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9/11: The Legacy That Could Have Been

During World War II, Americans struggling to cope with the pressures of war and the pain of our boys coming home in boxes found unity as government and private enterprises encouraged common sacrifice. Americans discovered an escape from the pressures of war in the new entertainments of network radio and popular music. And the people of this country found both solace and challenge in an extraordinary explosion of artistic creativity during those years.

When Franklin Roosevelt died less than a month before V-E Day, Samuel Barber's wrenching Adagio for Strings captured and reflected the nation's grief and hope. At a time when classical works were introduced to audiences unimaginably large by today's standards, Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring, and Rodeo helped the nation find a serviceable blend of sorrow, comfort and inspiration about the country's involvement in what appeared to be the war to end all wars.

More than half a century later, music seems to play little if any role in the nation's struggle with the war in Iraq. Pop music, like the Bush Administration, would seem to prefer that the topics of loss and death never be mentioned. As the high arts struggle to find a place in the new media landscape, there is little sign of original content that does anything but howl in cliched horror against the president and his policies.

On this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I think of what might have been if the nation's leadership had made even the slightest effort to corral the raw bursts of cooperation and purpose we saw across the land in those first weeks following that September morning. If we had a president who found the gestures and words to bring us into common conversation about the men and women who die daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, might we have been more likely by now to have found a consensus on a way forward? It's a theoretical question: This president continues to shield the bodies of returning soldiers from public view. He makes not the slightest effort to address publicly the wounds of a nation that sees the war dead mainly in occasional galleries of headshots in the pages of a few newspapers. Funerals and memorial services take place every day; this president makes not even a symbolic appearance at any of them.

Last Friday night at the University of Maryland's Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Kronos Quartet, the extraordinary group that has spent three decades shredding the notion that chamber music is a form that completed its repertoire centuries ago, presented a piece about 9/11 called Awakenings.

Those of us listening and watching suddenly felt what had been missing for these six years. A hundred minutes of sound by composers from more than a dozen countries--all blended into one extended piece by the Kronos musicians--moved inexorably from lamentation to an explosion of noise to an almost strangling confusion and grief, and finally to a deep and mysterious return to normalcy that somehow emerged as hope.

This was the artists's answer to the political and moral debate we have avoided for these six years. Here finally was an effort to acknowledge the pain and fear that lingers, even as we confront our inability to decide where to go from here. Where else in the culture has there been a rigorous effort to brush aside the faux certainties that form the facade of this administration and of both political parties? In all the cacophony of our metastasizing media, where are the voices that spurn the phony polarization of TV and Interweb pundits and staged political debates?

In nearly every great American conflict since the birth of the nation, artists, whether painters, photographers, composers, or writers, have played an important role in confronting the people with essential questions and in giving us ways to channel our sadness, loss, anger and fear. This was only the second performance of Kronos' work; you can get a sense of it from selections and notes on the web, but the crying need is for more such creations, for more honest efforts to do what politicians seem unwilling and unable to do--draw people together in rigorous, searing and perhaps even healing confrontation with where we are and what we have done.

By Marc Fisher |  September 11, 2007; 7:08 AM ET
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It may not be "high art", but there are several popular music artists who have recorded songs meant to add to the dialogue about the war. Consider these lyrics from pop-punk outfit Green Day:

Yeah, we say making changes
Starts in the little things you do
"Revolution begins at home"
But for most of us it ends there, too
We're doing something
We're making changes
Like changing the brand of crap we buy
We say it makes a difference
But that's just another lie
But war is going on right now
And I'm not doing anything about it
Without a crowd I'm not so loud
I can't do anything by myself
But that's just another lie

Posted by: woof | September 11, 2007 8:28 AM

Marc, you've hit another one of your idiotic chords this morning. In your world we're supposed to be comforted through song with the notion that an enemy of the United States savagly attacked us six years ago as a declaration of war? Every time you hippies open your mouths you sound more and more moronic.

Get it through your pleace, love, and dope mind. We were attacked. Over 3,000 innocent civilians, Americans and internationals, murdered on their way to work by a savage, inhuman, and cowardly enemy. As Commander in Chief it is up to the President to protect and defend this nation. Not huddle around the campfire singing kumbyah.

Posted by: Give me a break | September 11, 2007 8:41 AM

@Give me a break:

I think you've fundamentally misread Fisher's piece. Where exactly does he advocate against the war? Marc's point was to lament the administration's failure to marshal the will, energy, and passion of the American people toward a common sacrifice, not lament the march of folly into Iraq.

