States of emergency

Alan Ryan on the post-9/11 decade and one increasingly divisible nation

September 22, 2011

It isn’t quite true that all of the US devoted most of late August and September to thinking about the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Hurricane Irene, although not so impressive on the score of sheer violence, flooded much of the Northeastern US and killed some 40 people from the Caribbean to Maine; and Tropical Storm Lee added the liquid equivalent of icing on the cake of misery a week later. As much rain fell on New York in four weeks as falls on Oxford in a year. Flooded basements were as much on people’s minds as the outrages of a decade ago. In Texas, it was drought and wildfires that preoccupied the inhabitants.

It wasn’t even quite true that the country came to a standstill for the commemoration of 9/11. Public broadcasting stations did their civic duty by talking of nothing else for three days and covering all the memorial events in Washington, New York and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. They ensured their musical offerings either consisted of requiems - Brahms and Mozart, mostly - or were played by musicians who wanted to share their memories of what they were playing on or around 11 September 2001. But this is America, so the first Sunday of the football season, the final Sunday of the US Open tennis championships and the regular baseball season were sacrosanct.

None of the malls had 9/11 special sales - which you might think surprising, given that they invariably have Memorial Day specials, and Memorial Day commemorates the country’s huge losses in the Civil War and the two World Wars; and that George W. Bush encouraged Americans to go shopping (to show their resilience) after the Twin Towers fell.

The interesting thing about the anniversary was rather different. There’s a couplet in Thomas Babington Macaulay’s poem Horatius that catches the point quite neatly. After Horatius and his mates have slaughtered a dozen Etruscan heroes, their enemies are puzzled about the next move: “But those behind cried, ‘Forward!’/And those before cried, ‘Back!’” There’s been a pushing match between everyone who thinks that the US is prone to amnesia and therefore has to be urged to “never forget”, and critics who think that it is too much given to wallowing in anger and self-pity, and needs to get over the tragedy and move on.

There seems in fact to be no consensus on whether schoolchildren know a bit about what happened on 9/11, too much, too little or nothing at all. One radio station broadcast a class of seven-year-olds reciting what happened as though reciting verses from the Bible, and another the reactions of children who - unsurprisingly - had no idea what happened three or four years before they were born. Since the US has no national curriculum and most school districts seem to rely on teachers to teach history from ancient Egypt to the present under the label of “civics”, children get whatever the locally approved textbook plus the teacher’s inspiration suggests.

The obvious difficulty for everyone is that there is no way of talking about 9/11 without raising nasty questions about what has happened since, as well as what provoked the attack in the first place. So, commemoration mostly took the form of reliving everyone’s immediate reactions to the events themselves. We can all praise the courage of firefighters and police and be astonished at their readiness to do suicidally dangerous things in the hope of rescuing people trapped in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. We can all sympathise with the bereaved. But there is just about nothing else you can say that doesn’t gore some politician’s ox. Have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq been successful? Have they increased terrorism? The answers seem clearly no and yes.

Damaging questions proliferate after that. In the past decade we have seen American manufacturing decline, a housing bubble, a financial crash and an apparently immovably high level of unemployment. What if the money spent on two wars had been spent on education? At the moment, states are still laying off large numbers of teachers and cutting cash for school equipment and maintenance; public universities are getting by on budgets around 40 per cent lower than a decade ago. Private universities vary in how well they have survived the recession, but only the richest have not cut back on student aid, and genuinely “needs-blind” admissions are a rarity.

In any case, the vast majority of US students who experience any sort of higher education go to a public institution. President Obama’s plan to kick-start employment is to send federal funding to the states to hire more teachers and to give another $5 billion (£3 billion) to community colleges. That’s not peanuts, but it’s small change compared with the bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pledge of Allegiance that children recite in primary school talks about the US as “one nation, indivisible”, but it was penned in 1892 by Francis Bellamy - a Christian Socialist, as it happens - precisely because the country was so easily divided. Immediately after the attacks of a decade ago, the great cry was “we shall stand together”, but almost immediately the usual political temptations proved irresistible. The Pledge of Allegiance is an oath to the national flag and to “the republic for which it stands” - and politicians find it very hard to resist wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes.

Republican critics of President Obama, such as the ineffable Michele Bachmann, denounce his policies as “unAmerican” and affect outrage when the libertarian Ron Paul denounces overseas wars. Cooler heads might think that trying to heal the divisions between rich and poor and between those with health insurance and those without while salving the usual racial and ethnic wounds would have been more patriotic. But that’s still a minority view.

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