The Third Estate
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What 9/11 Means to Me

Saturday, September 11, 2004
First, I want to apologize for not writing yesterday- I was having trouble logging into by blogger account.

This is, of course, the third anniversary of 9/11. Like most people, I remember exactly where I was. I was walking to class when a received a phone call from my wife, who was in New York at the time, telling me she was all right. I asked her what she was talking about, and she told me. It took me a few minutes before I realized she was not making a bad joke.

Everyone has stories like this. Where we were, what we were doing, how we felt. There was a wide range of emotions, from anger to fear to confusion. But what I remember most is the brief moment after the attack, when we were finally one country again. Everyone I met was part of me- we were all in this together. It was a moment of possibility- a chance to heal some old divisions between the "two americas," whether you are referring to rich and poor america, or black and white, or red and blue.

And then something happened that I will never forget. Something that filled me with a rage and disgust that rivalled my reaction to the attack on the towers itself. Our President, our leader, looked us in the eye and told us the best thing we could do for America was to be afraid, and to go shopping.

I'm not even going to get into the contradictory message here. What really riled me was that our President had taken this golden moment of national unity and squandered it. You see, for decades there had been a slow ebbing of civic vitality: fewer people were involved, and fewer cared. We had lost faith in our ability to act as a people to solve problems. But the shock of 9/11 woke a lot of people up, and you could see in people's eyes, in the way they walked, that they were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

And he tells us to go shopping. Rather than appeal to the best in us, he appealed to the crassest materialistic instincts. He told us to be afraid- not in so many words, but in what he didn't say. Not "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" but "be afraid be very afraid" and "when the times get tough the tough go shopping." The opportunity was lost, and with it we reinforced our old habits of anomie rather than transcended them.

Great leaders in times of crisis appeal to the best in us, and they try to rally us behind the cause, behind the nation, behind some nobler ideal. Crisis can be a good thing- it can force us to reconsider, to think and act anew. This is true in personal terms as well as public- after a relationship collapses and the mourning is over, there is the exhilirating feeling of possibility, a chance to make yourself over. But in this time of crisis, the President rallied us not behind ourselves, or an ideal, but around himself. This is not what great democratic leaders do- it was what demagogues and tyrants do. It is what people do who are primarily interested in their own power, not the public trust.

I really shouldn't have been surprised. This is a party which benefits when people tend to their own garden. The people, my "Third Estate," are only powerful when they act together, when they are conscious of themselves as a people. Alone, we are weak and isolated. If people don't pay attention, then they are easy to manipulate. This benefits those who already have power. So whenever the right emphasizes our fears (which divide and paralyze us) or our narrow self-interest (go shopping!), it means there are fewer people in the room when decisions are made- that the people that do have influence have fat wallets.

So I suggest that tonight you light a candle in honor of those who died three years ago. And in honor of our great leader, I suggest this afternoon you do what he asked- go to the mall.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:50 PM
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