with Iraq, the president is going along with the strategy, and we're all expected to watch and applaud.
The president's handlers are not even shy about their effort to hijack the day of mourning. August appeared to be a very bad month for the Bush team's effort to sell the Iraq war -- Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell made dueling speeches contradicting one another, the president's father's closest advisors came out against the son's saber rattling, as did most world leaders, all while Bush was enjoying his customary monthlong vacation. Administration officials say it was all part of the sales plan.
"From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August," chief of staff Andrew Card told the New York Times this week. Besides, Bush's top political advisor, Karl Rove, admitted, "the thought was, in August the president is sort of on vacation." But White House officials boasted that Sept. 11 provided their boss with the perfect event to kick off his campaign to market a preemptive strike against Saddam.
"Everybody felt that was a moment that Americans wanted to hear from him," Rove told the Times. The anniversary events will let Bush "seize the moment to make clear what lies ahead," the strategist explained. On New York's Ellis Island -- chosen over Governor's Island because the Statue of Liberty made it "a better shot" on television, Bush aides said -- the president will make a 10-minute speech that uses the 9/11 tragedy to justify his war with Iraq -- an "emotional precursor" to a longer address Bush will give to the United Nations the following day.
Even without the news of Bush's 9/11 Iraq-war "marketing" plan, the anniversary was shaping up to be a trifecta of bad taste: the worst possible synergy of entertainment, commerce and politics. The temptation to just check emotionally out of the whole thing is understandable. But I think administration critics have to resist 9/11 fatigue, and anniversary backlash. Because if we cede 9/11 to the Republicans, Karl Rove wins. I'm determined to do the near impossible: Hold on to my conviction that Sept. 11, 2001, was a day we have to mourn and remember, an assault by a genuine enemy that produced both horror and heroism, a singular tragedy we should observe, in our own individual ways, no matter how politicians and businesses have degraded it.
Among lefties and even some liberals, it's becoming fashionable to try to diminish 9/11, especially the anniversary. Every anniversary roundup story contains the obligatory quote from some smartass noting that the 3,000 lost that day can't compare with other global tragedies: as many as 800,000 massacred in Rwanda in 1994, 200,000 in Bosnia in the early '90s; North Korea's famine and floods; Japan's Kobe earthquake; Bangladesh, Bhopal, Chernobyl.
But I don't understand the need to establish a hierarchy of loss -- even after getting a faceful of lefty backlash last week as the guest host of Laura Flanders' "Working Assets Radio" show, talking about the looming anniversary. An irritated caller made the point that Sept. 11 is also the anniversary of the 1973 U.S.-backed coup against Chile's elected leader Salvador Allende, which led to the murder of tens of thousands of Chileans. He suggested that that 9/11 outrage was a bigger tragedy than the death of a mere 3,000 people 29 years later.
But why can't we deplore both Sept. 11s? One answer is that the second is getting remembered to death; the first is virtually forgotten. But diminishing the deaths of 3,000 people doesn't seem the way to correct injustice. And yet that's second nature to those lefties whose political views grow out of a reflexive self-hating anti-Americanism. I was relieved, a year ago, at how few commentators on the left took the Noam Chomsky line -- that the al-Qaida attack was essentially payback for American misdeeds all over the world -- whence it's a short walk to suggesting that those 3,000 who died deserved it, if only for failing to rise up and overthrow our bad leaders. Yet we're hearing an echo of that America-hating nihilism as part of the backlash to anniversary excess.
Over the weekend the comparatively sensible "progressive" Web site Common Dreams was blaring a huge Drudge-like headline, "Canadian poll: Vast majority say U.S. partly to blame for 9/11." And the point is? Canadians can be insensitive assholes, too? I know that U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, has widened the audience for bin Laden's fascist, anti-West appeal. But a year later I'll still insist that he's a brutal enemy who cares more about imposing his blinkered brand of Islam on the world, keeping women out of public life, and smiting infidels than about liberating Palestinians.
And was that really the biggest news, progressive or otherwise, over the weekend? In San Francisco, the big lefty 9/11 observance and antiwar rally happened Saturday, but it was glommed onto a preexisting series of annual 9/11 demonstrations that, kind of unbelievably, started in 1999 to rally support for convicted cop-killer and left cult figure Mumia Abu-Jamal. (The organizers had picked 9/11 for the way it married the imagery of emergency and police brutality, and didn't have the good taste to drop it when a real tragedy came along.)
I have more respect for the "No More Victims" tour, also hyped on Common Dreams, designed to honor the suffering of all terror victims, from Afghanistan to Palestine to Israel to New York. But I've found myself thinking bad thoughts about it too: Isn't it sort of another way to blame the WTC victims? They died because these other people died in these other countries, thanks to evil U.S. policies. (God forbid we should care about these particular 3,000 terror victims for one single day.) Still, the involvement of 9/11 victims' survivors has kept the movement grounded in genuine sorrow over what happened a year ago, rather than in cloaked glee at another chance to bash the U.S.
