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The Real Tragedy | The Nation

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The Real Tragedy

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Now that it is September 12, maybe we can start to think more clearly about the day before. Too much can be made of September 11, I think. Too much can never be made of it for those who had family or friends die that day, or suffer grievous wounds whether physical or psychological, but I doubt the day itself is a "national tragedy."

About the Author

Eric Weinberger
Eric Weinberger teaches in the expository writing program at Harvard University.

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Tragedies are not one thing on one day; they are a sequence of events, some large and some quite small, many of which we can only connect long afterward. Our national tragedy is the war in Iraq, which we probably wouldn't have had happen without September 11--but then, we might have. Even then we had a handful of men determined to go to war in Iraq, because they had a vision about Iraq and what the aftermath of a war there could offer the world. And so that war has come about, with all the loss of life and treasure and prestige and honor that we know so well about and that doesn't bear repeating. It is a national agony that will go on and on for years, even after our last troops leave, whenever they do leave; I don't presume to know when that date should be.

September 11 is, then, a day of personal tragedies several thousand times over. It is a grief I cannot share with its victims in the same way that, as an American, I share with all other Americans grief about what has happened to us since war in Iraq began in March 2003. Like many others I see our military--our country--weakened by Mr. Bush's war when it was supposed to make us stronger and more secure.

One reason we are weak in confronting Iran, for instance, is because of the blows struck against our military for the last three years: so many soldiers killed, maimed or permanently disillusioned, vast quantities of expensive equipment destroyed, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, most of which didn't need to be. September 11, itself, as an occurrence, did not weaken us. The world rallied to us, instead, and Americans rallied to one another; the truth is, we could withstand an attack of the measure of 9/11 every year and maintain the cherished way we live with few sustained and substantial losses, and these mostly in airport and building security. Would our morale endure?

The families of 9/11's victims suggest it would. They grieve but do not appear to be demoralized; they have not withdrawn from the public sphere; if anything they have engaged passionately with their fellow citizens. We hear about them in courtrooms and in the halls of Congress, attending proceedings, hearings and trials; we see their op-eds and letters to the editor in newspapers. They have started foundations and revived their lives and families. From them we learn much about what it means to be private citizens in public life.

Because of what happened on that day, the 9/11 families felt helpless and became determined to be that way no longer. When we read, as an example, the letters to the editor in the New York Times, most of which are strongly critical of the Administration and its conduct in Iraq and related affairs, we see the enduring helplessness of citizens who wish to be further involved, to change things, but don't know how apart from their single act of writing to a newspaper. The same could be said of me, writing this column.

Americans all over this country and from all classes are impatient and angry about what has been done in our name, against which we could not speak out or affect. It is a feeling of weakness that I don't think we, most of us, had on September 11 itself or in the following days and months. We knew we were a strong country, that this act was wicked and would be punished, and we didn't see why we couldn't continue as we had before, warier than before but still, generally, secure, sure of ourselves and our nation. Now we are not so sure.

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