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That Old-Time (Civic) Religion

By Frank Gruber

Last year I often found myself staring out at the Pacific in the aftermath of September 11, so it was fitting that Wednesday morning I attended the near-dawn remembrance at the Pier organized by the Santa Monica Area Interfaith Council.

I am glad I did. There's something about an ocean and a distant horizon that can rejuvenate the most beaten-to-death platitudes or the hoariest cliche. Why releasing some finches from a cage, or playing "Amazing Grace," work, I don't know, but they do, and the vast ocean helps to focus the emotions.

To be honest, I might not have attended the early morning event had I not read a piece from The Onion satirizing the American penchant for allowing TV to direct our emotions. ("Who Will Bring Closure to a Grieving Nation")

Although it's probably bad form to admit that I would alter my behavior based on what I read in a satirical website, up until I read The Onion piece, I had intended to watch the commemorations from the east coast, on television.

Shamed into participating in reality, there I was at the Pier, and later on I attended the noontime commemoration at City Hall.

With gratitude to the religious leaders who organized the event Wednesday, in times like these I appreciate the separation of church and state and, indeed, America's secular and civic "religion."

It's not only because in Nigeria under Muslim criminal law a woman is sentenced to death by stoning for fornication, and in that context you're glad John Ashcroft has to answer to the Constitution and not his Creator, but also because when terrorists are flying airplanes into skyscrapers, it's not religion that articulates what America needs.

We can search our hearts and try to be better people, to try to find goodness in tragedy, but in the meantime, I'm more interested in good ideas about what to do about the badness of people who are trying to blow us up.

It's complicated. We live in a world where we have power, we have enemies, we have limits on our power and we would like not to make more enemies.

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, indeed.

* * *

It's been well-recognized that on September 11 America's public institutions, particularly local government, rose to the dark occasion. Given the performance of public safety services and the competence of politicians and other authorities at all levels throughout the country, I should not have been surprised by the eloquence of the remarks made by Santa Monica's top civil servants that I heard at the noon-time ceremony Wednesday at City Hall.

But I was. You don't expect eloquence from administrators. The Lookout has published the remarks of City Manager Susan McCarthy, Police Chief James Butts, and Fire Chief Ettore Berardinelli, and they are worth reading.

Chief Butts' remarks (not included in the written speech published in The Lookout), mostly concerning the history of the riderless, or "caparisoned" horse, used for the funerals of soldiers, at first seemed obscure, but ultimately I appreciated them as a commentary on the traditions that we use to comprehend the incomprehensible idea that people will sacrifice their lives for the public good.

The speeches by City Manager McCarthy and Fire Chief Berardinelli resonated with me immediately. Anyone who thinks that Americans have lost the ability to speak to each other in plain language about complicated issues and roiling emotions should read them.

* * *

Indeed, since September 11 the overall level of discourse in America has been high, even as Americans, united in outrage, have had a lot of disagreements. As an assiduous reader of newspaper and magazine opinion pieces, and as one who has friends from the right and the left who send me material over the internet, I feel qualified to say this.

Despite disagreements over policy, over the causes of terrorism and what to do about it, Americans of all views have made their cases thoughtfully and with a minimum of finger pointing.

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times last week, Susan Sontag argued that the slogan, "United We Stand" has been used to equate the "call to reflectiveness" with dissent, and "dissent with lack of patriotism." She predicted that the anniversary of the attack would not be a day of national reflection, because reflection "might impair our 'moral clarity.'"

(Sontag's piece has been circulating in the internet, but if you haven't read it, and you want to, you can find it in the New York Times archives.)

With due respect to a thoughtful writer, Sontag misses the point. Americans say "united we stand" precisely because we know that we have a diversity of views. If we all believed the same thing, if we expected that our "reflectiveness" would lead us to consensus, we would not need to remind ourselves that we are united.

Naturally we all believe that if everyone merely reflected, they would reach the same conclusions, namely, one's own. Sontag does this when she bemoans a lack of "reflectiveness" in the commemoration of September 11, and assumes that anyone whose reflections don't bring them to her conclusions means to extend the power of the United States and nothing else.

The administration does the same thing when they expect everyone to agree with them that, for instance, after reflecting on Saddam Hussein's badness, it would be a good idea to invade Iraq.

That kind of unity we're not going to have. My reflections will not necessarily lead me to the same place that your reflections lead you, but neither of us needs to doubt the other's bona fides. No one should expect that Americans will ever be united in mind, as opposed to united in purpose.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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