Posted by: PH | September 11, 2007 8:55 AM

Obviously "Give Me A Break" has never listened to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" or he would understand how music -- and other arts -- can unify us and motivate us to "protect and defend this nation".

That's not just the President's job, "Break", it's the responsibility for all of us. And if music, or film, or a book, helps us do that, that's a lot more than just "huddl(ing) around a campfire singing kumbyah".

In other words, Marc Fisher is right, and you need (as the "hippies" used to say) to open your mind to the larger reality.

Posted by: You Need A Break | September 11, 2007 8:56 AM

Fisher unfortunately parrots the general media sentiment that the current administration is primarily to blame for the fact that we are still a divided nation. Last I checked, George Bush is incapable of bringing people together who don't want to come together. I'm not saying that Bush is blameless; he's not. But only the most self-absorbed among us can truly believe that there was any real chance that 9/11 would magically wipe away the very deep divides in this country that both sides are hell-bent on maintaining. Pick any leader at the time of 9/11 that you want - today's landscape wouldn't look much different. The country isn't gonna rally around anyone for any significant amount of time. We just like to fight our ideological battles way too much to do such a thing.

In the end, Fisher's line is a complete abdication of individual responsibility in failing to own up to the part each one of us has played in why 'United We Stand' so quickly became 'United We Stood'. Blaming Bush is the cause celebre of our day, and it's not entirely without foundation. But it's also a very lazy cop-out to justify our own rancorous stances and boorish public dialogue. America has become a great paradox of embracing at the same time the contradictory notions of individual responsibility and scapegoating. Too many like Fisher seem too willing to embrace the latter as a personal matter, while piously calling upon others to live out the former.

Posted by: vajent | September 11, 2007 9:04 AM

'Gimme a Break' seems to miss Marc's point entirely here. Sadly enough, Bush's sincere attempts to reach out to those who have lost loved ones is actually one of the more humanizing things about the man. Unfortunately, they seem to be accompanied by a dose of arrogance that overpowers any attempt to unite us as a country. Instead, it's more important to protect
'the legacy of his presidency' than to admit that the Neo Con strategey of crafting a war in Iraq behind a pack of lies. Many of us will never forgive this administration for that, despite the fact that we have to move on to more pressing issues about what we need to do now to get us out of this disastrous situation in Iraq. The 'Pottery Barn Rule' cited by Colin Powell, still rings true here. I am so weary of folks that classify those of us who question the mess we're in as sissy pacifists.
Marc, thanks for sharing the information about this piece. I will definitely seek to hear it. And I will also listen again to the classic works by Copeland and Barber. As for me, the music that consoled me 6 years ago included Paul Simon's "American Tune" and Bruce Cockburn's "If I Had a Rocket Launcher".

Posted by: Anonymous | September 11, 2007 9:06 AM

A small quibble, Marc. Historians generally use the phrase "a war to end all wars" to refer to WWI.


Posted by: THS | September 11, 2007 9:19 AM

1. Any inoffensive/nonpartisan artistic response to 9/11 is likely to be smarmy but maudlin pablum that would be equally appropriate for the "mourning" over the Cho massacre or a mine collapse.

2. A response that characterizes the attacks with reference to the savage thugs who actually perpetrated the attacks would never satisfy the critics. That would be "patriotic" or some other PC thought crime because you can't imply that our way of life is preferable to the third world's. That attitude banished to the dark corners of Fox News and country music.

3. As you acknowledge, a critically acclaimed artistic response is inevitably linked to the artist's rants about "inside jobs" and "the Jews" which immediately turns off most of the country.

No song or concert is going to "heal America" as long as a very large minority refuses to believe that six years ago 19 Arabs hijacked four airplanes with the intent to kill thousands of innocent people and that while our government did not have the foresight to prevent the attacks, it did not have any role in actually committing the crimes.

If you can get us that far, then I'll hold out hope that we can come together on any other issue.

Posted by: athea | September 11, 2007 10:17 AM

Athea's attitude is part of the reason we can't wipe out the terrorists. We need the support of other freedom-loving peoples and nations to get the job done. When they hear the Atheas and Bushes of America speak, many of them recoil in horror at our arrogance and self-righteousness.

