The sacralized myth of 9/11

This Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011, will undoubtedly mark the apotheosis of the long sacralization of the terrorist attacks that brought … Continued

This Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011, will undoubtedly mark the apotheosis of the long sacralization of the terrorist attacks that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center and killed more than 3000 in New York, Washington and Shanksville, PA. By sacralization, I do not mean the phantasms of those who see a crucifix in a surviving piece of metal among the ruins but an ongoing attempt, usually in religious but also in secular rhetoric, to elevate this event from one more chapter in the history of human evil to “the day that changed everything.”

This mass murder did not change everything; it changed only some things. And what it did change, it generally changed for the worse.

Sacralization and memorialization are not, and should not be, synonyous.

Memorialization rightly recalls the names and lives of the individuals who died so senselessly on that day, not because they were all heroes but because they were all human beings worthy of remembrance. Sacralization and mythicization, by contrast, look for some sort of sense and transcendent meaning where there is none. My congratulations to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for having the guts to dispense with the generally obligatory minister, priest, rabbi and imam at the city’s official memorial. You can’t have one without the others and now atheists would probably also demand their own “chaplain.”

The sacralization began in earnest three days after the attacks, when President George W. Bush presided over an ecumenical prayer service in Washington’s National Cathedral. In a speech indistinguishable from a sermon, Bush replaced the language of civic virtue with the language of faith. Quoting an anonymous man who supposedly said at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, “I pray to God to give us a sign that he’s still here,” the president than assured the public not only that God was here but that he was personally looking out for America. “God’s signs,” Bush declared, “are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own.”

Then Bush went on to adapt the famous passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, “Neither death nor life, no angels nor principalities, nor powers, not things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, can separate us from God’s love. May he bless the souls of the departed, may he comfort our own, and may he always guide our country.”

One can only hope that President Obama, who will speak at the National Cathedral this Sunday evening, refrains from preaching such a sermon. Presidents belong in the bully pulpit, which means a secular pulpit. They ought not to be addressing the nation from the altar of any church or assuring us that God is still here. That is the job of the clergy, for those who cling to belief in a benevolent deity.

Franklin D. Roosevelt did not try to reassure the nation after Pearl Harbor by appearing at the National Cathedral in the role of minister-in-chief, and Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address not from a sanctuary but on the field where so many soldiers had given “the last full measure of devotion.”

Sacralization mistakes honest discourse for sacrilege. On the one hand (let us call it the hand of left-wing political correctness), it is now considered at worst hateful, at best bad taste, to refer to radical Islam as one important actor in this event. We all know, don’t we, that “true” religion is always good.

On the other hand (right-wing political correctness), “Never forget 9/11” is used as an excuse for everything from hounding illegal Mexican immigrants as if they were terrorists because they want a better life to questioning the loyalty of Muslim Americans who have been in this country for generations. Here is Dick Cheney redux, unapologetic for the lie about weapons of mass destruction that kicked off the Iraq war or for the administration’s (largely successful) attempt to dupe Americans into thinking that the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi.

Hypocritical sacralization is really about ownership of a disaster, not about remembering and honoring those who died. This applies both to the furor over the proposal to build a Muslim community center a few blocks from the site and the attempt by one atheist group to prevent the aforementioned cross-shaped piece of metal from being displayed in the national 9/11 museum. Why not just put a plaque on the museum, for people who are presumably too stupid to remember the real, as opposed to the mythic, 9/11, which says, “People of all faiths and no faith died here.”

Another element in the process of mythicization is a bloviated exaggeration of the traumatic effects of 9/11 on those who experienced the event only vicariously. The farther you get from New York, which bore the brunt of the attacks and where most lives were lost, the more Americans seem to insist on their ownership of the insult to the national psyche. It is as if I were to claim that I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because, like millions in November 1963, I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on television.

James Coyne, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, published a fascinating critique last week of sociological and psychological studies suggesting that millions across the nation incurred post-traumatic stress disorder simply because they watched news coverage in the weeks after 9/11. What Coyne suggests is that “symptoms” such as “having difficulty falling asleep” and “not wanting to talk about the event” might not have been post-traumatic stress disorder but a perfectly normal response to events that created great uncertainty about the future.

