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Mourning and Strategy

An autumn of tears is upon us. The funerals have begun. There will be no miracles; there will be only DNA tests, and agonies, and eulogies, and theodicies; and then the injured lifetimes will begin. A New York minute now lasts an eternity. The grief comes in many forms. People saw things and heard things that cursed their consciousness, and ways must be found to lift the curse. Even television left scars: never was the distance between the screen and the world so completely annulled. So trauma is everywhere, near and far. The debris will have to be cleared out of psyches, the reconstruction of hearts will have to begin. It is time for our notoriously therapeutic culture to show its stuff. Do the dead sleep? It is more certain that the living do not sleep. We are a society of the haunted, awaiting the healing arts and the healing sciences.

But we must be careful. We must not therapeutize ourselves back into the world before September 11. We must not grief-counsel our fury away. The promptings of American psychology must not interfere with the promptings of American security. For our sorrow is not the only challenge that we face. This mourning is not like other mourning. In the aftermath of natural death or natural disaster, it is wise to teach the stricken the lesson of acceptance, to instruct them tenderly that this is the way of the world. Against natural death and natural disaster, it is foolish and hurtful to rebel. But the atrocity of September 11 can never be accepted as the way of the world. Against such loss it is foolish and hurtful not to rebel. The only solace is strategy. We cannot permit ourselves, like mourners in decent times, to withdraw from the world for the duration of our pain. Quite the contrary. In the hour of our excruciation, we must throw ourselves into the world in a storm of engagement. Our safety and our dignity obligate us to do so. And so a harsh measure of emotional efficiency is demanded of Americans. The broken must behave as if they are whole. What happened in New York and Washington was not a tragedy that should leave us feeling philosophical; it was an aggression that should leave us feeling historical. We must return from our memorial services with practical thoughts.

It is not heartless to resist the sentimentalization of our situation; it is a condition of effective action. Anyway, there is no danger of not feeling in America. But there is a danger that the resolve that is now required for the defense of how we live will slowly be overwhelmed by the delight of how we live. No, we are not going to war the way we once went to war. The long shadow of the Hindu Kush will not fall on all our plans and all our pleasures. Carrie Bradshaw is not about to be usurped by Rosie the Riveter. The roughenings of American experience will be more like adjustments than like transformations. Yet some sacrifices of convenience--a more mindful and spineful existence, a perdurable sensation of emergency, a greater political unity--will rightly be asked of us. The campaign against terror that the Bush administration proposes to launch is a just and necessary and tardy and difficult campaign; and it will last a long time, if it is a serious campaign; and it will provoke our enemies into retaliation, if it is a serious campaign. This should not be taken to mean that in the absence of American action there would be peace: the fiends who planned and executed the attacks on New York and Washington regarded them as retaliatory. In their minds, there already was a war. The United States is merely bringing its description of reality into accord with reality. But that new description, and popular support for the government's new seriousness, cannot be taken for granted. After we are tested by the intensities of American bereavement, we will be tested by the banalities of American contentment.

"The problem of the new world," the writer Jonathan Franzen proclaimed last week, "will be to reassert the ordinary, the trivial, and even the ridiculous in the face of instability and dread: to mourn the dead and then try to awaken to our small humanities and our pleasurable daily nothing-much." This is the voice of the American who does not wish to live in history. To be sure, history is a terrible inconvenience. But we have been disturbed by it. Shall we pretend that we have not been disturbed? It is not true that we must choose between our small humanities and our big responsibilities; between a righteous mildness and a righteous militarism; between our private purposes and our public purposes. The flourishing of our private purposes is anyway one of our public purposes--but it is not the only one. And "nothing-much" was nothing much even when the World Trade Center still stood. Any firefighter will tell you that.