The plan for this year’s 9/11 commemoration sounds an awful lot like last year’s, especially since word came down that no public officials will deliver remarks. No speeches, especially anything deemed “political,” shall mar the reading of the names of those lost on that terrible day.
This news has been cheered, especially by some newspaper editorial boards that should know better. Newsday, in particular, says the reading of the names has an “elegant simplicity.” That’s in line with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who last year told NY1 that the families of the dead “don’t need political lectures,” as if any speaker would aim to annoy the crowd.
The reading of the names, which at this stage seems to do little to put a still-raw historical act into present-day context, is considered sacrosanct. But our elected officials have been silenced again. Not to mention—although someone should—our poets, academics and religious leaders, probably in order of importance.
The no-speakers stand seems tremendously popular. But it’s also ridiculous.
For eons, and in cultures of all sorts, leaders have been expected to draw conclusions and share them with the people they are elected to serve. It’s one of the responsibilities of leadership, to find words in impossibly difficult situations, to give voice to our common experience.
Sure, it’s hard. And yes, leaders mostly fail to meet the challenge. The exceptions, though, create historical moments. What if someone had told Abraham Lincoln not to give the Gettysburg Address because nobody wanted to hear him tackle a hot-button issue? Can you picture Franklin Roosevelt, during World War II, being given a list of names of deceased soldiers to read and told to say nothing else?
Sixty-seven years after FDR’s death, though, our politicians are terrified of politics, or at least being deemed “political” by the dumbed-down culture that confuses the words “politics” and “partisan.” Ours is a world with little interest in the common good or even the slightest healthy debate about what that might mean. The civics class belongs to another age, not ours. We love our cell phones, not our post office. We outsource wars or figure someone else can volunteer. Somewhere along the line, the Me Decade became a new Me Century. “Don’t be political” is pretty much our only rallying cry.
It’s been this way for a while now, so it is unsurprising to see us privatizing our grief, too, and wrongly insisting that 9/11 events belong only to the deeply affected families. The reading of the names has been a powerful and valuable tradition and should continue if others want it to, but when do our leaders lead and take the ceremonies on that awful anniversary to another level? Never?
The irony is that we have a couple of politicians around who might be able to speak a memorable phrase or two. Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives good speech. Bloomberg has a talent for telling people what they don’t want to hear. That might help inspire something substantial. Give, gulp, Gov. Chris Christie a chance to say a few words. Maybe he won’t even call anyone an idiot during his turn on the dais.
Throw in a few others, knowing that picking and choosing is an admittedly messy business. Then let the speakers dare to give us a slightly new way of thinking of that horrific moment and this anxious one.
The point isn’t the quality, year to year, of the speeches. It is that in decrying politics of all kinds in any sensitive situation, we create a content-free culture. No wonder we wind up with political campaigns about peripheral issues.
There is no getting around the need for politics or political speech. Banning it is a lousy way to commemorate anything in a democracy.
Christopher Moore is a writer living in Manhattan. He is available by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @cmoorenyc.
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