Posted by: Foolish Extremes | September 11, 2007 10:50 AM

There is plenty of music that deals with 9/11, there is just no station that plays it except WMNF in Tampa (it can be heard on streaming) which is a community based radio station. You don't hear classical or free form radio because it doesn't sell. It doesn't sell because we are told what to hear and believe. Watch "Why we fight" a documentary that outlines why our response to terrorism has been so disjointed.

Posted by: wej | September 11, 2007 11:24 AM

Some thoughts about the commentary and the reactions:

1. The country was united behind Bush during the war in Afghanistan. It splintered over the war in Iraq.

2. Classical music forms have been fading out as the audience for classical music grows older and dies out. Ask Tim Page about this.

3. US culture and politics are much different from what they were in the period of the Two World Wars. Comparing current culture to the culture during the Vietnam era would have been more appropriate.

4. There have been a number of works of popular art produced during the last 30 years that comment on war. However, the musical works have either not attracted a large audience or have not endured. For example, Vietnam sparked a surge in popular song, mostly against the war, but a few in support (Anyone remember SSGT Barry Sadler?). Instead of looking to music for artistic expressions of our collective psyche from Vietnam to now, I think that we should look at cinema: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Three Kings, Syriana, and Jarhead, to name a few.

5. The music works cited by Marc are some of the best classical pieces ever written. Few classical works written in any time under any circumstances are as good.

Posted by: Mister Methane | September 11, 2007 11:33 AM

I was lucky enough to hear the first public performance of "Outside of the Inside" by Richard Thompson in Sacramento at a concert given in October 2001 as a replacement for the one he had to cancel on September 12, 2001 in nearby Nevada City.

Thompson, an Englishman who converted to Islam in the mid 70's, had this reaction - it was shocking at the time, though without the context, it'd be hard to guess the point of view was specifically from a terrorist who hijacked one of the planes.

God never listened to Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker lived in vain
Blasphemer, womaniser,
Let a needle numb his brain
Wash away his monkey music
Damn his demons, Damn his pain

And what's the point of Albert Einstein
What do we need Physics for?
Heresy's his inspiration
Corrupt and rotten to the core
Curse his devious mathematics
Curse his deadly atom war

There's a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won't realise I'm there

Shakespeare, Isaac Newton
Small ideas for little boys
Adding to the senseless chatter
Adding to the background noise
Hard to hear my oratory
Hard to hear my inner voice

Van gogh, Botticelli
Scraping paint onto a board
Colour is the fuel of madness
That's no way to praise the Lord
Grey's the colour of the pious
Knelt upon the misericord

There's a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won't realise I'm there

I'm familiar with the cover
I don't need to read the book
I police the world of action
Inside's where I never look
Got no time to help the worthless
Lotus-eaters, Mandarins, crooks

There's a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won't realise I'm there

Posted by: Peace | September 11, 2007 12:22 PM

Interesting that 90% of Marc's blog leans towards the President's "failure" to get the country motivated and ralley 'round the cause.

Maybe he could write another blog about the people opposing the President with their constant negative comments. Then again, maybe not. That would be Marc pointing at himself.

But since the blog concerned music; at least Tokyo Rose playing decent music that the troops enjoyed before she told them they were failures. The people constantly speaking of failure nowdays don't even provide that much entertainment.

But they are still just as bad. Or maybe worse.

Posted by: SoMD | September 11, 2007 12:45 PM

The lack of music and other arts in lamenting 911 is just an example of how Bush wanted the American people to react. He told Americans to go about our business, to live our lives without sacrifice, as the military silently did its job overseas. Not only did he not marshall the pain and good will of the American people and people around the world, Bush told us NOT to do that. It was not a failure of leadership, it was his lousy leadership that lead to the silence.

Posted by: Sully | September 11, 2007 12:47 PM

Music really can stir up emotions. Two memories from post 9-11 days. The homeless man who plays the trumpet at 18th and H Street was playing "New York, New York" two days after 9-11. Brought me to tears. At a church service one year later, a trumpeter played "Fanfare to the Common Man." Again, tears streamed down my face.

