How did I spend Sunday, Sept. 11? I’m glad you asked. I attended the commemorative ceremony in Congress Park in Saratoga Springs, and I visited the State Museum in Albany to see the 9/11 exhibit there.
I had in mind to attend the worship service at Veterans Park in Schenectady also, and make a day of it, but the logistics proved awkward, and besides I figured the worship part of it would bring out the cynic in me and I would wind up writing something offensive, which I didn’t want to do.
Of course no patriotic ceremony can go without some sign of deference to the Almighty, but in Saratoga that deference was offered by a rabbi, interestingly enough, who provided both invocation and benediction, so there was no calling upon the blessed name of Jesus.
Just as well. I’m always a little uneasy when Jesus is introduced into flag-waving rituals, especially when part of the message is that we’re going to beat the brains out of our enemies.
That part was delivered in Saratoga by a truculent military speaker, jut-jawed and bereted, who shouted his bellicose mots to the modest-sized crowd as if we were new recruits who needed to be bucked up: The 9/11 attackers were cowards. “They thought they could bring down America! They were wrong! Nobody can bring down America! All they did that day was make heroes!” and more in that exclamatory vein. “We are fighting terrorists, and we’re going to keep fighting until all the terrorists are killed.”
Amen, and pass the hand grenades.
There is no real protocol for ceremonies like this, to remember our war dead, but there are lots of individual protocols.
You “present the colors,” meaning a group of uniformed veterans march forward carrying the American flag and various subsidiary flags.
You recite the Pledge of Allegiance, hand over heart.
You sing the National Anthem, or at least pretend to, fudging the high notes.
You have a couple of speeches, usually heavy on platitudes, sometimes, as in this case, bristling with belligerence.
You have a rifle salute, a military unit firing its weapons into the air.
You have a prayer, at beginning and end.
You might play “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes, as was done in this case.
You join hands and sing “God Bless America.”
You lay a wreath.
You “retire the colors.”
It’s not like a Catholic Mass, in which the order of the elements is prescribed. You just put these things together as best you can, each one being its own little ritual, and hope at the end you have come out with something meaningful.
It’s hard to go wrong. The horror of 9/11 is still so vivid that any group invocation of it is bound to be moving and any repetition of national rituals bound to be reassuring.
As for the horror, it is invoked tastefully enough at the State Museum with exhibits of some of the wreckage from Ground Zero presented almost as if it were sculpture — a mangled, twisted ladder from off the top of a fire truck, a complete fire truck itself,
an arrangement of fire hydrants, a section of building girder, all of it looking like it had been salvaged from hell, and dramatically lit.
People come in and are naturally hushed, as if in a church. They snap pictures with their cellphone cameras — they can’t resist that — but they speak softly, if at all.
If you’re a New Yorker you probably knew someone who died that awful day, and you remember the images of bodies falling from 100 stories up, not flailing like in the movies, but just falling, knees tucked, and the sculptural wreckage brings it back.
It’s made more immediate by an interview with a bedraggled firefighter at the scene playing continuously on a monitor next to the battered fire truck, a firefighter whose New Yawk accent is thick enough that the museum has seen fit to provide subtitles, in English.
In time it will surely fade, as Pearl Harbor has faded and Gettysburg has faded and be just another totem of history, an excuse maybe for a field trip, but after 10 years you can see how vivid the great event still is just by looking at the faces of the people visiting the museum or attending a small-town ceremony.
It’s not like a Columbus Day event. It’s something that is still alive in all of us.
On the energy front, I notice that an oil-pipeline fire in the capital of Kenya has killed at least 75 people, by early count. This, after another explosion and fire there killed some 270 people a couple of years ago.
According to the Guardian newspaper of the United Kingdom, there have been at least 30 major pipeline explosions and leaks in the last two years.
“The explosions mostly take place in poor countries because international oil and gas companies often fail to bury or protect their pipelines as they would have to do by law in rich countries,” the newspaper said. “The easily accessible pipes, which often run through slums and informal settlements in burgeoning cities, are tempting to desperately poor communities, who often have no electricity and must rely on oil lamps for lighting and power.”
Meaning that poor people drill into the pipes to steal oil, and occasionally there’s a disaster.
This compares with the recent partial meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, caused by an earthquake and tsunami, which, as far as I can tell, killed nobody directly.
Two Japanese workers died of “multiple external injuries,” according to Wikipedia, apparently referring to the flood damage, and two other workers were “hospitalized with non-life-threatening radiation burns” caused by standing ankle-deep in contaminated water, and that’s about it.
True, many people had to evacuate the area because of radiation danger, and residents were advised not to use tap water to prepare food for infants, but can you imagine what the world reaction would have been if a hundred people had been killed right on the spot?
Such is the emotional charge of nuclear energy compared with oil and gas. The one is a terrifying unknown, the other is a commonplace, taken for granted.
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