September 12, 2011

Glossing Over the Evil

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The amount of commentary surrounding the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is, quite simply, astonishing. It’s a maelstrom of reflections, commemorations and perspectives that speaks to the magnitude of that day in 2001 and to the irrevocable and ongoing implications that it holds for individuals, the nation and the world. But amid the newspaper articles, talk shows, White House memos, panel discussions and debates, it has become increasingly difficult to reach any consensus on the meanings or takeaways of the 9/11 attacks.

There are, of course, certain facts. We were attacked on Sept. 11 by terrorists of the most heinous variety. In the aftermath, our nation saw an extraordinary surge of patriotism, compassion and unity. And today, more than 10 years later, Sept. 11 continues to evoke pain and memories that befit an event that left an indelible mark on a nation and, in particular, our generation.

But facts alone do not do 9/11 justice. 9/11 was raw. It was emotional. And any discussion of the day that treats it as a simple historical event or a subject for academic discourse, devoid of emotion or passion, is one that inevitably falls short. Sept. 11 was a day that challenged our notions of humanity — and in that regard, it was a day that not only challenged our morale, but one that challenged our morality. Values became a prominent part of our nation’s story, and we were forced to struggle with the idea that people hate us. We had enemies. The justness of our way of life and of our society was now all too visibly under attack.

Ten years out, we risk losing sight of that reality. We risk losing sight of the fact that on September 11, 2001, our nation faced something that was, as Christopher Hitchens writes in Slate magazine, simply evil. The terrorists who brought down our towers were not “freedom fighters” with legitimate gripes that justified their ends. They were callous and hateful murderers who perpetrated a crime of the worst sort — a crime for which there can be no justification, and one that all the self-criticism in the world cannot begin to explain.

But in much of our public and intellectual discourse, recognition of that pure and unadulterated evil is noticeably absent. In his article “Amid the Memorials: Ambiguity and Ambivalence,” New York Times cultural critic-at-large Edward Rothstein does an impressive job of documenting the scope of 9/11 commemorations and the ambiguity that often characterizes them. He points to the peace quilt that is on display in the New York Metropolitan Musuem of Art, which, according to the MoMa website, “conveys the importance of communication across cultures and religions to achieve the goal of peace.” He highlights projects that mark Sept. 11 as a “National Day of Service and Remembrance” used to foster a “spirit of unity.” He references White House memos that “stress that commemorations here and abroad should ‘emphasize the positive,’” and concludes that these memos “almost treat Sept. 11 as if it weren’t Sept. 11.” Ultimately, he notes that commemorations often gloss over the more insidious aspects of the attacks, like “Islamist extremism or the jihadist proclamations by its aspirants.”

Well-intentioned though they may be, commemorations that mark 9/11 as simply a cause for cross-cultural communication, peace and mutual understanding ultimately do our culture a disservice. We need to recognize the hate that exists in the world and the evil that was manifest on that day in September. Without such recognition, we have no chance of developing effective strategies to combat it, let alone defeat it.

The university setting is particularly prone to such shortcomings. Oftentimes, issues relating to morality — issues of good and evil — are left out of the academic arena. We don’t consider these issues within the purview of the modern university. Which is why it is all the more important that as we remember 9/11 on the Hill, we acknowledge the tension that the day presents: between remembering Sept. 11 as a cause for further mutual understanding and compassion, and acknowledging that despite our best efforts towards understanding, there are many in the world who simply want us dead.

Nathaniel Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at nrosen@cornellsun.com. Bringing it Home appears alternate Tuesdays this semester. ­­

Original Author: Nathaniel Rosen