Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Collective mourning is difficult in a secular culture. How we commemorate September 11, a date imprinted in the national psyche with Dec. 7 as dates to live in infamy, is idiosyncratic and individual. Many find solace in faith, in reading the Bible, others in prayer or poetry. Still others join friendstorememberthose we knew who are no longer alive because vicious men from another civilization made killing innocents in the name of their god ariteofbenighted faith.

My friend was a literary man who sought his solace in poetry, literature and art. At his memorial service the other day, another friend quoted one of his favorite poems, by W.H. Auden:

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just

Walking dully along.

That strikes the right note of remembrance two years after September 11. Auden recalls the mundane details of the life that the terrorist’s prey will never again enjoy. The excruciating pain and grief that drew us together immediately after September 11 have been muted. Time inevitably dilutes the primary colors of experience, wearing down the intensity of fury.

We forget how fortunate we are to bite into an apple, sip a robust cup of coffee, open curtains to the sunlight, stroll a city street or walk along a country road. We go on without a wink to our good fortune.

“Why me?” That’s the question often asked by those struck down by mortal sickness or an errant automobile, or by a shot or shell in battle. It’s a question impossible to answer, even by the learned men who write books about why bad things happen to good people. But sometimes we can act with purpose to shorten the odds, such as they are. We can sometimes change the odds collectively, if not individually. We can think of the gift we give to unfortunates in Afghanistan and Iraq, who by our efforts against a shared enemy will breathe the fresh air of freedom.

The president was right the other night to say that “for America, there will be no going back to the era before September 11, 2001, to false comfort in a dangerous world.” We can rail against the fates when American blood is spilled in a foreign land, but we must face up to the reality spoken by President Bush. Attacks on Americans are not caused by the exercise of strength, but invited by the perception of weakness: “We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities.”

The grief that drew us together after September 11 was a galvanizing force that dispatched men and arms to the Middle East. Our men and women in uniform bear the burden so that we can feel safer at home. Two years and counting after September 11 there has been no terrorist attack on our soil.

A poll of 976 adults conducted for the New York Times suggests that more New Yorkers feel queasy and jittery on September 11 this year than last year, but such polls tell us nothing about why that should be. We risk trivializing trauma as a diagnosis for perfectly normal reactions to sudden violence in a scary world. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), carelessly applied to symptoms of shell shock for soldiers returning from Vietnam, is now being used by mental health professionals, often at the coaxing of lawyers in search of someone to sue, to diagnosis predictable human reactions to life’s unexpected tragedies.

The Rand Corporation found that 44 percent of Americans experienced “substantial symptoms of stress” after the September 11 attacks. The good news is that the 44 percent was not 100 percent. You would have to be crazy not to feel “substantial stress.” We diminish the confrontation with death when we medicalize and attempt to mathematically calibrate human reaction to loss.

“No man is an island,” John Donne wrote, but each of us grieves in a different way. As we contemplate a solemn moment of silence for those thousands who died on that bright blue September morning, we can pay them tribute by taking pleasure in what they left behind for us to enjoy, whether the pleasures of food and drink, of opening a window to the light, or just walking dully along. We must not allow evil men to weaken the resolve of good men to fight back.

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