The oddest modern American fear seems to be widely held, if somewhat vague – the fear that you’ll never achieve closure, and thus you’ll never be able to be able to move on. You see, nightmares should end. At least that’s the theory. And that means that everyone wants closure, and knows that they deserve closure. The family of the murdered man wants someone to fry for it – the murderer cannot be sick or confused or insane or anything else. There may be mitigating circumstances, as a matter of law, but really, there can be no such thing. Someone has to be responsible, and someone has to pay the price. So the family says, usually on television, weeping, that they can’t move on otherwise. They need closure. And the interviewer nods sympathetically. Yes, they need closure. And that need is one constant argument for the death penalty. Punishment and execution are not really the issue at all. The issue is closure for those who think things have to make perfect sense.
But this applies to any traumatic event. There must be justice, or at least precise balance in the universe, or at least things should make perfect sense to even the most casual observer, eventually. Yes, you can point out that life seldom works out that way – things are always more complicated and oddly ambiguous than they should be – but say that and you’ll be told you have no heart and no morals and no brain. Or you may be told you hate Jesus or hate America. But it comes down to one general principle. Having to endure ambiguity is intolerable, and it’s just not fair at all – period. We want our closure and we want now, damn it.
This chatter about closure seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon – something that probably grew out of the pop-psychology self-help movement of the seventies. You remember. I’m okay and you’re okay. And you are your own best friend. And somehow no one should have to endure ambiguity. And that means closure – a word that may mean nothing at all in the complex and murky real world – is everyone’s right. The older notion, that the mature and thoughtful and intellectually honest person should be able to handle life’s inevitable ambiguity with grace and kindness and tolerance, seems to have simply evaporated.
And the remaining wisps of that were blown away in the 9/11 attacks. That settled matters – you’re with us or you are with the terrorists. It was simple. And we became the mirror of the murderously mad fundamentalists on the other side. And then we started two wars to achieve closure, to remove ambiguity. What happened could not be all that complicated, having to do with historical forces and all our foreign policy policies and alignments of convenience in the Middle East over all the decades. That was too complex and murky, even if it was useful and true. Going over to the Middle East and kicking some ass was not complex and murky at all. It was closure.
And we just finished up all the memorials and ceremonies that marked the tenth anniversary of those 9/11 attacks – and that was all about closure. It had to make sense, so you saw things like Families Take Back Ground Zero amid Sunshine, Shadows – although no one took back anything and the dead were still dead, and the bad guys are still out there, even if reduced in number and without much in the way of resources. Is this closure? Did we triumph somehow? Lawrence Wright in this item explains that the bad guys are losing now anyway, in spite of our resolve and courage and wars:
In the name of al-Qaeda’s vision of Islam, children have been turned into suicide bombers, both Muslims and non-Muslims have been beheaded (sometimes on video), women have had their faces burned off, schools were destroyed, lovers stoned, aid workers murdered, and the whole world held hostage to terror. In the minds of many non-Muslims, Islam has become synonymous with barbarism. Nothing said by more moderate Muslim voices could compete with the appalling imagery put forward by al-Qaeda’s terror masters.
And then we got the Arab Spring:
The protesters are not just bringing about badly needed social revolutions in their societies. By their moral example, they are redefining Islam and redeeming it from the savage caricature that bin Laden made of his religion.
Allow for complexity and ambiguity, rather than caricature, and good things can happen. Hey. Maybe we’ll catch up to them on this side.
But maybe we won’t. On this tenth anniversary day, the News Guy in Atlanta – who proofreads these columns and keeps them honest about who really said what – said that he and his wife, who just retired from producing major special events for one of the big cable news networks, were staying away from the political shows on television on this particular Sunday Morning:
We remember what happened on that day, don’t need to be reminded of it, and as sad as it was, we just want to live our lives of quiet desperation free of emotional manipulation, thank you. If ever Glenn Beck was right about his “9/12” business, it’s right now. I can’t wait for tomorrow, when all this 9/11 commemoration stuff just fades away.
For all I know, there’s been some huge terrorist attack somewhere in the country today. If so, I’m counting on you to mention it in your next column; otherwise, I might never know.
But on this particular Sunday there was no other news. It was all 9/11 commemorations, and football (with 9/11 commemorations before each kickoff). It was a national day of closure, or something.
But then some had to go and spoil that. And that was the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who found all the 9/11 commemorations oddly but maybe not all that oddly subdued:
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.
Oh my! There he goes adding ambiguity to our day of self-righteous closure. And the blogs on the right exploded in anger. There was Larry O’Connor at Big Journalism: NY Times’ Krugman Attacks Rudy, Bush and Conservatives in Vile 9/11 Blog Post – and Jim Hoft at Gateway Pundit: Liberal Paul Krugman: Bush and Giuliani Are “Fake Heroes” – and at Weasel Zippers: NYT’s Leftist Scumbag Paul Krugman Bashes America On 9/11 – and that The Lonely Conservative (note the pose of oppressed martyrdom in that site name): Paul Krugman is Deranged – and at Questions and Observations: Classless and Gutless – and at PoliPundit.com: Paul Krugman is an Idiot – and so on.
