After 11 Years, Nationalism is Still Our Preferred Expression of Grief

Immediately after September 11, I was so struck by the predominant collective response: the ubiquitous display of flags everywhere you looked; the knee-jerk “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chant whenever the tragedies were invoked; the widespread desire for retributive justice, wherever, however possible.

Now eleven years later, even after all that’s happened since, I’m just so saddened that nationalistic displays seem to be the only way we know how to commemorate our dead. Maybe I’m naive, but it’s difficult for me to accept that we still haven’t found a healthier national outlet for our grief.  Call me naive, but I was genuinely surprised – and quite honestly mortified – that the loudest cheers at the DNC last week (always accompanied by the still ubiquitous “U-S-A! U-S-A!”) were saved for references to 9/11 and the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

If you found yourself disturbed as well, I highly recommend that you read this recent piece by Glenn Greenwald, who sorrowfully identifies all that was wrong with the bloodlust on unabashed display during the DNC:

Americans once found national purpose – justification for their belief in their own exceptionalism – from inventing new life-improving technologies, or putting a man on the moon, or advancing the cause of equality, or vanquishing the mighty Nazi military machine, or enshrining unparalleled protections for core liberties in the constitution. Now, many Americans find it in the heroic ability to hunt someone down who is in hiding, pummel his skull full of bullets even as he lay dying on the ground, and then dump his corpse into the ocean…

The premise seems to be that – aside from this specific corpse and the others the president has piled up – there is little else for ordinary Americans to celebrate now when it comes to the search for nationalistic achievement, purpose and greatness among their political leadership. That this dark premise appears valid is what is most disturbing of all.

In the meantime, for me the most moving, compassionate and morally honest tribute to the 9/11 fallen – and all who have fallen by our hands since – is this spoken word piece by Palestinian-American Suheir Hammad (above) entitled “First Writing Since.”

i cried when i saw those buildings collapse on themselves like a broken
heart. i have never owned pain that needs to spread like that.

there is no poetry in this. there are causes and effects. there are
symbols and ideologies. mad conspiracy here, and information we will
never know. there is death here, and there are promises of more.

there is life here. anyone reading this is breathing, maybe hurting,
but breathing for sure. and if there is any light to come, it will
shine from the eyes of those who look for peace and justice after the
rubble and rhetoric are cleared and the phoenix has risen.

affirm life.
affirm life.
we got to carry each other now.
you are either with life, or against it.
affirm life.

7 thoughts on “After 11 Years, Nationalism is Still Our Preferred Expression of Grief

  1. david Sheffer

    I’ve been saying this since i was 18 years old – and it only has gotten worse. Some days i feel hopeful. Not so much today.

  2. Michael Mandel

    Another incredibly moving “September 11th” poem is “Alabanza”, Martin Espada’s tribute to the immigrant workers at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. (There’s a excellent video of him reading it at

    And while I completely agree that the collective response you describe ultimately won the day in the US, a significant collective response in the days and weeks (and maybe even months) after the attack – at least from my perspective living in NYC – was compassion, shared grief, an honest introspection at how US policies impact the rest of the world and a hopeful-in-spite-of-the-tragedy sense that we could use the astonishing outpouring of support from people throughout the US and around the world to work collectively – and internationally – toward treating others (people, countries and the planet) with love, respect and justice. Of course, that didn’t last long, and many, many people – including top elected leaders – went all in with the nationalistic approach right from the start. But I do feel it is important to point out – especially to younger readers – that we knew back then that the militaristic road we ended up going down was not the only option, and that the conditions were better than they had been in a long time for widespread, systemic change for the better.

  3. kvennarad

    I find this a breath of fresh air. I had been hoping someone would say something like this. As I am not American, it wasn’t for me to say.

    Marie Marshall

  4. Laurie Goldstein

    A former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp was visiting a friend who had shared the ordeal with him.

    “Have you forgiven the Nazis?” he asked his friend.
    “Well, I haven’t. I’m still consumed with hatred for them.”
    “In that case,” said his friend gently, “they still have you in prison.”

  5. Lisa K.

    Thank you, Brant. Every year on the anniversary of 9/11, I post the video of Suheir’s poem. It is like a speck on the wall of American flags and “never forget” (like we could?) postings that flood my newsfeed. Those posts don’t really invoke any emotions in me, except perhaps vague irritation. But Suheir’s poem hits me in my gut every time.

    It brings back all the emotions of that day and its aftermath – including my fear for my Arab & Muslim friends. I remember the calls for volunteers to accompany them and their children so they could safely walk to school, to mosque, to the grocery store. And at the same time, they are Americans who were hurting and grieving like the rest of us. But the rest of us didn’t have to deal with this additional dimension: the knee-jerk reaction to blame ALL Arabs & Muslims for the actions of a few. I don’t think I’ll ever understand, nor do I want to understand, how people who are grieving such horrible violence, react with more violence – and on other mourners who are completely innocent.

    The only knee-jerk reaction I had was the urge to pull the covers over my head and block it ALL out. It was Suheir’s poem then, as now, that both brings me back to that day, and pulls me out from under the covers – with her call to affirm life.

    L’Chaim. And L’Shana Tova.

  6. Colette Ann Naegle

    America land of my dreams

    When i was knee high, could i ever cry
    For our countries gone under
    Because we had to surrender, shredded by German’s plunder
    Yet i rejoiced and thanked God when the sun was shinning
    I did a lot of day dreaming wathching the clouds
    As they went by
    The only jewells i saw were the daisies by he road
    Their perfect little rows of white petals center gold
    I dreamt of far away land where people were free*
    Free to speak, free to laugh, free of fear and striffe
    America: land of my dreams you were floating in my inner space
    Like a desert’s mirage
    I clung to it with determination, until the day it came into action
    Young GI’s fresh faced, full of youth
    Smiled at us from their metal girth
    Tanks, cannons, guns and the likes: they looked so vulnerable and young
    They held my hand: “small” in theirs ” strong”
    In their palms well fed and reassuring
    They could be so loving to a little girl who dyfied dying
    So land of my dreams you will come true
    In my heart you grew and grew, till one day
    I will see New-York bay*
    Land of my dreams you will be mine

    Colette Anne Naegle

    writen at twelve after the Americans blew down the Nazi sign in Berlin in 1945


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