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Anniversary Thoughts

September 5, 2002

Has it been a year already? It seems odd to make a special fuss about the first anniversary of an event we’ve been commemorating, nonstop, since the day it happened. It’s time to stop grieving over 9/11.

You have to be a little skeptical of all this public mourning, especially when the politicians seem to be more grief-stricken than anyone else, and at the same time so eager to convert the emotions of 9/11 into political capital. (Let us show our outrage over fanatical violence by making war on someone!)

President Bush is scheduled to deliver a speech to the nation on the anniversary. He will assume the multiple roles of leader, father, avenger, and grief counselor, with all the heartfelt emotion his team of speechwriters can muster. They are taking careful aim at our tear ducts right this minute. If you have tears, prepare to shed them Wednesday night. Afterward, you may be polled.

I know a woman who lost her kid brother, a New York fireman, when the Twin Towers fell. She gave me a little card with his picture on it. She talks of him fondly, matter-of-factly, without tears. I have no doubt of her deep grief, but she feels no need to keep showing it. Nor do I pretend to feel her grief; I sympathize with it, I respect it, but I can’t share it, and it would be affectation and presumption to imply that it’s mine in the same way it is hers.

Because I do respect the real grief of people who lost loved ones, I find it cloying to keep pretending the rest of us can endlessly feel the loss of 3,000 strangers. Do we all mourn for the 25,000 Americans who die annually in traffic accidents?

Yes, it was a horrible, shocking event, like nothing else in American history. Pearl Harbor — where my father happened to be when it was hit — doesn’t even come close. But though 9/11 was unique for us, it is hardly unique in world history.

[Breaker quote: Enough with the mourning]Because Europe doesn’t share the Bush administration’s eagerness for an ill-defined “war on terrorism,” some hawks are accusing Europeans of “anti-Americanism.” This is a calumny. Initially, Europe was deeply sympathetic with us. Have we forgotten that already?

But what is now called anti-Americanism is really Europe’s feeling that enough is enough, its refusal to approve our bottomless self-pity and self-absorption, its weariness with our feeling that our sufferings surpass all others. Our European cousins would like us to grow up.

The European countries know what it is to be attacked and invaded, and 3,000 deaths is nothing compared with what they remember. The English remember when London was bombed night after night; the Germans remember when most of their great cities were devastated by bombs; France, Italy, Russia, and most other European lands have memories that put 9/11 in the shade and ought, for us, to put it into perspective. (The Vietnamese have some memories too.)

In 1976 Aldo Moro, president of Italy, was murdered by terrorists — an event roughly as shocking to Europe as 9/11 was to Americans. Yet the Italians didn’t react with hysteria; they dealt with it as patiently and methodically as they would with any other crime, and eventually their terrorist problem abated. That is the way other European countries also handled terrorism. None of them assumed that their problem — or their suffering — was unique.

Europe also knows that such violence is the price of empire. But the United States, with military forces stationed in more than a hundred countries, refuses to acknowledge that it has become an empire. It prefers to think of itself as “democratic,” while exercising “global leadership,” and is surprised when others see it otherwise. But deadly weapons — yes, weapons of mass destruction — aren’t “leadership.” They don’t persuade; they threaten — that is, terrorize.

Simone Weil defined force as that which turns a person into a thing — either a corpse or a slave. The world is ruled by force as never before, and it’s chiefly American force, force on a stupendous and unprecedented scale, resting ultimately on a huge nuclear arsenal.

America has chosen to live by the sword. Yet Americans prefer not to face this superobvious fact. They are still shocked when the sword is also drawn against them.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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