If we're going to play the blame game, and blame America, even partly, for 9/11, isn't it fair to include the American left? After all, the left's failure to figure out how to communicate with their fellow Americans, rather than condescend to them, has to be judged part of the dysfunctional political landscape that lets American foreign policy be dominated by hawks and neo-imperialists. Personally, I don't blame the United States for 9/11, so of course I don't blame the American left. You can be critical, even harshly critical, of America's foreign policies without believing that those policies are responsible for a religious zealot's murderous deeds. But those who do might have to think about how their blame-game analysis makes themselves culpable.
I don't apologize for my grief over Sept. 11 last year, or now. I don't think it was out of proportion, better saved for Rwanda or the West Bank. First of all, I grew up in New York, a working-class Irish Catholic, estranged from my socially conservative family --yes, they're cops and firefighters and civil servants and blue-collar workers -- through my groovy radical elitist years, more accepting as I became a grownup.
I had no attachment to the towers until they were attacked and I saw the wounds of smoke and flame, then watched terrified human beings, tiny against the skyscrapers, jump to their death. I saw innocent people who died doing their jobs -- faxing contracts, making deals, cooking breakfast, washing windows -- and a lot of them who died trying to save other people. Early on, I thought about how -- when the hijackers flew those planes into the towers -- they shattered everyone's stereotypes of New Yorkers. Outside New York, they're all a blur: Blacks think they're Jews, and Jews think they're blacks. Working-class folks think the city's run by evil cosmopolitans; cosmopolitans think it's been ruined by working-class civil servants, urban corruption that Rudy Giuliani couldn't change. But when the towers were savaged, out tumbled the real New York: Irish and black, Italian and Jewish, Dominican and Chinese, immigrants from everywhere; they lived in Staten Island, Washington Heights, Harlem and New Jersey; they were investment bankers, pastry chefs, bicycle messengers, mothers. All those souls and all those stories; I pity anyone who couldn't be moved by it.
Yet I admit that I've sometimes cringed, over the last year, at the way 9/11 has been used: to defend an endless war against terror, to justify John Ashcroft's war against the Constitution, to sell magazines and "American Idol" and a war against Iraq that I oppose. I applauded the early, restrained, ally-supported strike on Afghanistan, but I've come to deplore the Bush administration's cowardice when it comes to taking on the job of rebuilding that ruined country: I'm afraid Hamid Karzai is going to be another 9/11 victim, somebody whose death is marked by a plaque and a ceremony in Washington, while the U.S. marches into Baghdad, throws that country into bloody chaos, finds and uses and discards Iraqi pawns like Karzai, war without end, amen.
So more than once, even before this kitschy anniversary, I've had to check myself and ask if the outpouring a year ago, the one I joined, had more to do with sentimentality and voyeurism and entitled naiveté -- How could this happen to us? We're Americans! -- than genuine grief and horror at an outsized human tragedy. I've let myself wonder if I was duped: If Sept. 11 really wasn't that big a deal next to Rwanda and Bosnia and Chile. But I resist such cynical accounting. If you can't care about all of those horrors, you can't care about any of them. And if we let grief and anger about Sept. 11 belong to the right, they win. The left can't change America as long as it hates it.
A little over a year ago, Bush's handlers had a problem similar to Kelly Clarkson's on "American Idol": How to make their product seem legitimate. More Americans voted for Al Gore in November 2000; a divided Supreme Court had to step in and stop the Florida recount to give the White House to Bush. A first year whose only accomplishment was a massive tax cut that predictably revived massive federal deficits and arguably worsened the recession had not assuaged many people's doubts about his presidency. There's no denying Sept. 11 gave Bush a legitimacy the Supreme Court couldn't, which is why he continues to wrap himself in the symbolism of the tragedy -- but that's no reason to pretend it wasn't really a tragedy.
So I'll observe Sept. 11, stand by my grief of a year ago, defend caring about it to whoever tries to minimize what happened. How to observe it, though, is a tougher question than whether to. I already had the best possible anniversary moment two weeks ago, watching Bruce Springsteen in San Jose. Apologies to anti-baby boomers, Springsteen revilers, everybody younger and/or cooler than me, but no other mainstream star has risked his status to do what's almost impossible: Tell the stories of the people who died that day, with all due grief, and also rail against the administration for the way it's used that tragedy to justify "a rollback of civil rights," which Springsteen decried from the stage at every stop in the tour.
On Sept. 11 itself, of course, I have to work. But I'll get up early and I'll be awake to remember that devastating hour of terror. Strangely, the main thing I remember, a year later, is everyone's kindness that day, as well as a sense of meaning and purpose and even, in the following days, a strange optimism. I too thought that the terror crossing our borders would pull us closer to the rest of the world -- to Rwanda, Bosnia, Chile, the Middle East; would ultimately help us lose not just our alleged innocence but also our isolation. I actually think that happened, the Bush administration's return to unilateralism on Iraq notwithstanding. The battle over who owns 9/11 -- what it meant, how it changed the nation, and how it should be remembered -- is still being waged. And if we surrender it to cynics on the right or the left, the bad guys really win.