Posted by: Wash DC | September 11, 2007 1:03 PM

on the sixth anniversary of 9/11 isn't the capturing of osama bin laden the legacy that could have been? since the majority of the hijackers were saudi and there was not a single iraqi among them, wouldn't it have made more sense to go after the actual people involved in the 9/11 attacks and not to invade a sovereign nation?

over one million iraqis have died since this war began. the majority of those people were innocent civilians. four years after we attacked their country, many iraqi people still have no electricity. but we have now built an american embassy there larger than vatican city. then of course, there's the troops, which now number 3,773 american troops dead and 27,767 wounded in action, as of this writing. we pay contractors ten times the salary we pay our troops to do the same job side by side with them, while we can't afford to provide our military with proper armor and equipment. then we deploy them again and again, regardless of how many times we have sent them to iraq or how often.

the cost of this war is over 450 billion dollars so far, with billions of dollars being owed by us to saudi arabia and china. when george bush began his presidency there was a surplus of 4.6 trillion dollars in the treasury and there was a plan in place to pay off the remaining national debt. this is because bill clinton was an economist. our country is now close to bankrupt, borrowing money from the country the hijackers came from, and passing on billions of dollars of debt to our children's children. but bush did provide huge tax breaks for people with the highest incomes. tax breaks in a time of war. this is unprecedented. Exxon reported 36.13 billion dollars in profits in 2005 alone. there was no oil shortage, like in the 1970s, just greedy corporations taking advantage of a temporarily dis-empowered citizenry. oh, and the contractors in iraq? haliburton's profits are in the billions as well. our soldiers get paid how much?

meanwhile, the president took off the month of august for the sixth time since entering office. you remember the first time he did that? when he had the information that bin laden was planning to attack on u.s. soil? the entire thing could have been prevented. and he sat in a classroom and did nothing while planes flew into buildings in one of our largest cities.

so, our military is overdeployed, we are witnessing the crumbling of our neglected infrastructure, our national guard is weakened because many of them are in iraq fighting a country that did not attack us. how does that protect us? how does that bring the true criminals to justice? oh and while all of this is happening, new scandals of the bush administration and the republican party are reported almost daily. the information is there for those paying attention outside the complicit mainstream media. family values indeed.

as for the artists who could be making a bolder statement, the sixties did not happen in an instant. we look back and think of it as the anti-war decade, but a lot of the truly meaningful protest music came at the end of the decade, between 1967 and 1969. and the vietnam war began in 1959. what i have noticed is that over time, more and more artists are getting involved in protesting the corruption and crime of this administration and calling for an end to this war. it takes time for a groundswell of that size to gather strength. and the vapid pop of mainstream music has always existed on some level. let's also keep in mind that a lot of these artists have been afraid to speak out, just as many of us have, because of the climate of fear created in this country by our own government since september 11, 2001.

i get that "give me a break" is mourning and angry and that's understandable. but we will not solve these problems with name calling. people need to inform themselves as to what has happened since those 3,000 citizens went to work that day. look at your own government's involvment. stop calling people names (as if being a hippie is a bad thing...didn't they stand for peace?). the people huddled around a campfire singing kumbaya are not the ones causing the problems. they are trying to make sense of an unnecessarily violent and deadly and costly situation. they are trying to change the world through connecting with the language heaven truly speaks, the universal

the president is not defending this nation, he's dismantling it. the constitution itself is in jeopardy and we all need to gather as a nation to educate ourselves, vote with authority and prevent this possible tragedy.

i think that's a little closer to the real legacy of 9/11 so far. let's hope we can do better from here on in...

Posted by: legacy? | September 11, 2007 4:16 PM

Give Me a Break:

What, exactly, was cowardly about the 9/11 attack? Sure, it was savage, but it definitely wasn't cowardly. Bill Mahrer was takes some serious cajones to fly a plane into a skyscraper in order to further your political goals. More to the point, if Dubya was truly trying to protect America, why in God's creation are we in Iraq?

And as far as your "hippie" comment...are you really so dense that you have to lump all those that disagree with you into one category? Do you need to oversimplify the world in order to understand it? Any chance you're an attorney in Charlotte with a law degree from GW?


Those of us that oppose the Dubya with our constant negative comments do so because he HAS failed in Iraq, there is precious little to be positive about, and yet he continues to send our children off to die for no other reason than he cannot admit it's a lost cause. Unlike you, we're trying to save our children's lives. What kind of monster would continue to send children into a meat grinder just so they don't have to raise their hands and say "My bad"? Honestly, all of you that continue their blind support of this administation...ALL OF YOU...represent a far greater threat to our glorious nation than any terrorist could.

Posted by: Diogenes | September 12, 2007 1:34 PM

Maybe it would help spread their popularity if Kronos Quartet spelled their name "Kortet" instead.

Posted by: Paul | September 13, 2007 9:50 AM

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