The Common Good
November-December 2002

Facing Up to Tragedy

by Danny Duncan Collum | November-December 2002

Bruce Springsteen dives straight into the pain…and the ambiguity.

For all the months of saturation coverage, we still actually know very little about what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The long shot of the collapsing towers plays and re-plays on our screens and is burned in our brains, but, after the first few hours, the news media became very squeamish about reporting details of the carnage. We've learned enough about who was responsible for the attacks to justify for many the subsequent military action, but not much more. And details about how they did it have remained shrouded in secrecy.

Now more information has begun to appear. Victims' families have been allowed to hear the cockpit recording from the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania and the emergency tapes from the Trade Center, and some of them have told what they heard. Still more detail has emerged in The Atlantic Monthly's three-part series on "Unbuilding the World Trade Center." But for the most part, our picture of 9-11 is still a line drawing of heroism and loss, without much shading or detail.

The danger of painting the 9-11 tragedy with such a broad brush, at least for those of us who are geographically distant from Ground Zero, is that it may become a mere symbol upon which we can project whatever meaning we choose—jingoistic, anti-imperialist, theological... you name it. A real live, up-close human tragedy resists such easy summary, or easy resolution. Tragedy is, by definition, ambiguous. The good guys aren't all good, and neither are we. The villains aren't all evil, either. They, too, as filmmaker Jean Renoir famously put it, "have their reasons." Facing up to tragedy is a part of growing up. And as a nation we've never done it.

THAT'S WHERE THE artist comes in. And that's where America can thank Bruce Springsteen for stepping into the breach where the mass media has failed us. His album The Rising is hardly the last word on 9-11. It's probably not Springsteen's last word. But it is an appropriately serious-minded and openhearted start. Springsteen watched the towers fall from just across the river in New Jersey. Those daily obituaries in The New York Times landed in his driveway every morning, and they included a lot of his neighbors and fans. So Springsteen dove headfirst into the pain of the day and tried to come out with its essence in a collection of story-songs and searing-to-uplifting sounds.

As the reviews have all noted, Springsteen found the heart of the 9-11 tragedy in the physical details of loss—Tuesday's coffee cup still on the counter, the empty hollow in the bed Wednesday morning, the empty sky above our greatest city. To me, sitting a thousand miles away, the songs on The Rising finally brought home the most horrible truth facing the families of 9-11 victims. For almost all of them, there was no corpse to weep over. There was no cold face to touch. There was nothing to put in the ground. The loved ones were just scattered ash, or pink vapor. In my mind, I knew this was true. But it was after living with these songs for a few days that I came to know it in my heart.

This strikes me as the appropriate first stage for dealing with this tragedy—simply to feel it and say, without flinching, exactly how it feels. The next stage might be to place it in a social context, or even a historical one. And toward the end of The Rising Springsteen makes tentative forays into sketching the world around 9-11. The first comes in "Worlds Apart," about lovers reaching across the Islamic-Western divide. In "Paradise," the going gets thicker when Springsteen voices the viewpoint of a suicide bomber, without glorifying or judging.

This is a first in mainstream, post-9-11 American culture. Bill Maher, former host of the cancelled talk show Politically Incorrect, suggested that the 9-11 hijackers weren't cowards, and his career was pronounced over by the end of the week. Springsteen gets away with that verse of "Paradise" because the voice of the 9-11 victims is so overwhelming on the rest of the album. But understanding the terrorists, and even their "reasons," will be necessary in the next stage of facing up to the 9-11 tragedy. That won't be easy, but neither is growing up.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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