Late last year, the first announcements of 20th-anniversary commemorations of the 9/11 attacks started trickling across the Google transom. ABC, the BBC, and HBO announced the production of significant documentaries. The Tunnel to Towers Foundation began planning a “Never Forget” walk, a 5K run, a “Never Forget” concert, and several illuminated tributes. Across the country, in small towns and cities, schools were devising special curricula. The Yankees and the Mets agreed to play an interleague crosstown game on September 11. Commemorative coins were already for sale, and on clothing websites geared toward firefighters, police officers, and the military, entire “9/11 20th Anniversary” collections were available: keychains, pins, badges, hats.
We live in an age saturated with cultural history, in which a deep critique of a totemic holiday like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July is now part of the holiday ritual itself. What we once took for granted we now unpack. Whether this self-consciousness is liberating or disorienting (or both) is very much up to the beholder. Columbus Day is celebrated and overlooked and rededicated as Indigenous Peoples’ Day all at once: a holiday for a nation heading in different directions. But what about the holiday dawning: What do we “commemorate” when we remember 9/11? What do we remember to “never forget”? Who partakes? And who does not?
Growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s, I saw the World Trade Center towers almost every day—saw them from many angles, inside and out, until they became a kind of compass for me. They were new back then, having been completed only in 1973. From the back porch of our house, we could see the topmost stories of each tower peeking over the line of the Palisades ridge, roughly 20 miles to the south and east: when the sun set on certain clear days, the towers shone for a few minutes just before dusk, changing color to match the setting sun. During those same years, my parents would often take me to their workplaces in Manhattan. This meant joining them on the commuter train to Hoboken, and from there on the PATH train that spit out thousands of rush-hour commuters into the subway station under the World Trade Center. This part of the pilgrimage always terrified and amazed me, all those men and women in their business attire, moving with the synchronicity of a large school of fish, those great towers looming over us all.
After I graduated college, I joined the family business, which for a year and a half placed me on the 22nd or 23rd floor of the South Tower (2 World Trade Center). I barely remember the workplace because the job itself was so anodyne, and because the floor’s design—consisting of a large warren of cubicles—was so uninteresting. The windows along the perimeter were bordered by columns of steel dividing the potentially stunning vistas. You could see the Statue of Liberty, slices of it, anyway, from certain angles, and there was something in that lack of wholeness that seemed to frustrate almost everyone there. It was partly that anodyne job and partly the warren of cubicles that drove me back to school, into a career where I still don’t make as much per day as I did when I was 21.
I lost no one on 9/11. But feeling wells up anyway. Two years ago, I visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan. While all around the monument, families were cheerfully taking selfies, and romantic couples were embracing, and fathers were holding their daughters’ hands and twirling them in space, I stood there shaking like a leaf. Shortly after, I looked at photos of the plaza between the towers in the aftermath: the famous metal sculpture (Fritz Koenig’s The Sphere) still standing but engulfed and surrounded by smoldering wreckage where, back in 1986, I would take a late breakfast or lunch. Shaking again. Disaster porn, I told myself. But I couldn’t stop.
I have spent the two years since that visit surveying the literature on 9/11. I’m an academic—I turn to knowledge and narrative for therapy. No apologies. The accounts of eyewitnesses, survivors, first responders, family, friends; the historical reviews, from the novelistic to the dryly policy-based; the children’s books; the tales of dogs that performed heroically that day. The scholarly research, including foreign policy and sociology and everything else. The novels, the suites of poems, the art installations. I have checked social media for recent references, watched conspiracy films, and visited and revisited the site, trying to line up things that were done and said 15 or 20 years ago with things that were being done and said now, trying to find a coherence. So much of it was moving. And so much of it was profane.
I didn’t find coherence. And I didn’t find a catharsis, either. Instead, I’m here to tell you about the loud chatter that makes catharsis impossible, the chatter of voices that could not wait to impose their stories on the events of that day, that still can’t wait, the sound of a civilization that simply can’t let meaning come to it. And about how, from the start, the recurring desire of many Americans, including many of those nearest to the event, for something akin to respectful quiet has gone ignored. If 9/11 is a holiday aborning, a self-conscious signpost of what it means to be American, then we need to speak about the people it wounds, excludes, and sparks to anger, too, and how there is little agreement about a commemoration that is supposed to symbolize national unity.
It is a hard thing to say, and doubtless a provocative one, too, but commemorating 9/11 the way we do divides us more than it brings us together, and lays the foundation for more civic damage. It led us to 1/6, the Capitol riot. And it could lead us to worse. We need to stop. And then, maybe, start again.