Krugman says America knew things aren’t all that black and white. Bernie Kerik – who started out as Rudy Giuliani’s personal driver – who George Bush nominated to be our very first Director of Homeland Security – is in prison after all. He turned out to be no more than a small-time Jersey thug from Newark. And it was the usual Sopranos stuff, but not even that interesting – conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and lying to the Internal Revenue Service. Where are the unambiguous heroes here?
But there was Donald Douglas at American Power with this:
Since September 11th we’ve seen the left’s long train of shame. Recall the radical left’s rank political opportunism in opposing the Iraq war, demonically, of course, since the Democrat Party in Congress – the party of defeat – turned against our troops after authorizing their deployment, to excoriate the mission, and declare repeatedly that Iraq was lost and that we should turn tail in an ignominious cut-and-run. And we had years of Bush derangement syndrome, which then transmogrified into putrid Palin derangement syndrome, all combined into a program of partisan political destruction that’s done nothing but weaken American security by successfully terminating programs such as wiretapping that were keeping Americans safe. A decade’s shame of appeasement and partisan abomination is frothing to a head in the left’s responses to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. For many people like myself, that’s why they became conservative.
That last sentence has its grammatical problems, but you get the idea. Krugman has politicized what was pure. The left always does that. They hate America, and so on. And a counter to that might be Steven Taylor at Outside the Beltway with this:
The thing that strikes me about that is that 9/11 is an event that is likely impossible to discuss without politicizing it to one degree or another. The event itself was inherently political and, more importantly for discussions of the event, any discussion of US reaction to 9/11 is inherently political.
What one thinks of Bush, Giuliani, “enhanced interrogations,” the USA-PATRIOT Act, Afghanistan, Iraq, the TSA, and any number of other topics are all deeply political and divisive. As such accusing someone of “politicizing” a discussion of 9/11 is like accusing someone of “athleticizing” a discussion of football.
It is also a highly emotional topic. Indeed, the combination of the politics of the event (and the response thereto) coupled with the emotional nature of the discussion has been what has kept me from wanting to comment.
And Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog adds this:
I don’t know that most people’s memories of 9/11 have been poisoned – I’d say most people aren’t that political, and I’d say they remember 9/11 at a human level.
What’s been poisoned, for everyone except right-wing partisans, is any opportunity to link that day to a subsequent sense of common American purpose. Our lives since then haven’t tapped into any of the shared sense of humanity we felt that day, and we’ve barely been able to join together in a shared sense of outrage about the culprits, because, not long after 9/11, we were hectored into supporting a war against an unrelated enemy, along with other odious policies, and, yes, these were wedge issues, all designed to put us at one another’s throats for right-wing political advantage. The only people who’ve felt a shared sense of purpose for ten uninterrupted years are the rage junkies of the right, who are eager to hate everyone Fox News tells them to hate – a group that very much includes the rest of us.
So 9/11 hasn’t been poisoned – just everything since.
But some people are starting to ease into a bit of ambiguity after all these years. There’s Bill Keller, once editor of the New York Times with his long piece, My Unfinished 9/11 Business – what he calls his hard look at why he wanted war:
Broadly speaking, there were three arguments for invading Iraq: the humanitarian case that Saddam Hussein was a monster whose cruelties were intolerable to civilized nations; the opportunity case – that we might plant the seeds of democracy and freedom in a region desperately in need of them; and the strategic case that Hussein posed an important threat, not only because of his unaccounted-for weapons stockpiles but also because of his habit of smashing through borders and the hospitality he offered to terrorists of various kinds.
Yes, these all turned out to be nonsense, but he only sees that now:
The main selling point for war in Iraq, at least for the American public, was that Hussein represented a threat to American security. But what kind of threat, exactly?
Iraq was not, as Afghanistan had been, the host country and operational base of the new strain of Islamic fascism represented by Al Qaeda. It is true that Hussein hosted some nasty characters, but so did many other dictators hostile to America. At the time, Iraq was one of seven countries designated as sponsors of terrorism by the State Department, and in the other six cases we settled for sanctions as recourse enough. And his conventional military – what was left of it after it was laid waste in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 – was under close supervision.
He didn’t buy that at the time, even if it was obviously true. And overall, he says this:
Where does this leave me? The world is well rid of Saddam Hussein. But knowing as we now do the exaggeration of Hussein’s threat, the cost in Iraqi and American lives and the fact that none of this great splurge has bought us confidence in Iraq’s future or advanced the cause of freedom elsewhere – I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.
