"United 93" opens next week. But even before the critics got to see it, the first reviews were in. "Too soon," came the cry, literally, from the audience watching the trailers. "We're not ready," said the headlines.
Too soon. We're not ready.
These aren't complaints about the movie. It wasn't, "Too graphic!" Or, "You're insensitive!" The complaints about the movie were statements about us. It's too soon for us. We're not ready.
It's the same lament I used to have when I had failed to prepare for a test. I hadn't done my homework. I hadn't mastered the lessons. I hadn't read the books. It was too soon. I wasn't ready.
That wasn't the case after Pearl Harbor. "Remember Pearl Harbor" opened on May 18, 1942. That was less than six months after Japanese fighter planes had swarmed over American soil, killing almost 2500 people and destroying 12 American warships and 188 American planes. Well before the war even ended, it was the subject of countless films. America wasn't just ready for those films, they were hungering for them.
Sixty years later, aren't we supposed to be more inured to violence? Aren't we more sophisticated about our art, our visual media? What happened to that ironic distance we hide behind? If any audience should be able to stomach an intense account of an attack on our nation, shouldn't it be the media-savvy sophisticates of 2006, rather than the rubes of 1942? What's the difference between then and now?
The difference is pretty simple, actually. In the 1940s, America, government and populace alike, responded with terrible and awesome resolve, united in a purpose that assumed primary importance in everyone's lives. Four years after Pearl Harbor, America and its allies had defeated the enemy by taking the fight to them. On the home front, civilians bought war bonds. They planted Victory Gardens (which eventually would supply an astounding 40% of domestically consumed vegetables for the purpose of allowing the military to purchase canned vegetables cheaper). They rationed everything: Paper, rubber, food. They rationed food, ferchrissakes.
What have we done? How have we earned the sacrifice of United flight 93?
We have rationed nothing. Not even the oil that pays the terrorists' bills.
When our military had the killers of September 11th cornered at Tora Bora, our government backed off, and allowed them to escape. But we scoffed at the men who told us that, and re-elected that government anyway.
For years since, we have allowed the killers of September 11th safe harbor in Pakistan, because our government does not want to upset the political balance there. But out of ignorance or apathy, we go along with our government's fiction that Pakistan is an ally. And we re-elected that government anyway.
Our government exploited our fear and grief to sell us on a military goal they had cherished since well before September 11th. And when a few men and women dared to tell us the truth, to object to this craven desecration of flight 93's sacrifice, our leaders belittled them or questioned the one thing that obligated them to speak up: Their patriotism.
Instead of rejecting use of the weapon responsible for September 11th, religious fundamentalism, our government exalted and embraced it, claiming it as a basis for government policy.
Instead of admitting laxity and culpability in the days before September 11th, our government tried to cover up the truths. And even after those truths were revealed in documents such as the Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001, we re-elected that government.
Instead of demanding that our media return to its original intended function of keeping us informed about the world in which we were now supposed to be fighting a deadly struggle, within a few months we embraced the pap that was so much easier to produce.
And our media embraced and sold the conceit that they were refraining from showing the awful toll of war -- bodies falling from skyscrapers, carnage on the ground -- in order to protect our delicate sensibilities. In fact, they acted out of fear that we would judge them not as responsible journalists -- showing us painful but important images -- but as the entertainers they had become, focused on trivia and prurience and therefore suspect in their motives for showing us anything shocking or horrific. And, in fact, serving witness to the awful fate of our fellow Americans would have been the least we could have done and, at best, might actually have motivated sufficient anger and passion to guarantee an effective, sustained, meaningful response to the attack. Thankful for not having to bear the burden of those awful images, we congratulated our media for protecting our fragile eyes.
And that made it easier to return to watching pap. Why shouldn't we, when we never had to confront the specific realities of what had happened to 3,000 Americans?
If our government was failing to inspect more than 1 in 20 of the cargo containers entering America's ports, we didn't mind. We didn't even care enough to know about it.
If it took another planeload of civilians -- rather than aviation security -- to stop Richard Reid even after September 11, could we be bothered to hold a single agency accountable? To demand even one firing, let alone a transfer? Apparently not.
And when another terrorist struck on American soil, targeting not just civilians but citadels of our government with anthrax, were we able to stop our attackers or even identify them? Did we demand accountability among those charged with defending us?
And after such vulnerabilities were exposed, what did we do to prepare? Four years later, a simple thing like preparation of mobile hospitals goes unfinished.
And if we can't be bothered to remain informed about our enemy, or our own efforts or lack thereof to thwart the enemy, how do honor the heroes of September 11th?
Pat Tillman sacrificed fame and fortune and fun in professional sports to serve his country in its response to September 11th. But our government sent him to Iraq. And when he finally got to Afghanistan, his death by friendly fire was covered up by the military. And covered up again. And again.
And though Pat Tillman questioned both religion and the existence of a god, our media continued to spoonfeed us one of our favorite slurs -- no atheists in foxholes -- slandering Pat Tillman as he lay in the dirt unable to defend himself against the very people he died defending.
And to this day, the people he died defending consider him -- and anyone who dares reject their god -- as morally inferior even to those followers of the same faith that motivated September 11th.
New York City Detective James Zadroga gave his life for the city, succumbing this year to the effects of serving for hundreds of hours at Ground Zero. But even while our government was reaping political capital from New York's agonies, its leaders were lying to James and to the stricken city about the aid they would give us and about the very safety of that site. Their lies literally added to the death toll.
And what about the heroes of flight 93 themselves? They died to defend a free society. And yet, their sacrifice was invoked as somehow justifying measure after measure designed to restrict our freedoms. And because we lacked the bravery that arose on board flight 93, we shrank from the prospect of choosing freedom over security.
And then there's Mark Bingham. He was a rugby player on board flight 93. He assisted in rebelling against the hijackers. He gave his life to defend America's lawmakers, the targets of those hijackers. So how did they repay him? They condemned him. They said that Bingham didn't love the right way. They said that Bingham, were he alive today, would have no right, should have no right, to marry whomever he wanted. They used the gift he had died to give them -- their very lives -- to slander him for his love. And we re-elected them.
We spat on Pat Tillman's grave. We killed James Zadroga. We defamed Mark Bingham's love. Of course some of us aren't ready to experience the sacrifice of flight 93. We have squandered that sacrifice. Our cowardice made it a vain one. At every opportunity we have had to act nobly, to choose freedom, to honor the ideals of self-sacrifice and dedication to a cause, we have chosen the path of scared, lazy, callow children.
I know I haven't done all I could. And I've known a huge and awful shame at America's failure to prove worthy of the sacrifices of September 11th. I don't know whether I'll watch this movie. But if I don't, it won't be because they were wrong to make it. It will be because I and my country haven't done what we should have by now. Of course it's too soon. Of course we're not ready. We will never be ready, until we've earned it.