Dawn will break on Saturday in New York, and if September 11, 2010 is a nice day – clear, crisp air, few clouds, cerulean sky – everyone will note that September 11, 2001 began in exactly the same way. That will probably be the only thing about the day that everyone will agree on.
The ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks will be different from any of the others that preceded it. Once the country’s only mutually agreed moment for political ceasefire, September 11 will this year serve as a proving ground for the most intense culture wars in American life.
As September 2002 approached, there was an active debate over whether the anniversary deserved to be a recurring national holiday. No serious effort was ever made in that direction but – even as the country split over the Iraq war and the uses of Guantanamo – Americans generally adhered to one basic rule of the post-9/11 consensus: September 11 was off-limits for politics. There were monuments to be enshrined, prayers to be offered, charitable work to do. In 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain travelled together to Ground Zero to pay their respects, and refrained from active campaigning for the rest of the day.
This year marks the end of such strategic silence. The emergence of loud, shameless, anti-Islam activism – stoked by plans to build a Muslim community centre and mosque in Lower Manhattan – are giving the anniversary a new character. Where once MSNBC made a September 11 ritual of replaying its coverage of the initial attacks as they unfolded in real time, without ads – interrupted only for memorial observances – this year television cameras should have plenty of live action to cover.
Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch MP, is expected to appear at a Saturday rally near the World Trade Center site protesting what conservatives like to call “the Ground Zero Mosque”. (So “hallowed ground”, as mosque opponents call the neighbourhood, would be disturbed by prayer but is fine for political protests, it appears.) In Anchorage, Alaska, Sarah Palin will welcome Fox News televangelist Glenn Beck for what is likely to be a reprise of the patriotic-religious rally that brought hundreds of thousands to the Mall in Washington a few weeks ago.
The latest addition to the schedule is perhaps the most unusual interfaith meeting of the post-9/11 era: a summit between Reverend Terry Jones, the Florida preacher who has threatened for weeks to burn copies of the Koran as “a warning to radical Islam”, and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the creative force behind the embattled mosque project. Their agenda appears to include the possibility of a swap: Jones puts down his matches for good if Rauf moves his mosque to another neighbourhood.
It is unlikely that any of this would have been going on with George W Bush in office. After all, the man who was in office on September 11, 2001, prized the sanctity of the anniversary and everything in any way connected to the attacks. The remarkable Bush-era climate of fear depended on the idea that the day’s events were exceptional, and people could not ever afford to let their nerves go slack.
Obama will commemorate the September 11 events at the Pentagon. He will give a speech but time will not stop around him. Life – silly fights, stunts, and acts of political showmanship – will go on. What was once memorialised as tragedy is now celebrated with farce.