But he says whether it was wrong to support the invasion at the time is a harder call. But why was it? Richard Einhorn says it was a hard call because this was a matter of character and intelligence:
I want to make the point that many of us … including millions of other ordinary Americans who marched in 2002 and 2003, never changed our minds about the Bush/Iraq war because we got it right from the start. Long before the first American soldier stomped onto Iraqi soil, we knew it could only be, in Keller’s own words, “a monumental blunder.”
And those of us who were right have as little power now – even less, by some measures – to influence the public discourse than we had back then.
And Einhorn argues the certain excerpts from Keller’s piece are deeply telling:
They seem trivial, but it is their very triviality, the fact that they go unnoticed and therefore become tacitly accepted into the discourse, that makes the wrong-headedness of our public discussions so intractable.
I christened an imaginary association of pundits the I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club, made up of liberals for whom 9/11 had stirred a fresh willingness to employ American might…
[Fred] Kaplan dropped out of the hawk club within a month when he concluded that, whether or not an invasion was morally justified, he doubted the Bush administration was up to the task. The rest of us were still a little drugged by testosterone…
All in all, Fred Kaplan, who predicted they would screw it up, looked like Nostradamus…
The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club – how terribly clever a quip it is, how humorous, how smug. How easy it is, when you talk this way, to forget that we are talking about the advocacy of war, the process of turning living human beings into hamburger. No doubt, men – and women – have spoken flippantly about war since before Achilles, but rarely has an entire discourse about going to war been permeated with such callous, snotty arrogance as was the attitude of the Bush administration and mainstream media in 2002/03 towards Iraq. Perhaps there are justifiable, unavoidable wars – although I have never heard of a war in my lifetime that was either – but serious discussion about the necessity of war ends – not begins – when you resort to such frippery as “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club.” It all sounds like a lark, a disagreement among campers over which team to join, the Eagles or the Hawks rather than a discussion about whether or not it achieves some kind of super-ordinate goal to kill lots of people. And when you put it that way, it sounds morally corrupt to label the advocates of such murderous behavior as mere members of a club.
And there’s that metaphor, if that’s what it was:
Keller wants to blame a hormonal imbalance – too much testosterone – on his and his pals’ failure to perceive the “monumental blunder” as quickly as Fred Kaplan, who presumably suffered from some kind of chemically masculine deficit. He’s speaking metaphorically – duh – but it’s a bad metaphor, and it’s wildly wrong. Because it was not testosterone – a substance – that blinded Keller to the insanity of Bush/Iraq but fear, a psychological state. Put another way, Keller’s body didn’t fail him; his character did.
And screw that guy from St-Rémy just south of Avignon:
Nostradamus is the quintessential wild-eyed, insane prophet making preposterous, impossible-to-believe in predictions. Needless to say, it didn’t take anything remotely like Nostradamus-level Dark Powers to predict that Bush/Iraq would end in disaster – in fact, it required the precise opposite. It took examining the cold, hard facts with a mind unclouded by fear to figure out that this was a colossal mistake. And – it turns out – millions of people around the world figured this out at the time. But not Bill Keller and his Club.
What these three remarks reveal is that the man who, until recently, edited the New York Times treated the awesome, solemn subject of war as an intellectual lark; a near-frivolous disagreement amongst friends; he permitted his fear to blind him to the reality of the situation and cloud his judgment; and even now, he ascribes superhuman powers of prediction to anyone who could have dared to voice in advance the obvious outcome of the Bush administration’s madness. These remarks also reveal that rather than acknowledge his own responsibility to think clearly through his fear, Keller is prepared to blame his stupid – no other word suffices – decision to support the invasion of Iraq on his hormones, i.e., something other than his own inability to conquer his terror and think rationally.
Well, that’s one way to look at it. Or Keller wanted closure back then – no ambiguity – Saddam had to go. There could be no mitigating circumstances. It wasn’t fear. It was the simplification that comes from denying the possibility of ambiguity. Of course that is another way of defining stupidity.
But Einhorn is in no mood to be generous:
I suppose it is churlish not to say something like “better late than never” – that it is good to know that Keller learned something from this and will be reluctant to throw his still-considerable influence behind the next cockamamie violent nonsense a psychotic cadre of government officials demand he supports. Perhaps: better late than never. But I can’t help thinking of the awfulness of what this country did to the citizens of Iraq – we all know that Abu Ghraib was just the tip of the iceberg – and did it with a moral arrogance that was, at the time, breathtaking and sickening to behold.
But that is the problem with demanding closure. That demand is a form of moral arrogance.
Yes, there is that older notion, that the mature and thoughtful and intellectually honest person should be able to handle life’s inevitable ambiguity with grace and kindness and tolerance – and not demand neat and tidy closure, as there really is never such a thing in real life. But that notion evaporated long ago. And the final irony is that we say we cannot move on without closure, which is pretty much always impossible in this dark and murky world, as we both fear and know in our bones. So we never move on – ever. That happens when you demand the impossible.