Mayor Michel Bloomberg, who has some personal knowledge of what $1Billion really means, thinks it’s too much to spend on a memorial to the World Trade Center fallen. Intimacy with $1 Billion is way above my pay grade, but I not only think it’s too much, I’m appalled by it. Now don’t get me wrong I feel deeply for those 3,000 innocent victims of 9/11 and for their families, collectively and individually. Having officiated at hundreds of funerals while an active rabbi, I understand what a death in the family means, even when it comes to one naturally in the “fullness of years”. That said, there is something about both what seems a disproportionate tribute and our attitude to the families that doesn’t sit well with me. Without question they played a critical role in shaming the President and Congress to get the 9/11 Commission off the ground, and more importantly give it teeth and a sense of urgency. Whether that effort ultimately has made any difference in our preparedness or security remains in doubt, but at least it took place. At the same time, restoring the Trade Center property (I hate the term Ground Zero which seems so crassly made for television), has been stymied leaving a wound in the city’s landscape and along with it a reminder that we remain in some significant way impotent in the face of disaster. Dealing with the families, taking care not to offend or turn them against us, is like walking on eggs and the only analogy that I can think of is how we treat the Cuban Exiles in Miami.
For reasons beyond rational comprehension, this particular group of immigrants has been canonized in America. For more than 40 years they have held our foreign policy hostage (much as did Formosa in thwarting our recognition of the real China for decades after World War II). We lionize these Batista Cubans somehow pretending that their government was a bastion of democracy, which is absolutely the opposite of what it was. Batista was a dictator and a two-bit corrupt dictator at that. He was in bed with the Mafia and on the take from American business interests both of whom helped him exploit an impoverished population. Of course, he was our dictator so we coddle these people fearing that crossing them will cost us the Florida vote. Not far below the surface is a continued sense of guilt that the greatest power on earth couldn’t help those ragtag exiles make it at the Bay of Pigs. It’s a guilt that hangs over our psyche like a clichéd Jewish mother.
Of course, the 9/11 families are not the same as the Cubans, but they have put us (or we have put ourselves) in a similar position, especially the guilt part. Just as the Cubans have short circuited every effort to engage with Castro, they held the rebuilding downtown hostage claiming the potential desecration of hallowed ground. If the Israeli’s did the same thing there would be lots of empty spaces in their cities and towns. Perhaps it would be good for us to stop a moment and put their terrible tragedy in context. In 2001, as in many of the years before and after, approximately 16,000 Americans (including children) lost their lives to violence. Perhaps murderers aren’t exactly the same kind of terrorists as those guys who used airplanes as WMDs, but I don’t think the mother of a child shot in drive-by in a neighborhood terrorized by gangs would make that fine distinction. There is no accurate count of how many innocent Afghani civilians lost their lives when we retaliated for 9/11, but if you hold to the Biblical “eye for an eye” injunction (which I don’t), things probably got evened out pretty quickly. Deaths of the innocent here or there were no less or more horrendous or painful. We don’t know anything about the surviving families in Afghanistan, but you can be sure they don’t have nearly the stroke of the victim’s families here; read that no stroke at all. The fact that they are nameless and faceless, statistical survivors of statistical fatalities, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist as individuals and that they don’t feel equal pain.
Even more germane to the 9/11 victims and their families, are the innocent civilians who have lost their lives in Iraq, long suggested by the Bush Administration as related to 9/11 literally or by innuendo. Again, we don’t have a real headcount (many of these people had unlisted identities not merely unlisted telephone numbers), but at least there are some guesstimates – 100,000 is the widely accepted undercount. However devastating the loss of the 9/11 families, even understanding that most will never fully recover, contrast in your mind for a moment their lives with those who lost loved ones in Iraq. In the first place the 9/11 families received financial compensation (meted out in proportion to their lost one’s economic worth which is a bit weird, but not the subject of this writing). The rest of us (the community survivors) along with them have hardly missed a beat in getting on with our lives. I agree with those who suggest that a principal reason few of us are protesting in the streets today is that Americans have yet to experience the smallest sacrifice for the war. We are overwhelmed instead by blissful normalcy. We shop, eat 3 square, watch TV, engage in our usual well lit, cooled or warmed household activities, send the kids off to school with no more than a parent’s normal degree of paranoia and, if we’re lucky to be in the right bracket have even experienced a generous tax break to reward us one must assume for having to endure any bad or disruptive thoughts that might take away from our entitlement. We all know the Iraqi citizen’s experience contrasts sharply from that. Their world really has changed.
If we are engaged in a war against terrorism because we owe it to the victims of 9/11 or their families, we are in it for the wrong reason. At the very least we are being disingenuous about it. We are in it for our own survival and with it our way of life. I don’t happen to buy into the, again made for TV and political expediency “war on terrorism”, but there is little doubt that we are engaged in a long term struggle with vicious terrorists. If we are securing our country against attack (and the jury is still out on whether we have done that), then again we are not doing that for the fallen on 9/11 or for their grieving survivors, but for ourselves and for our loved ones. We are doing it to secure our future, not to remember the past.
I am certainly not opposed to erecting a memorial at the Trade Center site, in Washington or anywhere else. I also recognize that people seem to find great comfort in physical places of memory. That reality is demonstrated every time I enter Central Park at 72nd Street and see flowers strewn over the “Imagine” circle remembering John Lennon. Not letting go of memory is not such a bad thing, especially if we use it to learn from, to grow from. But will we remember the 9/11 victims any less if we spend a fraction of $1 Billion in marking the spot of their demise? I don’t think so. Would a simple garden with a plaque be any less visited? Of course not. All the memorials put together (some of them in striking spaces) for the Six Million didn’t cost any where near that amount. While I tried to get into the Holocaust Museum in DC once (it was so crowded that they weren’t letting anyone else in), I’ve yet to visit a single one. Do I remember the Six Million any less? Absolutely not. What happened to them will forever inform my life, where I’m headed and how I get there – not where we were but who we are as a result of it.
It fits into the play book of shameless politicians to use 9/11 for their own electoral advantage. They contend repeatedly ad nauseam that it has changed our world. Perhaps it has. But isn’t it time we get on with the changing which includes investing our money wisely in the future rather than in selectively building bloated monuments to the past hoping that they will avert our eyes from the realities of the present and the challenges ahead?