In other words, you just might have been crazy if you weren’t a bit unhinged by what took place on 9/11. But that does not mean these events “changed everything” because they changed many of us.

As a New Yorker who remembers the unmistakable, acrid smell of death, a combination of human remains and toxic chemicals, that hung over the city for weeks, I can think of only one very impermanent way in which 9/11 changed anything for the better. For a time, a very short time lasting only a few weeks, we were kinder to one another, united in grief as well as righteous anger. This was true, or so they say, not only in my wounded city but throughout the nation.

But that sense of unity, as we all know, dissipated rapidly. Who can deny that we are an angrier, more politically polarized people than we were the day before 9/11? Our economic crisis is certainly a big part of the country’s sullen mood, but the two costly wars that can be directly traced to the emotions generated by 9/11 have exacerbated our financial problems. The anti-immigrant mood of the public, and the tendency to view all immigration as a threat somehow related to terrorism, is a direct result of 9/11.

And let us not forget the right-wing Republicans who showed exactly how sacred 9/11 was to them when they held up a bill to pay for the medical costs of first responders and workers who have serious illnesses, including cancer and emphysema, because they were exposed to the toxic graveyard left by the attacks. Indeed, the Republicans would not allow a vote on the bill until, just before Christmas, Obama agreed to the extension of the Bush tax cuts. That’s called payment in blood.

What sacralizers usually mean when they say “never forget” is, “Never forget the symbolic grievance that we can use for political purposes.” They don’t mean never forget the real horror and pain, experienced individually as well as collectively, of the lives that were lost. On Sunday, I attended one of the many memorial concerts being held this week at St. Paul’s Chapel, which is literally a stone’s throw from ground zero and provided food and rest for recovery workers for nearly a year after the attacks. During a Bach motet, we heard a siren from a passing fire engine and remembered everything without being prompted.

Opened in 1766, St. Paul’s (where the deist George Washington, who was not a regular churchgoer, was greeted on his inauguration day) is Manhattan’s oldest public building. More than 14,000 volunteers (oh yes, of every faith and no faith) worked in twelve-hour shifts to provide sustenance for the recovery workers removing human remains from the site. The volunteers and recovery workers, unlike politicians eager for their piece of 9/11 memories, have the right to say never forget. But they don’t say it, because they lived it.

Next year, on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, there will be much less of this quasi-religious pomp that surrounds anniversaries with round numbers. I do not know what the world will look like on September 11, 2101, but I can guarantee that no one will be grieving over the thousands who died a hundred years earlier on that day, any more than people are going to be torn by emotion as this decade proceeds and we reach the hundredth anniversary of the senseless slaughter that was the First World War. By the beginning of the 22nd century, September 11, 2001, will also have passed into the realm of history and debate.

Single events never really change everything: they are part of larger social forces and it takes more than one generation for the significance to be fully understood.. The First World War did, in fact, have the most profound effect on the history of the twentieth century, since its conclusion led directly to the even greater horrors of the rise of Nazi Germany, the Second World War and the Holocaust. But the people of western nations did not really know that in the 1920s and the early 1930s. Today, we do not really know whether terrorism will become a permanent feature of a “clash of civilizations” over the next century or whether the purported clash will devolve into an anxiety-provking but sporadic series of violent outbursts overtaken by other, more fundamental problems.

I do know that before we Americans do any more lying to ourselves about external attacks having changed everything, we need to ask ourselves honest questions about why the initial sense of unity after 9/l1 disappeared so quickly. That is not the terrorists’ fault and cannot be remedied by sanctimonious meditations about American suffering that was, for most Americans, second-hand suffering. But then, perhaps the psychobabblers are right, and stress from watching television has become as bad as being killed or breathing in poison yourself. That is certainly a subject for a sermon.

Susan Jacoby
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  • WmarkW

    What 9/11 changed was our perception of the threats we were under. Unlike the earlier bombings of the USS Cole and embassy attacks, in which the victims knew they were assuming some degree of risk by their choice of vocation, most 9/11 victims were ordinary Americans doing regular jobs. Ten years after we mostly stopped worrying about Mutually Assured Destruction from the nuclear arms race, we were facing an enemy that employed a new type of weapon — martyrdom.

