Mourning in America

THE PEOPLE of the United States were subjected to a second attack last week— a media attack of teeth-grinding clich鳬 platitudes, jingoism, and unsolicited advice. "We should all resolve to go on being Americans," blared a fatuous op-ed headline in The Seattle Times, as though people were having second thoughts. I lost count of the number of pundits who advised that "We must track down the hijackers and bring them to justice!" (I hope they take tweezers and Ziploc bags.)

But more serious was the complete disconnect between what we saw and heard from our political and media mandarins and what we, ourselves, were saying, feeling, and doing. Across America, we prayed. We wept. We sought each other out—for safety, for reassurance, to talk through our fear and sorrow and grief and rage, to convince each other that it wasn't just a bad dream that the World Trade Center and the west side of the Pentagon had not only been destroyed, but had stayed destroyed.

On the evening of Sept. 11, I left my cocoon of computer screen, radio, and TV to attend two events. First was a hastily called peace rally at Westlake Park attended by a couple of hundred people. I was the first of several (otherwise) impressive speakers, but to "warm up" the crowd, a guitar-playing duo sang a half-hour of cringe-inducing peace songs: "Give Peace a Chance," "Kumbaya," "We Shall Overcome." The intentions were good, but the effect was jarring and probably offensive to many people who heard it on TV.

As Americans veered dangerously between shock, grief, and rage, it was a day to urge calm, but it was not a time to imply to those who wanted the military to flatten something that their impulses were bad. At some level, almost everyone felt that desire and emotion. It was a day when doves and hawks alike needed to come together and recognize their common sorrow, fear, and anger.

Later, I went to an enormous interfaith service at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral on Capitol Hill, one of several such services held in Seattle. This was actually a far more effective "peace" event— calming, community building, invoking the things all of us felt, including frailty. Even for people who don't recognize some form of a higher power, there are simply days when we must acknowledge that some things are completely beyond our control, personally or as a society. Sept. 11, 2001 was such a day.


That context was utterly missing from how our pundits or politicians responded—on Tuesday or ever since. For most of us—certainly for anyone born after Pearl Harbor—the vulnerability that comes with suddenly, unexpectedly being under attack and perhaps feeling our lives or the lives of our loved ones are at risk was a wholly new experience. Media coverage did its audiences a grave disservice by ignoring that. Its absence also has political implications, both indirectly—by building support for instant retaliation, even against someone else's innocent civilians—and at times directly, as when Pat Robertson got on Fox and spewed anti-Islamic hatred.

In a country where overwhelming numbers of people say they believe in God, Robertson was the only faith-based voice the networks offered. Nobody invoked faith as part of the healing process, excepting politicians, who are singularly unqualified as spiritual advisers and have it all memorized as part of their stump speeches.

And certainly the media offered nobody asking for forgiveness for the perpetrators. That's a terribly difficult concept in a time like this, but it's a central tenet of Christianity. Its absence was notable and ominous.

Israel, which understands the emotional impact of terrorist attacks, immediately called a "day of mourning" for Wednesday on our behalf. George Bush got around to it two days later, and it was a lame-ass affair: a two-minute gesture here, a public event there.

When John F. Kennedy was shot, the country shut down. SHUT DOWN. That was what George Bush should have called for: a day on which offices, schools, stores, everything closed, making the day available for people to spend in reflection or community, honoring the victims and their families; processing our emotions; coming to terms with the rearranged terrain of the world we thought we knew. That entire need was relegated to a throwaway line in a press conference. It was an insult to the dead, and the living.

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