Monday, September 12, 2011

Which one is the real America?

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and fallen FDNY chaplain Mychal Judge.
Well, the long weekend of 9/11 remembrance is now officially over. And one deep question lingers over all the coverage:

Who represents the "real" America?

On the one hand stand the first responders to the disaster - heroes to the last man and woman. Unbelievable in their bravery; America at its best. My partner and I both fought tears as we watched the firemen of New York  - and many other emergency personnel and even ordinary citizens - race into the burning buildings, or the toxic cloud that billowed from their collapse.  And I almost cracked up, as I always do, when the coverage came to the terrible death of the gay FDNY chaplain, Mychal Judge (above, contrasted with Dick Cheney).  (Another gay hero of 9/11, Mark Bingham of United Flight 93, also always deserves mention.)

What motivates such selflessness, I wondered once again?  From what unseen sources does true sacrifice spring?

And why is it so rare?

Because on the other side of the 9/11 equation stands the American government.  And while the first responders are unquestionably heroic, it is very hard not to see the government they served as villainous.  Some, like Dick Cheney, even look the part - but all participated (even those basically in the dark, like George W. Bush, or those with qualms, like Colin Powell and Condi Rice) in a campaign of fear, and a war based on lies, and a program of torture,  and a ruthless security state.  Yes, they kept America safe, I know - but let's be honest: they did it to stay in power. Because unlike the first responders, all that the majority of Americans cared about was being kept safe.

So tellingly, there was almost nothing about the political response to 9/11 on TV this weekend. Instead, there was a glaring, damning silence.

But let's (at least once) be honest about ourselves, too.  As a whole, we are not like those first responders.  The first responders were brave, but most of the rest of us were cowardly.  The first responders were selfless, but most of the rest of us were cheap.  The first responders were true to America's ideals, but most of the rest of us allowed them to be trampled and perverted before our very eyes.  We admire the hell out of the first responders, sure, but at the same time we sent them into harm's way without protective equipment or proper training (as we would our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan a few years later).  We love to tear up about their sacrifices, but at the same time we've ignored their traumas and disabilities and diseases for years - until the tenth anniversary of the calamity all but shamed us into paying up (and even now we're quibbling over their cancers).

How does one bridge that yawning chasm between what we claim to admire and what we actually do? How should one assess the morals of the second responders? I'd like to say that America's second responders were led astray by the villains in Washington.  I'd like to believe that. But the struggle continues, doesn't it, long after Cheney and his puppet president have left the White House. Perhaps the best way for America to commemorate 9/11 would be to look in the mirror.

But we'd rather look at the first responders.  And can you blame us?

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