Today is Patriot Day. (Not to be confused with Patriots’ Day, the Massachusetts holiday in April commemorating Paul Revere’s Ride, when they run the Boston Marathon.) At least it is, according to my daytimer. But have you heard much about it? I saw some flags flying at half-staff on my way in to the office, and of course you can’t really get away from 9/11 on the cable news networks. The testimony yesterday of General Petraeus was a reminder of what today is all about.
And yet, for all that, what is today all about? The war on terror is still going on, or so we’re told. The periodic terrorist attacks in Britain and elsewhere should remind us of that – but then, the Europeans have always been so violent. Every once in a while we get word of a potential terror plot uncovered and quashed, and we’re grateful for that.
We’ve got a war going on in Iraq, for sure, but even so it doesn’t quite feel as if we’re at war here in the homeland. There’s been no rationing, no rallies for war bonds, no sense of sacrifice, and most of all no shared sense of mission. We’re as divided now as we’ve been in a long while – liberal politicians against conservative politicians, anti-war conservative Catholics against war-supporting conservative Catholics. Father against son and son against father, one would assume.
I read this morning about myGoodDeed.org, a group dedicated to the idea that the best way to memorialize the dead of September 11 is to do something good for others. Now, let me be the first to say that I think doing good for other people, particularly people we don’t know, is a wonderful idea. As a matter of fact, I think it’s such a great idea that we ought to do it every day, not just September 11. There was something in that terrible time, watching the horrifying images coming live from New York, seeing the anguish of those searching for lost loved ones, that made you want to do something nice, to be someone nice. And in fact, many predicted that a kinder and gentler America might come about as a result of 9/11. I suppose that might go down in history alongside the Titanic and the Edsel as far as predictions go. Nonetheless, there’s something about the idea of simple kindness that is very appealing, that shouldn’t be discounted. And yet –
Is this really what we’ve come to? Commemorating the worst attack on American soil, the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent people, by a homicidal maniac who’s still on the loose – by being nice? If you’ll pardon me for saying so (and this is with no offense to the founders of myGoodDeed), there’s something awfully Oprah about all this.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know what we ought to do about the war on terror. I’m still not sure that Iraq was or should be part of it, although I’m equally sure we can’t just cut-and-run, even if we wanted to. From the get-go I’ve suspected that 9/11 somehow represented a Divine Rebuke to this country, one that has for the most part gone unheeded. And yet, as Drew mentioned yesterday, the lives of a lot of innocent people are at stake, and it’s the government’s job to do what it takes to protect them.
What I do know is that this country, and many of its people, lack a certain determination to see this thing through to the end. It’s been there ever since September 12, to be honest – at a time when we had the sympathy of much of the world, when much of the country was united in equal parts fear and loathing. That was the time, if there was any one particular time, when decisive action was called for. A demand to the Taliban ruling Afghanistan that they hand over Bin Laden in 48 hours or else. (And an assurance – no, a guarantee that they didn’t want to know what or else meant.) Some argue that we were in no position to act that quickly, that it took time for intelligence to determine exactly who or what was behind the attacks. But I recall that even as the clouds continued to swirl around Manhattan, informed speculation among pundits was that Bin Laden was involved. And besides, using the logic that has propelled us through Iraq, if the Taliban and al-Quada were really that evil a presence in the Middle East, we’d be able to justify an attack on them on general principle.
No, my fear is that we let the moment go, and it’s been a mess ever since. Had Bush requested and received a formal declaration of war in his speech to Congress, had he encouraged Americans to sacrifice and go on a war footing rather than arguing that “business as usual” was the best response – but then, one could go on and on in this vein. (Indeed, a couple of weeks after the attack I recall talking with a priest whose parish was near the State Fairgrounds, speculating as to whether or not there would even be a State Fair the next year – such a gathering of people would make a prime terrorist target, and at any rate the Fair traditionally had been suspended during wartime. Such an idea seems laughable now.) The war seems endless, and those in charge seem to lack any clear definition of “victory,” let alone the quaint thought of something such as unconditional surrender. And it’s doubtful that we are a stronger country than we were – our culture seems to grow more debased every day, our politics is more fractured and venomous than ever, and if there’s any real consensus on the direction to go, I have yet to see it. Perhaps in light of all that, doing a good deed for someone else is about the best we can hope to accomplish, pathetic thought that thought may be.
And so we return to Patriot Day, or Good Deeds Day, or whatever you want to call it. There will be a certain somberness about the day, as there has been each year since 2001 (though in decreasing measure each year). One should take a moment to commemorate the innocent dead in New York and Washington, and to remember those who heroically risked their lives (and in many cases lost them) to protect others.
But one should also remember that those who were behind this – the terrorists, the Islamofacists who seek to return civilization to the Stone Age, the rogue states like Iran, above all Bin Laden and his insidiously evil henchmen – are still on the loose, still looking for an opportunity, still doing their dance of death with the taste of blood in their mouths. This is the evil we face, the evil that men do. It is real, and it is present. And there will be a showdown – it is not a question of if, just when and where. It is for us to determine how we choose to respond. If we have the courage and the willpower to do so.
And in the meantime, another September 11 comes and goes, and we relive once more the images of New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Soon the snow will fall upon the ground once more, as the ash did from the collapse of the towers, falling as it did in the closing paragraphs of James Joyce's last and greatest story, "The Dead," as we all will be one day.
. . . His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.