We tell the story over and over, and sometimes we grow, consolidate our memories into something approximating recovery and maturation. But often we fail. Scholars have written that 9/11 is treated like it is “outside of history,” overtold, resistant. Educational researchers have demonstrated that despite near total recognition of the event (more than two billion people witnessed it in real time and afterward in various media), and despite frequent and familiar descriptions of 9/11 as “the day the world stopped turning” or “the day the world changed,” middle and high school teachers struggle to teach it, when they teach it at all.
According to a lively population of conspiracy theorists, we don’t even know what happened, but among those who do agree on the basic facts, fundamental differences remain about who is at fault, what to do next, how to remember, and whether 9/11 was the start of something, or the end, or a middle chapter in U.S. history. Seen on social media on any given day—and especially on an anniversary—it’s really overwhelming: genuine heartache from many, but subsumed by the platitudes, the spilling of rage, the trolling, and everyone tired of it all, except for the bots and the very young.
With each passing anniversary, the tone gets more amnesiac, more presentist. For many Americans, the memory of 9/11 remains indelible enough to demand the making of meaning, and yet, the events of that day can be incomprehensible enough to make such meaning unclear. At the heart of 9/11 remembrance is theoretically something uncontroversial and undefined and nonspecifically nationalistic. Posts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook express sadness or simple statements of gratitude. Often, they remember specific individuals and include a photo. Sometimes, they ask for peace, or recollect a specific feeling from that specific day, the messages accompanying gauzy postcard images of the Twin Towers ghostly against the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty massive in the foreground, or pictures of pink roses reminding us to Never Forget.
But all of it fades in the context of our scarred and scarring political environment. The 9/11 anniversary unleashes, even somehow authorizes, torrents of anti-Muslim postings: “islamophobia untagged,” as one user on Twitter put it; the one day a year when one can be “violently nationalistic” without repercussion, in the words of another. In turn, there is vigorous pushback: the #AfterSeptember11 hashtag—introduced in 2015 to collect firsthand accounts of hate crimes, government intimidation, and social isolation experienced by Muslim and other Americans—received 50,000 Tweets almost immediately. Similarly, the informal notion that 9/11 serves as a kind of First Responder’s Day on which to honor the loss of police officers, firefighters, and EMTs in a respectful and nonpolitical way also dominates the day’s online conversation, but dissolves into ardent critiques of the police (the firefighters fading, the EMTs all but erased) and a defiance of those critiques. “My heart bleeds for those that live in fear of … abusive and homicidal policing,” writes the former. “You can hate us all you want, but when you dial 911 we will be there,” writes the latter.
And through it all, 9/11 continues to be used to give context to other events, its death toll deployed to dramatize the tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic (“two 9/11s per week”), its anniversary shared with the 2012 Benghazi attack (generating another volatile political flashpoint), its hashtag appropriated for likes by advocates of other causes who also want people to #NeverForget. What remains, what reiterates itself across all these messages, is a sense of nostalgia and loss for something we never really had. September 11 anniversaries exist to commemorate lost unity: “That was the day we dropped BS political labels and stood as one”; “Makes me remember a time when race, political affiliation … didn’t matter … what will it take now to all stand together again.” And worse, systemic failure: “The saddest part about honoring 9/11 in 2020 is that I feel sadder, more vulnerable, and more scared today than I did after 9/11.” September 11 has become an anti-Fourth of July, commemorating the date after which a nation undeclared its union.
It all started, oddly, troublingly, from what should have been a good place, a longing for national unity and national purpose. September 11 was called “the day the world changed” before anyone answered the question of how it could change; we were told to “remember” before anyone could reasonably have a chance to forget. This is not glib: hanging on a wall of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is a child’s painting featuring the New York skyline absent, save their ghostly shadows, the towers of the World Trade Center, and the word remember in letters as large as the buildings. The painting came from an NYU project for children ages five to eight that took place in the winter of 2001. But remember what? From a remove of 20 years, the call seems more abstract: do not lose this reverence, this seriousness. Across social media, commemorators paint the same scene. We were all waiting for something, they say, when 9/11 happened. Our lives weren’t right, or were too trivial—the tragedy gave us something to do, a reason for being. “My life forever changed,” many people write. “9/11 changed me,” another agrees, after noting how much time he used to spend in front of his PlayStation. Endless testimonials trend on Twitter, fill Instagram and Facebook, saying something happened in an instant, then stop short of, or stammer across, saying exactly what that something was.
Others describe an instant canonicity being bestowed upon the event, the feeling that a decision about how to view it had been made for them. “In Chemistry, back to isomers. It’s just a plane crash”—that’s how someone recently described what she initially felt in class that morning. Imagine that moment: the potential of what could have been. Then an unidentified “prophetess” spoke: “I’m so sorry. Everything is going to change.” And major political leaders and cultural figures agreed with the prophetess. Condoleezza Rice, in remarks from a film I saw at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, says that the U.S. response was governed only by the desire to find “some deeper meaning to what happened than just defending ourselves.” Donald Trump, describing 9/11 in a 2019 speech, said that he “realized the world was going to change” the moment the second tower was hit—a statement that probably says less about his genuine response at the moment than his recognition of a zeitgeist. Richard Powers, in his 2019 novel The Overstory, has a character think this, as the towers fall: “Finally, the whole strange dream of safety, of separation, will die.” Finally: like the first thing that the protagonist of this environmentalist saga can think, as the towers burn, is that a long-sought political desire will—not may, but will—come true.
