As painful and profoundly sad as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 has been, I found the actual day a balm.
One reason: The massive volume of television, radio and print attention allowed and encouraged a kind of collective thoughtfulness and informed examination that is largely missing from day-to-day U.S. life.
Another reason: The many observances on Sept. 11 — from local church sermons to national ceremonies — refocused millions and millions of us on an extraordinary time in which our instinct was to look for and find heroes, and our disparate nation was as unified and empathetic as we seem capable of being.
Of course, that could last only a day.
By Monday night, as the second major Republican presidential debate came and went in Lollapalooza style on CNN, as it was dissected, delighted in or denounced, we were back to business as usual: a country of angry citizens, divided into a variety of pitched camps, committed to the national pastime — finding villains so we can play The Blame Game.
The thing is, as games go, this one is not very playful. Or fun. It isn’t really even very competitive.
For starters, nobody hears anyone else in the game because we deliberately do not listen to one another. The players of the game shout. The fans shout. The coaches and managers shout. The vendors selling popcorn and programs in the stands shout. Even the singers of the “Star-Spangled Banner” shout. No one listens.
Worse, there’s no time clock or valid scoring system in the game, unless you count bi-annual Congressional elections and the picking of a president every four years. That’s a scoring pace that makes soccer look torrid. The primary object of The Blame Game is to momentarily drown out the shouts of the opponent du jour (or du hour) and insist that your side has achieved victory.
We’re a nation of Sharks and Jets from “West Side Story.” As they ramp themselves up for a rumble, the self-righteous Jets scream, “Well, they began it!” and the self-righteous Sharks scream, “Well, they began it!” Then both gangs scream, “And we’re the ones to stop it, once and for all!”
Except, no one stops it, once and for all. More Jets and Sharks just get killed, more lives get ruined, more love gets snuffed out by the insatiable desire for vengeance.
In the sermon I heard on Sept. 11, the pastor talked about our human inclination to “hold onto our anger,” despite the Bible telling us we are expected to forgive and forgive and forgive. When we’ve been hurt or wronged, we view forgiving as caving in, as discounting the size of our wound. Never mind forgiving, we view just letting go of our anger as a betrayal of our pain, tantamount to saying, “It was no big deal.”
“Holding onto anger” sounds like a fairly passive state, by the way, but as the preacher said, it is a deceptively active choice. Staying angry doesn’t require a kicked-back, light hand on the emotional reins; it requires purpose, energy and a clenched fist. What we fail to understand is the personal price we pay for the fist. “As long as we hold onto our anger, we can never be free of the very thing that hurt us,” the pastor said.
Rather than being empowered by anger at whatever or whoever caused us hurt or humiliation, we become enslaved. The wound is never allowed to heal. Our desire to get even, to right the wrong committed against us, continually rejuvenates the potency of the original transgression.
That sermon got me to thinking about what we as a nation have done with our anger over 10 years’ time. Initially, we aimed our raw rage at Afghanistan, the closest thing we could find to an enemy state. Most of the people of that primitive, war-torn country had nothing to do with four hijacked jets on 9/11, but members of al-Qaida were clustered in Afghanistan, so we sent planes with bombs to — in the words of President George W. Bush — “bring the terrorists to justice.”
As Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of our national pain, continued to elude us, we transferred our direct anger and desire for vengeance to a new target, Iraq. Eight-plus years, tens of thousands of lives and $797 billion later, we now busy ourselves with drawing down our occupying troops there — and try to ignore the enormity of all we have wasted on an invasion that was never grounded in reality.
With no satisfaction delivered by either war in the Middle East, we turned our angry need for vengeance to the homefront. Here, the monetary cost of Afghanistan and Iraq ($1.29 trillion by the end of this year) has collided with a domestic economy wobbling from an international financial crisis and decades of our own credit-fueled, conspicuous consumption.
So far, no one, from political party leaders to Wall Street banks to individual citizens, wants to own a share of the mess — which now includes one in six Americans living below the poverty line. But our habit of vilifying and blaming a “them” is ingrained. We look for villains among us.
We blame one or more presidents, Congress, the banking industry or banking industry regulators, labor unions, entitlement programs, public educators, immigrants, the news media, welfare moms and deadbeat dads, Obamacare or runaway medical costs, conservatives, liberals, our neighbor in foreclosure or our neighbor who paid no taxes on his inherited wealth.
Nothing brings relief. Still, we stay angry. Still, we insist someone must pay. The wound continues to throb and seep. We hurt; we fear. Our fist stays closed to freedom.
Stephanie Salter may be e-mailed at SalterOpinion@gmail.com.
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