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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Moving On From Boston–Very American Or Very Shallow?

Leon Wieseltier has written an interesting article in The New Republic (4.24.13) about our sense of ‘moving on’ – getting over it; letting bygones be bygones; what’s past is past.  The sentiment is quintessentially American, he says, because it embodies the optimism, belief in progress and perfectibility, and our eternal faith that the future will always be better than the past.

Moving on, however, is also an expression of our shallowness, Wieseltier says, for in our desire to erase the unpleasant or forget the lessons of the past; and in our hurry and impatience to hurdle obstacles and get on with things, we have lost any sense of the meaning of events.  We are loathe to reflect, consider, and remember. 

Almost as soon as the bombs exploded on Boylston Street the calls were heard to move on. “Repair the sidewalk immediately,” exhorted one commentator, “fix the windows, fill the holes, and leave no trace—no shrines, no flowers, no statues, no plaques—and return life to normal there as fast as possible.” Anything less would be a victory for the terrorists, who should not be allowed, as if it is within our power to disallow it, to leave “even the smallest scar” on our cities and our psyches.

Between shallowness and optimism is a third way, perhaps the most American of all, and one overlooked by Wieseltier – our adaptability.  It is not so much that we wish to sweep all unpleasantness under the rug or even to ignore the consequences and implications of bad things; but that we have the ability to quickly adjust to new realities.

I was in Washington on 9/11, and my wife saw the Pentagon burning from her office window.  We headed home in the confusion of the big exodus, watched the fall of the Twin Towers played over and over again on television, and were incredulous, shocked, and in tears. Within a week, most downtown offices had developed contingency plans in the event something like this ever happened again.  My office stocked canned food, established safe rooms, and and set up automatic lock-down procedures.  Of course most of the plans were totally cockamamie.  If there was a chemical or biological attack, would we be protected in the 5th floor conference room? Would the hundred cans of tuna and Chef Boyardee suffice for the nuclear cooling down period?  As might be expected, all this nonsense ended within a few months, and everything returned to normal.

The Government didn’t sit still.  Afghanistan, Iraq, The War on Terror, the Patriot Act, surveillance cameras, and beefed up security everywhere showed America’s official resolve; but for most of us, we just moved on.  We rationalized the invasiveness of video surveillance, snooping around our cookies, and metal detectors as part of this national response.  We got used to more helicopters thudding up and down the Potomac from the Pentagon to the CIA and over to the White House; more police sirens, and SWAT teams. 

Few people I know are freaked out by all this; and most, while never anxious, knew that something like Boston would happen at some point.  Moreover the feeling was that it was not The Big One.  Two kids with pressure cookers full of nails simply did not measure up.  We had simply incorporated terrorism within our routines, assessed risk and probability, and had gone on with our lives.

This is not shallowness.  It is resilience, human nature, and reflects a certain indomitability.  If one were to look philosophically, as Wieseltier does, Americans’ reaction to 9/11, terrorism, and Boston has been stoic and pragmatic.  Life is full of surprises, happy and unhappy.  Wars have happened since one caveman clan decided to invade another’s hunting ground, tyrants have come and gone; plagues, famines, droughts, and brutal storms have and still do devastate large swaths of the planet each year.  Yet we all take this with equanimity.  This by no means is a nihilistic retreat into ignorance; but an awareness of the ways of the world, the need to adapt quickly to survive; and definitely not to wallow in the miseries of the past. Wieseltier does not agree:

Moving on is of course one of the quintessential expressions of the American spirit, and of the American shallowness. Our religion is the religion of movement; stillness offends our sense of possibility. We dodge the darker emotions by making ourselves into a moving target for them. We feel, but swiftly. This emotional efficiency, this cost-benefit calculus of the heart, is at once a strength and a weakness: you cannot be damaged by what cannot sink in. And so we acquire resilience through transience, and stoicism through speed. We cling desperately to the illusion of our immunity, even after it has just been disproved by experience, and to the fiction of the pastness of the past: we call it “closure,” which is just a decision not to care anymore, and not to let experience intrude any further.

Wieseltier suggests that traumatic experiences don’t ‘sink in’ because we move too fast to let them.  We are too ‘efficient’ in our trajectory forward. On the contrary, we all in Washington did indeed let 9/11 sink in.  We incorporated it and the changes that occurred around us easily and well.  We don’t need to recall or remember that day and revive suspect nationalistic and patriotic feelings.  The most that will be said of us by future social historians is that we belonged to the first Post-9/11 Society and that we are characterized differently than the pre-9/11 crowd, or the Fifties, or the Roaring Twenties.

I say ‘suspect’ nationalistic and patriotic feelings because prominent memorials are more often than not designed not to provide philosophical aide-memoirs or to be shrines for us to reflect on our humanity or our destiny.  They are political statements:

The Hiroshima Memorial is many things.  It is statement of Japan’s durability, history, and cultural longevity (if not superiority).  It is a defiant statement to America that it still has a lot to atone for, and that it is as powerful a symbol as the gates of Auschwitz.

Entrance Auschwitz I.jpg

Vietnam has wanted to preserve the symbol of its victory over America and, like Hiroshima and Auschwitz wanted to create a ‘Never Forget’ cultural and political symbol

There is something very powerful about the Hiroshima and Hanoi memorials because of the long history of each country.  The Vietnamese endured hundred of years of conflict with China.  Japan evolved over more than two millennia into a powerful, if expansionist country.  The history of the Jews is even longer, and the symbol of Auschwitz, recalling the Holocaust, is one of an ancient history of oppression, hatred, and discrimination as well as current events.

America is different.  We are young and still ambitious, forward-looking, and optimistic. The 9/11 Memorial is unlikely to have the same iconic impact; and, like most things American, may simply be progressively incorporated into our lives – a beautiful park by the river, a nice place to take the family.

I don’t mean this cynically at all, just that we Americans are always, as Wieseltier says, on the move.  While there is no doubt that while 9/11 will be remembered by those who were alive when it happened, future generations, having moved on, will unlikely be moved by the same emotional patriotism of their recent ancestors.

Only a stupid society would come away from the events in Boston with its sense of its security unshaken. Only a stupid society would refuse to acknowledge that its safety, and its peace of mind, may be affected by resentments and metaphysics that come from far away—from what Fouad Ajami recently described, in connection with the Tsarnaev brothers, as “the seam between countries and cultures.”

Of course we are affected by the events in Boston, but why should we be ‘shaken’? We have come to live with the threat and the possibility of terrorism for the last twelve years.  We have incorporated it into our lives, our psyche, and our mentality.  Only the most naïve of us will be shaken.

Vigilance, increased and intense, is not a victory for the terrorists. Mourning, and the time it takes, is not a victory for the terrorists. Reflection on all the meanings and the implications—on the fragility of our lives—on terrorism and theodicy—is not a victory for the terrorists. A less than wholly sunny and pragmatic view of the world is not a victory for the terrorists. What happened on Boylston Street was not a common event, but it was not a singular event. There is a scar. Taking terrorism seriously is not a victory for terrorism.

These sentiments are off-kilter. There are plenty of things in very ordinary lives which make us think of the ‘fragility of our lives’.  All of us have experienced disease, death, and struggle within our own families and sooner or later we begin to reflect on our own mortality.  It doesn’t take Boston or 9/11 to do that.

In our moving on we are not sending a message to terrorists; but just adapting and perhaps re-writing – as we always do – our optimistic screenplay.  There is no need to scrap it – just rework a few scenes – for our vision of life’s drama is intact regardless of Boston.

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