In what is sadly a rare show of national solidarity, former President George W. Bush will join President Barack Obama at “Ground Zero” in lower Manhattan on September 11 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States.
The names of the thousands who perished that day in the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and on the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania will be read aloud, their lives hallowed by prayers, poems, tributes, and other solemn public gestures. The nation will be reminded, if only for a few hours, that the preservation of democracy requires real sacrifices and the willing embrace of duties, not just the pursuit of private interests and freedoms. Each one of us is part of a whole before we are individual agents, a whole that extends beyond our brief lifetimes to those who came before and those who will come after us.
The political freedoms we cherish as individuals can only be found in community, in our common life together. Public rituals like the commemoration of 9/11 give powerful symbolic expression to that fact. “The end of a democracy is political freedom, embodied in the form of equal citizenship, ruling and being ruled in a shared responsibility for the common good,” wrote the late political philosopher Wilson Carey McWilliams. Democracy doesn’t work if the dialectic of ruling and being ruled is treated, as it increasingly seems to be, as a zero-sum game. Majorities and minorities alike, McWilliams insisted, must “prefer the public good to their partisan interests.” Long a contributor to this magazine, McWilliams warned that freedom is merely an illusion if it is divorced from civic participation and a true understanding of what is right and just. America’s political system, which places such a high value on individual liberty, is in desperate need of ways to cultivate the moral habits of citizenship that came to the fore so dramatically on 9/11. Without them, McWilliams observed, liberty destroys itself.
The idea that each of us has a responsibility, not just to ourselves but to the larger community, does not find much resonance today in our politics, our economic lives, our culture, or even in family life. Perhaps that is one of the reasons the commemoration of 9/11 touches us so deeply. In the confusing aftermath of that terrible day, Americans of every disposition and ideological conviction came together, eager to serve in some capacity. The nation was humbled by the heroism of New York City firefighters and police officers who rushed into the towers, sacrificing their own lives to save strangers. In the days after the attack, countless service professionals as well as volunteers shouldered the responsibility, and the honor, of caring for the injured and consoling the bereaved. Of course, there was also fear and bewilderment, but those very human responses to such a tragedy revealed once again our dependence on one another. When disaster strikes, we instinctively look to the larger community for protection and comfort.
The decade since 9/11 has often been a rebuke to the sense of national solidarity palpable in that moment of terror and resolve. First there was panic, and then dissimulation, from our national leaders. A decade of war abroad and disillusion and cynicism at home followed. Americans were not asked to share equally in the burdens and sacrifices of those wars; we were not even asked to pay for them. Worse, the plight of innocents killed or displaced by our military interventions was rarely the subject of public concern. Even the torture of prisoners was widely condoned. When economic calamity struck in 2008, the much-vaunted era of economic globalization was shown to be a house of cards, propped up by the crudest financial speculation. As the nation enters another presidential election year, our politics seem more bitterly divided than at any time since the 1960s. President Obama has repeatedly urged compromise and conciliation, only to be more vigorously assailed by his Republican opponents or criticized for a lack of conviction by those within his own party. And as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the nation’s economy appears to have stalled, threatening to deprive even more millions of their homes and their jobs.
Words alone will not heal the nation’s divisions or reverse the damage done by the spectacle of political extremism and paralysis in Washington. Words are needed, however, to expose the fallacies behind the idea that it is somehow un-American to sacrifice private advantage for the public good. The nation’s response to 9/11 showed how false that cynical claim has always been. In commemorating that day, the demands and obligations of citizenship, not only its freedoms, should be welcomed by all.
August 23, 2011