I, like a lot of Americans I’d imagine, did a lot of thinking about grief this weekend. And like a lot of Americans on the left, I have a lot of trouble mourning along with the rest of the country on 9/11. I have to admit I felt a certain anger when I walked past the campus flags at half-mast with two marines, heads bowed, standing beneath them silently all day. I feel almost confessional writing that sentence, we’re allowed to mock Rudy Giuliani’s single-minded and craven use of a national tragedy only as long as it’s grounded in a sincere practice of mourning on certain days. For me, grief for the victims of the September 11th attack will always be tied to its politicization. We all watched as bodies were still being dragged from wreckage as the president and the media turned misery into murderous vengeance. I can’t think about the innocent lives lost in New York, DC and Pennsylvania without bitterly thinking about the innocent lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. Every year on the 11th I feel ashamed at my inability to grieve without weighing and comparing suffering, something that can never be weighed or compared anyway. Every year I’m enraged at the leaders who made sure this country’s dominant response to being wounded was to lash out and victimize others, and in my name.
James Traub’s profile of J Street in the Times Magazine made me think about how politicization has the same effect when it comes to mourning victims of the Holocaust. The piece quickly goes from a view of J Street’s progressive location in the right-heavy Israel lobby spectrum to an investigation of how Jewish fear and grief is used in foreign policy. AIPAC and others on the right have used the memory of millions of dead Jews to perpetuate an oppressive apartheid system. For my whole life, this is how I’ve seen the Holocaust used. The disgust at seeing bloodshed met with bloodshed leaves me unable to isolate the event from its rhetorical functions. It seems like as long as we mourn with war, I can’t mourn in peace.
I haven’t read Judith Butler’s new book on grief, but Precarious Life really changed the way I look at dealing with deaths politically, and I’m looking forward to Frames of War. I hadn’t thought a lot about mourning and 9/11 until I heard Bill Clinton’s memorial speech after what was then the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the Oklahoma City bombing:

Our words seem small beside the loss you have endured. But I found a few I wanted to share today. I’ve received a lot of letters in these last terrible days. One stood out because it came from a young widow and a mother of three whose own husband was murdered with over 200 other Americans when Pan Am 103 was shot down. Here is what that woman said I should say to you today:

The anger you feel is valid, but you must not allow yourselves to be consumed by it. The hurt you feel must not be allowed to turn into hate, but instead into the search for justice. The loss you feel must not paralyze your own lives. Instead, you must try to pay tribute to your loved ones by continuing to do all the things they left undone, thus ensuring they did not die in vain.

Wise words from one who also knows.

You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.

Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, Let us “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

The full text is here courtesy of American Rhetoric. I don’t want to make this about term limits, but can you imagine what the World would look like if that’s what the president’s response to 9/11 had sounded like? And wouldn’t you rather live there?