    We thought that winning the Cold War through mostly peaceful means had shown the world that we are the example that everyone will attempt to emulate. Many of the world’s people do exactly that. But others have a different standard that doesn’t esteem the secular values of freedom and the skeptical, evidence-based inquiry that comes from it.

    Western society applies the Golden Rule to treat everyone with respect and as if they’re deserving of freedom and to act on conscience. Al Quaida applies it to give everyone the same chance they desire, to meet their maker and be judged according to the Quran.

  • Secular1

    Being an immigrant here I view 9/11 a lot differently from my daughters who are born and raised here. My children’s response was lot more emotional, in line with the general populace. Mine was a bit European in intensity. Deep sadness at the unconscionable acts, resulting in huge loss of life and property, perpetuated by fairly well educated individuals who had no personal grievance, but took it upon themselves to avenge the mythical oppressed.

    The jubilation of the masses on the muslim street did not bother me as much, as I took it for what it was ignorants manipulated by the elite, in a manner of speaking. Ignorants, giving sabbatical to their brains and allowing themselves to be manipulated. It just proved to me how corrosive religion is. Aah! I have heard all that, it is not the religion, blah, blah, blah. The fact that people in 21st century continue to give any credence at all to those wretched tomes is cause for my annoyance. These are totally worthless pieces of trash. They do not even merit adoration we have for the old Greek, & Roman mythology for their literary beauty. These documents are really putrid. If the people held those books in the same esteem as the Greek, Egyptian, or Roman mythology I would not have any problem with them. The fact that people – the so called moderates – hold them in reverence allows the extremist to hold them literally, and perpetuate the dastardly attacks. The Islamic world should stop making excuses, such the texts being taken out of context, there are lots of good passages too, so on and so forth. All that does not matter, the fact that you do pick and choose some moral values from it, prevents you from challenging the extremists from picking and choosing the odious values as virtues. Your protestations that non-muslims are taking things out of context in bashing Islam has no merit. The extremists indeed come to the same view as the non-muslim critics about those passages. How can you claim that your interp

  • WmarkW

    Tangential Issue: Obama administration to assist Islamic nations in battling
    (below is all excerpted text)

    Last March, U.S. diplomats maneuvered the adoption of Resolution 16/18 within the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). Non-binding, this resolution, inter alia, expresses concern about religious “stereotyping” and “negative profiling” but does not limit free speech. It was intended to — and did — replace the OIC’s decidedly dangerous resolution against “defamation of religions,” which protected religious institutions instead of individual freedoms.

    With the United States providing this new world stage for presenting grievances of “Islamophobia” against the West, the OIC rallied around the initiative as the propaganda windfall that it is. It promptly reasserted its demands for global blasphemy laws, once again sounding the call of its failed U.N. campaign for international laws against the so-called defamation of Islam. It has made plain its aim to use the upcoming conference to further pressure Western governments to regulate speech on behalf of Islam.

    According to informed sources in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the two sides, in addition to other European parties, will hold a number of specialized meetings of experts in law and religion in order to finalize the legal aspect on how to better implement the UN resolution. The sources said that the upcoming meetings aim at developing a legal basis for the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution which help in enacting domestic laws for the countries involved in the issue, as well as formulating international laws preventing inciting hatred resulting from the continued defamation of religions.

    OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu wrote in an Op-ed:
    The OIC has never sought to limit freedom of expression, give Islam preferential treatment, curtail creativity or allow discrimination against religious minorities in Muslim countries. No one has the right to insult another for their beliefs or to

  • YEAL9

    What needs to be said on every 9/11:

    What instigated the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? And what drives today’s 24/7 mosque/imam-planned acts of terror and horror? The koran, Mohammed’s book of death for all infidels and Muslim domination of the world by any means. Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed. Then we can talk about the safety and location of mosques and what is taught therein.

    Until then, no female or male Muslim can be trusted anytime or anywhere…………………………….

  • YEAL9

    Saying what needs to be said on 9/11 now and in the future:

    What instigated the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? And what drives today’s 24/7 mosque/imam-planned acts of terror and horror? The koran, Mohammed’s book of death for all infidels and Muslim domination of the world by any means. Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed. Then we can talk about the safety and location of mosques and what is taught therein. Until then, no female or male Muslim can be trusted anytime or anywhere…………………………….

