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A Look Back: 9/11 and the Culture of Grief

September 10, 2006

On this the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the Department of Defense once again organized the "Freedom Walk" 9/11 commemorative march to the Pentagon. But as I wrote last year in "9/11 and the Culture of Grief," this and other ritualistic displays of grief and remembrance reflect the new mass cultural experience of participatory mourning in the United States. And for a nation engaged in a global war with Al Qaeda, the American culture of grief is not only unseemly, it is dangerous.
For more, see the piece "9/11 and the Culture of Grief," reprinted in full below.

This fourth anniversary of the devastating September 11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington were marked with the usual ritualistic displays of grief and remembrance. Some, like the World Trade Center ceremony in New York were heartfelt and moving. Others, like the Bush administration's so-called "Freedom Walk" in Washington DC appropriated (or perhaps more accurately, misappropriated) the symbols of 9/11 for partisan political ends. And some, like the Nick Lachey/Jessica Simpson pop rendition of "America the Beautiful" simulcast for Sunday's NFL kick-off, took kitsch to new levels.
All of these 9/11 tributes, though, shared a common element. They reflect the new American Culture of Grief. A growing trend in the U.S. since the death of Princess Diana, the culture of grief unites entertainment, news and politics to produce a mass cultural experience of participatory mourning. And for a nation engaged in a global war with Al Qaeda, the American culture of grief is not only unseemly, it is dangerous.
This is not just a question of decorum, but we can start there. In essence, high-profile, media-focused 9/11 festivities like the Freedom Walk inappropriately commemorate a devastating American defeat. September 11th, like Pearl Harbor before it, saw a brutal attack on the United States, with thousands dead and a nation in shock. Yet Pearl Harbor is remembered with somber, solemn ceremonies and moments of reflection; September 11 should be as well. In 1941, Americans flocked to recruiting stations; in 2001, the Federal Government paid 9/11 families an average of $1.5 million, in large part to avoid lawsuits against the airlines. The United States may yet suffer attacks even more devastating than 9/11; in their wake, institutionalizing pep rallies like the Freedom Walk may come to be source of shame and self-indulgence.
The Pearl Harbor analogies for 9/11 should not end there. The Japanese attack on US forces in Hawaii was not only launched the United States into World War II, it was a tectonic change, a historical marker seared into the consciousness of all Americans. Americans surely felt the same sense of loss and violation on December 7, 1941 as they did on September 11, 2001. But they also understood that their world had changed forever and that a monumental effort by all Americans would be needed not only to defeat the threats from Japan and Nazi Germany, but to ensure, in FDR's words, "that this form of treachery shall never we will endanger us again."
Following Pearl Harbor, Americans more than anything else realized that shared sacrifice would be required if the United States were to prevail. If there was any question about the American sacrifice that was both called for and expected, President Franklin Roosevelt ended the discussion in his fireside chat of December 9, 1941:

On the road ahead there lies hard work-grueling work-day and night, every hour and every minute.
I was about to add that ahead there lies sacrifice for all of us.
But it is not correct to use that word. The United States does not consider it a sacrifice to do all one can, to give one's best to our Nation when the Nation is fighting for its existence and its future life.
It is not a sacrifice for any man, old or young, to be in the Army or the Navy of the United States. Rather is it a privilege.
It is not a sacrifice for the industrialist or the wage earner, the farmer or the shopkeeper, the trainman or the doctor, to pay more taxes, to buy more bonds, to forego extra profits, to work longer or harder at the task for which he is best fitted. Rather is it a privilege.
It is not a sacrifice to do without many things to which we are accustomed if the national defense calls for doing without.

One needs only a moment's reflection on FDR's words to realize why our current obsession with mass grieving after September 11 is an obscenity, an affront to traditional American values of shared sacrifice and common defense.
In World War II, 15,000,000 American men and women served in the nation's armed forces. In George W. Bush's America, there is no call for national service, leaving our volunteer military badly - and unnecessarily - overstretched around the world. Our security abroad and safety at home is threatened as a result. Yet Americans of both parties and all walks of life are largely silent.
During World War II, the "Greatest Generation" willingly paid more taxes, with the top rate reaching 91%. In George W. Bush's America, the United States government for the first time in its history cut taxes during wartime. And with our troops in harm's way and America facing massive budget deficits, President Bush and the Republican Party want to cut them further, in a massive transfer of wealth to the richest among us. Yet Americans of both parties and all walks of life are largely silent.
During World War II, all Americans steadfastly endured privations at home, including gasoline rationing, limitations on travel, and shortages of commodities of all kind. In George W. Bush's America, there is no call for conservation and sacrifice at home. Americans howl in protest at $3 a gallon gas and rising heating oil and natural gas prices. There is no strategy for national energy independence, no mandates for greater fuel efficiency or conservation, no penalties for consumption or incentives to save. Yet Americans of both parties and all walks of life are largely silent.
So on this fourth September 11th, we continue our ritualized mourning. The ceremonies in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania are broadcast on all networks, accompanied by hour after hour of "a look back" at "the day the world changed." We don our NYFD and NYPD hats and wipe a tear as we debate this WTC memorial or that Freedom Tower design. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan and Iraq, in bases in the Persian Gulf and now our the American Gulf states, volunteer troops who fight in our name protect us. We stand behind them, but not among them.
On this September 11th, we would do well to recall more of FDR's wartime leadership now so dearly missing in Washington:

We are now in this war. We are all in it-all the way. Every single man, woman, and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories-the changing fortunes of war.

The Greatest Generation heard FDR's call. Have we?


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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