NOTHING IN PARTICULAR makes the 13th anniversary this week of the September 11 attacks especially noteworthy, except perhaps the opening earlier this year of the memorial at the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. Besides that there’s only the surprise that comes with discovering how the raw memories of that day endure.
Like other momentous events, all of us old enough to remember when the attacks occurred recall where we were and what we were doing. Anyone who’d prefer to suppress those memories as the anniversary approaches is out of luck. Mass media won’t let us escape.
But nothing can erase the vulnerability we shared as a nation thrust into an unwanted moment of collective consciousness.
That day, as the scope of the attacks played out, the impact rippled through the county, far from the carnage. Not long after the first information about the airline hijackers was broadcast, calls started coming into the Hillsdale newsroom of the now defunct county newspaper The Independent. Callers alerted us to allegedly suspicious activities by certain businesses in several communities. Informants were sure police had arrested foreigners at one store; another place had suddenly closed and who knew where the dark-skinned people who ran it had gone.
None of the rumors or tips checked out. The baseless fears our tipsters expressed about their neighbors based on the color of their skin or their presumed national origin was a racist response, though a real tragedy had triggered them. As implausible as it might have sounded in Columbia County or anywhere else in America on September 10, 2001, no one could dismiss the possibility of a wider conspiracy, with the attacks on New York and Washington and in the sky over Pennsylvania only the first wave.
Arguably we are safer today, less likely to fall victim to a surprise attack by terrorists on the scale of 9/11. We got that way with a huge expenditure of public funds and with the additional cost of a massive expansion of the power of our government to intrude into our private lives without our right to challenge or even to know about this spying. That doesn’t include the sacrifices of two wars with unforeseen long-term consequences. We’ve learned a lot about security in the intervening years, not to mention the complexities of the 21st century world. Have we also learned something about tolerance and restraint?
The question came to mind last week when two folks set up a card table under a cloth umbrella on Route 66 near the Ghent Post Office. They had some large signs that read “Impeach Obama/Stop here.” The sign included a photo of the president with a small moustache unmistakably in the style of Hitler. The Columbia Paper received a couple of photos of the display. This campaign season has just begun in earnest and it seemed as if it might already have turned truly ugly.
But far from being funded by some anonymous political action committee, the posters made clear that the activists on the roadside were supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, a 92-year-old equal opportunity hater, whose bizarre views have made him toxic to any reputable politician and party. He wants to impeach Mr. Obama now, but before anyone who shares that goal gets too excited, check out the long list of other presidents who have been the targets of his verbal abuse.
That said, the right of Mr. LaRouche and his followers at that table to display reprehensible images is protected by the First Amendment. It was a reassuring reminder that part of combating intolerance is a willingness to tolerate peaceful intolerance.
The threats to this country are real and come from people homicidally inclined toward anyone who does not accept their religious views. It will take more to deter those people than warm fuzzy faith in our democratic institutions. Among other things, it takes citizen participation in the process of self governance, something as simple as voting.
Nothing can undo the ghastly events of September 11, 2001, but we can use the unwelcome memories of that day as a reason to become better citizens. We do it for the present because we are safer when our representatives know we are paying attention when we choose them. We do it for the future as the gift of good civic habits to the next generations. And we can do it because it’s one of the few tangible ways we can honor the memories of those who lost their lives that day.