  • WmarkW

    Yeal9:” Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed. ”

    There’s another possibility… Muhammad didn’t really have anything to do with the later Medina verses that advocate conquest. They differ in style as well as content from the Mecca and early Medina verses. There’s an academic theory that a military group that conquered Arabia re-wrote their own tales of conquest making Muhammad the central character of them.

    Of course, as long as “insulting Islam” remains a crime, serious discussion of this in the Islamic world is impossible.

  • Artikcat

    Probably Ms Jacoby, you are very unpopular today. There is no Department of Sacralization, it is the people themselves that sacralize. Bad timing.

  • wmpowellfan

    Ms. Jacoby, you champion illegal aliens (specifically Mexicans) as people who “want a better life.” And thus you present a double standard that surely is as “unholy” to atheists like you as it is to believers.

    Because illegals obtain that “better life” on the backs of hardworking Americans who did not ask to subsidize foreign nationals and their families, and the backs of disenfranchised poor and lower-skilled Americans. Why do you not hold illegals responsible for leeching billions of dollars annually from our economy, when they cannot and will not contribute? Why do you give them a pass on the cultural harm done by their crimes and refusal to assimilate?

    And can you really write about 9/11, and then suggest that leaving our borders open to those with no respect for the rule of law does not pose a threat to national security?

  • wmarkw

    yeal9:” muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of mohammed. ”

    there’s another possibility… muhammad didn’t really have anything to do with the later medina verses that advocate conquest. they differ in style as well as content from the mecca and early medina verses. there’s an academic theory that a military group that conquered arabia re-wrote their own tales of conquest making muhammad the central character of them.

    of course, as long as “insulting islam” remains a crime, serious discussion of this in the islamic world is impossible.

  • Mr_Christopher

    Brilliant commentary and cheers to the Washington Post for having the “On Faith” blogs. Between Susan Jacoby and Paula Kirby I feel as if I have wone the intelligent person’s lotto.

  • elliottarchc

    Ms. Jacoby has put into words the “elephants in the room” as we come up to the 10 year mark of 9/11. Wearing the memory on your sleeve while continuing to deny adequate heath care to first responders is heinous. As she so eloquently states “people of all faiths and no faiths” suffered as a result of the 9/11 attacks. Yet we have seen this often devolve into a ” war” against Islam. Our country was founded on the freedom of faith (and this should include the freedom to not follow a faith.) I agree that, while it is a truly lovely venue, the National Cathedral is not the secular choice for our President’s expressions, at a time when we could all use some “coming together.”

  • Artikcat

    absolutely right we ‘wone” the lotto ..of something else..curious they write on the “faith” section, whcih they dont have, curious

  • Invigilator

    Just a quibble: a few of us, at least, will be emotionally engaged as the centenaries of the Great War and the disasters it sparked start rolling around.

  • wmpowellfan

    I certainly don’t understand why atheism and secularism columns are in the On Faith section. Atheists have no faith.

  • WmarkW

    It’s been said that Americans remember Valley Forge, Little Big Horn and Pearl Harbor better than Saratoga, Tippecanoe and Midway. We don’t want to think of our history as continually bestriding the world like a Colossus, but to remember the ones who suffered to bring our way of life to us, like in the Lee Greenwood said.

    Most of the people who died that day could have been any of us. They were killed because our way of life is much better than most. The attackers were those who didn’t want to admit that science, democracy and capitalism succeed because they have built-in correcting mechanisms, unlike totalitarianism and revealed religion.

  • YEAL9

    What we have learned about religion post 9/11 in summary form:

    Please post on your refrigerator doors:




    Added details upon request.

  • wrongwatch

    the most trained and most supplied military in the world was asleep at the switch on 9/11. When the two aircraft were recognized as “rogue”, in American airspace, they should have been shot down or blown up in the sky before reaching their target. The US military was nodding off somewhere and did not do their job. 9/11 is a very different story if the twin towers don’t come tumbling down

  • wrongwatch

    like you said, you don’t understand