On Saturday night, while driving near the Pentagon, I suddenly came upon several shafts of light shooting into the sky. From the off-ramp of I-395 to Columbia Pike in Arlington, I saw that one of the Pentagon's five walls had been bathed in blue light, with a huge American flag draped over the middle. Until then, I had been unaware that the commemoration of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had begun. This was certainly a dramatic reminder.
The airwaves are full of news reports, documentaries, and dramatizations regarding the events of five years ago. They bring to mind nothing less than the similar surfeit of remembrances on significant anniversaries of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (The two events are quite similar in the way in which Americans were glued to their televisions and radios for several days, eager to obtain any tidbit of news.)
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I wrote an essay for The Metro Herald in Alexandria that must have seemed dissonant at the time. Perhaps it still seems so. But I thought I would repost it here as my own contribution to the recollections that begin with the question, "Where were you when you heard...?"
From The Metro Herald, September 21, 2001:Playtime as the Guardian of the Soul
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
Metro Herald Charlottesville Bureau Chief
(Charlottesville, VA, September 16, 2001) --- In his brief but brilliantly insightful 1970 book, A Rumor of Angels, Peter L. Berger describes how we can find evidence for the existence of God in the everyday actions and interactions of people. This is not a book about tabloid “miracles”; no statues that bleed nor satanic faces in rising smoke here. No, it is about average people, sometimes in extraordinary situations.
Berger discusses the people of Vienna at the end of World War II. Their country had been devastated, first by Nazi occupation, then by war. Like other cities in Central Europe, Vienna lay in ruins. Buildings were destroyed, streets were upended, the city was home to wandering refugees and returning soldiers.
Amid all this, however, one of the city’s first actions was to reopen the Stadtöper, the city opera house, and begin musical performances. Concerts and recitals were presented even before the holes in the roof were repaired. Audiences could see the stars from their seats.
Berger uses this example, among others – such as reports of concentration camp inmates who played and sang music despite their imprisonment – as evidence of the human impulse to retain hold of our humanity even during great crises. It is no accident that “the humanities” – literature, music, drama, painting, sculpture, and the rest – are called just that: humanities. Human, humane, humanities. These are intrinsic to defining ourselves as human. We rise above beasts because we have humanity. We seek to better ourselves, to escape the bounds of earthly reality. Instead, we create our own reality. We are greater than our circumstances.
More recently, we have seen this impulse at work in Israel during the Gulf War. Who can forget televised images of Isaac Stern playing his violin in a concert hall, under the threat of a Scud missile attack, with the entire audience wearing gas masks?
Berger talks about “homo ludens”: man at play. He notes how through sport (and, by extension, theatre, movies, music, etc.), people slip beyond the constraints of time and space and bring themselves closer to God. We don’t think about it this way. We think of playtime as mundane. Far from it; it is transcendent.
What prompts me to discuss at length a book I haven’t read in more than 20 years? It stems from my disappointment in one response to the terrorist attacks on the United States. Specifically, I feel the cancellation of sporting events, concerts, and theatrical performances more than four days after the attacks was ill-advised.
It is understandable that, in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, regularly scheduled events should be canceled or postponed. The situation was fluid; no one knew what might happen; Americans wanted to remain near their TVs to keep informed; and, not least, there was a sense that amusement would show disrespect to the dead and the survivors.
Yet it is also important, for reasons of our own humanity, that life should return to normal as soon as possible. To postpone everyday life, in all but the localities most immediately affected by the attacks, risks feeding survivor guilt, self-pity, and a sense of victimhood. None of this is healthy, nor is it humane. We need upliftment – sports, arts, and entertainment provide it.
Here in Charlottesville, Virginia, a weekly event called “Fridays After Five” – free music downtown, with food and beverages and crowds – was first announced to go on as scheduled, then modified with a public demonstration of support for the victims, then canceled unexpectedly and replaced with a candlelight vigil. The confused result was that virtually nothing happened: Charlottesvillians were unable to reassert their humanity and celebrate their lives, nor were they able to effectively reflect on, and make tribute to, the fallen.
That same night in Charlottesville, however, Live Arts, a local theatre company, went ahead with the opening performance of W;t, a play about cancer and the life of the mind, by Margaret Edson. (It earned the Pulitzer Prize for drama.) Artistic director John Gibson spoke to the audience before the curtain rose, explaining – almost apologetically – why Live Arts had gone on as scheduled. His comments were gratuitous. That the show went on spoke for itself; it demonstrated again the vitality of the human spirit recovering from, and overcoming, crisis.
Writing in The New Republic in November 1914, shortly after the start of the Great War – what we now call World War I – Rebecca West said, in a warning to those who would use the war as an excuse to set aside what makes us humane in favor of that which makes us brutish: “Decidedly we shall not be safe if we forget the things of the mind. Indeed, if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practise and rejoice in art. For only through art can we cultivate annoyance with inessentials, powerful and exasperated reactions against ugliness, a ravenous appetite for beauty; and these are the true guardians of the soul.”
She was right then; we should heed her words now. Life, in all its fullness, must continue unrelentingly. If not, the terrorists have won the day.
For those who might be interested, you can find other posts that relate to 9/11 and its aftermath elsewhere on this blog, including:
"Swedish TV, the PATRIOT Act, and Charlottesville" (January 1, 2005)
"PATRIOT Act Violates Civil Liberties, DOJ Says" (April 5, 2005).
"PATRIOT Act Reform Caucus Announced" (April 27, 2005).
"GMU Students Plan Terrorist Strike in Northern Virginia" (April 14, 2005)
"Diverse Coalition Brings PATRIOT Act Concerns to Congress" (April 19, 2005)
"Abolishing Cash: Fantasy or Nightmare?" (June 16, 2005)
"Everything Old Is New Again" (September 23, 2005)
"Reading" (September 20, 2005), about books that gained relevance after the attacks, originally published on September 28, 2001.
"There Is Nothing Like a Dane" (February 5, 2006)
"My Lunch with Dick Cheney" (June 19, 2006)