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George Bush and Barack Obama at 9/11 ceremonies (pool photo NYTimes)

Paul Krugman comments today on the perplexing subdued nature of the commemorations of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  He thinks that the shame of the anaphylactic shock that followed the event has finally caught up to us:

What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. Te atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.

A lot of other people behaved badly. How many of our professional pundits — people who should have understood very well what was happening — took the easy way out, turning a blind eye to the corruption and lending their support to the hijacking of the atrocity?

The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.

While I agree with Paul that the aftermath that followed was disgraceful and shameful, I don’t agree that the memory has been irrevocably poisoned.  For me, the memorial service at Ground Zero is for the families of the people who lost their lives that day.  It’s could also be a place for grandstanding and politicians or other bad actors who use the event to push a political agenda are, in my humbler opinion, violating the spirit of the place.  But I don’t think the memory of 9/11 is poisoned.  My aunt who has visited Shanksville, PA several times tells me how powerful the place is.  It’s really not more than a scar on the landscape.  I think the thing that awes her is the idea that a group of desperate passengers were not going to go down without a fight.  Knowing that their chances of survival were slim, they armed themselves with pots of hot coffee and service carts and took the bastards on.  The plane disintegrated on impact and hit the ground in rural Somerset county PA with such force that some of the pieces buried themselves.  It makes us wonder if we would have that much courage.

The other day, I listened to an interview with a firefighter who survived the collapse of the North tower along with the rest of his company and a woman who he couldn’t bring himself to abandon on the way out of the building.  What I found so appealing about Jay Jonas’ account was that he didn’t attribute his survival to God.  He knew that physics and gravity had a lot more to do with it.  And timing.  If he hadn’t stopped to help Josephine Harris instead of abandoning her to her fate, he would have been further down the stairwell when the building fell and that would have killed him and his company.  It was cosmic chance that delayed their flight out of the building that put them in the “sweet spot” pocket on the fourth floor of the stairwell.  When it comes right down to it, you might as well stop and help your fellow traveler.  As the NY State lottery ad used to say, “Hey, you never know”.

I’ve thought a lot recently about the way the nation changed after 9/11.  What I think affects me most is the way children in this country have been raised in the wake of 9/11 but I have to be honest with myself and admit that those changes were already upon us.  9/11 just accelerated them and amped the changes up to 11.  My daughters are 14 years apart in age but they might well have lived in different centuries judging by their childhoods.  Child number one grew up in a suburban environment where children were already overscheduled to death but where she attended sleep overs every weekend, roamed the neighborhood without a chaperone, was able to walk to her friend’s house several blocks from our house and played games in the street into the evening.  Child number two started kindergarten the week that 9/11 happened.  Her every breath and movement have been strictly monitored by neighbors, school officials and parents of other children.  Sleep overs happen but infrequently and invitations require almost a background check.  There is no walking- anywhere.  The school is locked up like a prison and number two child, always a couple of years ahead of her peers, bitterly complained about the video cameras that were installed in the middle school.  I chalked it up to typical adolescent angst until I went to the middle school office to drop something off one day and saw a bank of monitors on the wall, remotely patrolling the hallways.  It was like being in lockdown.

After 9/11, the world for children has gotten harsher, less forgiving, and not at all fun.  Children get one chance to make a good impression.  There is no tolerance for childish behavior.  They live in a bubble.  Their friends are selected for them by their parents at venues and sporting events regulated with military efficiency.  Their academic success is judged not by their abilities and passions but by a matrix, as if a child’s efforts can be strictly quantified in some Six Sigma model.  Children who step out of line even slightly are treated like juvenile delinquents.  Children who defiantly march to their own drummers are socially ostracized.

We do this to our kids because of our own fears.  And those fears have been inflamed constantly over the last couple of decades by Eyewitness News and Fox and Glenn Beck types.  The fear of death keeps people in line.  It makes them look for saviors and big daddies who will protect them.  So, it’s not at all surprising that 9/11 put the nail in the coffin of American childhood.  The new American social landscape is more reminiscent of the village life depicted in the German film The White Ribbon.  Conformity and social hierarchy is strictly and cruelly enforced.  It makes me wonder if the Lesser Depression was also a result of this return to social hierarchies exacerbated by the effects of 9/11.

The NYTimes covered the ceremonies at Ground Zero this morning.  There are beautiful new fountains on the site outlining the footprints of the original towers into which water is falling.  George Bush and Barack Obama were present at the ceremonies this morning and describes their appearance this way:

It was the first time President Obamaand former President George W. Bushhad stood together at ground zero. Mr. Bush declined Mr. Obama’s invitation to join him at the site last spring, days after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

But on this bright morning, they stood shoulder to shoulder behind a bulletproof screen — two commanders in chief whose terms in office are bookends for considering how the United States has changed since Sept. 11, 2001, particularly in its response to terrorism.

Mr. Obama read from Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength.” Mr. Bush read a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, a widow in Massachusetts who was believed to have lost five sons in the Civil War.

Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush drew a brief cheer from the crowd before his reading. Applause also followed Mr. Bush as he left the stage.

They applauded the author of all the mayhem that followed.  He got a cheer for the torture and war and trillions of dollars wasted in Iraq.  This was the guy who was frozen on his little chair when he heard the news.  He didn’t excuse himself and stride purposefully from the room.  His security agencies were malfunctioning before the attack and couldn’t get his attention.  This is a man who unleashed the godly on the rest of us.

This is not a man who deserves applause.  Any president would have been foolish not to go after Afghanistan and in George Bush’s case, bin Laden wasn’t even his preferred target.  Saddam Hussein was.

Barack Obama got silence.  Maybe that’s because the 9/11 families know his assertions about the Iraq War were empty.  Maybe it’s because his PR department sent an ill-advised memo outlining how government officials should guide and shape public opinion regarding the commemoration of an event for which those families needed no instruction.  Or maybe they’re starting to realize that he doesn’t know what he’s doing with the economy.  Personally, if I were him, I would have had no role in the ceremony.

What was even more disturbing was the photo that accompanied the article.  There is George Bush, head bowed piously, and Barack Obama, nose stuck up in the air.  Pictures say a thousand words and this one says that someone at the NYTimes is preparing to Gore Obama.  Why not use 9/11 as just another opportunity?  That’s shameful.

Better yet, leave Ground Zero to the families.  It’s their day and their space.  The best way to commemorate 9/11 is to go to Jersey City just before sunset and walk to the pier on the other side of Manhattan.  As the sun goes down, the Tribute of Light will appear, filling up the sky where they once stood, those Americans and our friends that lost their lives that day.  They’re still there.  We’re still here.  We live another day to make things right.