we're all wrong
September 9, 2002
The drums, of course, are beating. The Anniversary is coming up, and everyone is insisting not just that we remember, not just that we mourn, but that we do it The Right Way.
I'm a bit saddened to see that the unity I saw in my city just after the attacks has faded, that some of the assumption of kindness, of good intent, has given way to assertions of different people's agendas.
I see James Lileks mourn a girl lost, comparing her age to his own daughter's, and Jeff Jarvis, correctly, is moved by the empathy clear in his writing. He points out, correctly, that being moved to make a small change in one's life like starting a diet or living more healthily isn't particularly significant compared to the attacks, though he later admits that he feels he hasn't done enough himself.
I see that same Lileks essay read by Dean Allen, and he points out, correctly, that it's a bit macabre and manipulative to be Googling for a picture of a dead child to make a political point. Clearly the Hanson family is not looking for solace by searching the web, hoping that the guy who scans in the tacky interior design pics has posted their lost little girl's picture.
And I'm not offended by either of their views, as they're both right. I'm offended that Jeff, in his emotional and physical closeness to the attack, and Dean, with his well-reasoned and critical view of the responses, have both not paused to consider that it's not a binary choice.
I had hoped people could see that we were all right, and more importantly, that we're all wrong. I'm frustrated that two smart, literate men can't see that maybe theirs isn't the only proper way of grieving. Jeff blasts others' reactions as Californian wrongness, not understanding that analysis and introspection might be the way that they choose to grieve over a tragedy that's 3,000 miles distant for most of them. Just as I can see two girls kidnapped in England and be saddened but not grief-stricken, it would be false for people in California to not temper their sympathy with some more detached and analytical review.
When I was in high school, a friend who volunteered at a library told me about a woman who had come in and begun researching alcoholism and drunk driving at a near-obsessive pace after having lost an uncle to an accident caused by a drunk driver. It's not unusual for some groups of people to try to understand a situation as part of their response, as part of their grieving process. I doubt that woman thought her uncle deserved to be killed by a drunk, though she was striving to understand what caused his actions.
And for some people, including myself much of the time, processing grief requires identifying with the victims. It is absolutely self-serving at times, and might appear narcissistic. But I realized a few years ago that, for me, the worst thing that ever happens to someone is their worst thing, and we can't really judge it to not be awful enough, whether it's hangnail or heartbreak or heart attack.
So I can't fault someone looking at the most precious thing in their life and comparing it to what was lost last September. That it might be maudlin or treacly is obvious. That it might be okay... that's the harder point.
Dean criticizes Lileks' writing as if he had deliberately set out to co-opt a family's loss as a means to manipulate people into agreeing with the conclusions he draws about what actions we ought to take in the future.
Every response to grief is cliché and maudlin self-indulgence, though. It's become cliché precisely because grief is universal. No one ever doesn't know loss. No good parent doesn't ever fear seeing their own child in the shoes of any child ever victimized or wronged.
Dean, Jeff, please understand: I mean neither of you any disrespect. Nor James, for that matter. But I expect that all three men, and all good people affected by the attacks a year ago, want to do right by the people who died. I suspect that the best way we can honor them is to agree that we have different ways of honoring them, as individual as they were.
I've gotten it wrong, too, I know. I've seen firsthand this past weekend, and this past year, that you will never convert someone to your system of grief, despite any reasoning, cajoling, manipulation, or threats that you might direct at them.
That we might not have to attack each other for feeling our pain the way we each do... that's a goal. I have a name for that lack of contention, that lack of discord among those of like mind and like goals and like moral constitution. That absence of conflict is called peace.