This impulse, felt by so many, as much as the attack itself, has dictated the terms of 21st-century politics: a competition for control of the national narrative, made significantly more desperate by the fact that the original attack was treated not as a genuine loss but as the thing that could, that must, give us meaning as a nation. And right away. It wasn’t just the speed with which narratives locked into place, but the speed and the precision with which people with voices took the opportunity to make a point they were already prepared to make. Individuals on the right side of the American political spectrum were particularly adept at constructing, on short notice, a unifying, totalizing narrative out of disparate strands. For Donald Rumsfeld, it took only hours: “Go massive,” he was quoted as saying at 2:40 p.m. on 9/11. “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” And so they did—Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and George W. Bush—creating the war narrative that sent soldiers and munitions on a wide-ranging mission resulting in more than 800,000 dead directly from violence, according to recent Brown and Boston university studies, including American soldiers, civilians, opposition fighters, national police, journalists, humanitarian workers; millions more, mostly civilians, indirectly lost, uncountable; at least 37 million people and as many as 59 million displaced.
Other ancillary stories were waiting to be told, too, that gave strength and support to the war narrative. It took columnist James P. Pinkerton only five days to announce in Newsday that 9/11 “was not about nothing” but was a victory for “sincerity, patriotism and earnestness,” and a “crushing defeat for irony, cynicism and hipness.” The mythic construction that transposed video footage of (not that many) people celebrating on an East Jerusalem street, briefly shown on a couple of American news networks, into “thousands” of Muslims cheering in the streets of New Jersey took only days to lock into place—and for many Americans has not been dislodged.
of Americans. But other ingrained conventions are more difficult to dismiss.
This incitement to bias was ready-for-use, too, having been promulgated by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington in the ’90s as an imminent “Clash of Civilizations” between monoliths called the West and Islam. Later politicians and strategists would dispense with the academic fineness. Steve Bannon, for example, forewarned that “the Judeo-Christian West” is “in the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict.” Within one year of 9/11, 20 major books had been published with titles like Militant Islam Reaches America, and negative feelings toward Muslims among “average” Americans, as the Pew Research Center documented, increased in 2002 and 2003, even more than they had in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Left-leaning narrators of politics and culture, in the academy and the arts in particular, were also emphatic in assessing blame and declaring how to fix what was wrong. Ward Churchill, in “ ‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens”—published just one day after 9/11—saw only financial executives among the victims he cruelly and collectively called “little Eichmanns.” Similarly, tales of Israeli or Jewish foreknowledge or actions, mirroring those of Arab celebration, took off instantly. A brief embassy report noting that 4,000 Israelis were believed to be living in New York at the time of the attack morphed quickly into reports that 4,000 Jews received secret instructions to stay away from the World Trade Center—and those assertions, still widely believed, ricocheted not only among far-right audiences but also in literary, academic, and mainstream media venues.
Everywhere someone saw a “teaching moment” of some kind: an opportunity to reflect on “Western” values, or architecture, or how the attackers were “death artists” who produced a new aesthetic. Academic publishers issued collections devoted to 9/11 and, without irony, described them as responses to “ ‘rent-a-quote’ punditry” on the subject. Gallery owners were overwhelmed by 9/11-themed artwork and in some cases made principled decisions to not “deal with the towers” in their exhibitions. Against this background, the genuinely earnest and necessary assessment of what happened and why, and the political and personal efforts at closure and mourning, were not exactly shouted down and drowned out, though they did become much harder to hear. What might have happened if a national consensus toward restraint had arisen? Some people were thinking about it. In response to plans announced in 2004 to place an International Freedom Center on the site, 9/11 families led a countercampaign called “Take Back the Memorial”: “We, the undersigned,” their petition read, “believe that the World Trade Center Memorial should stand as a solemn remembrance of those who died on September Eleventh, 2001, and not as a journey of history’s ‘failures’ or as a debate about domestic and foreign policy in the post-9/11 world.”
In The New York Times, Debra Burlingame, a member of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation who lost her brother on 9/11, argued that a 9/11 memorial should not be a “playground for culture and art.” The word playground still stings, as it ought. It could be argued, from a respectful distance, that these families, understandably privileged in post-9/11 discourse, trended conservative and found a “debate” grounded in U.S. “failure” abhorrent for other reasons. But it could be equally argued, and also from a respectful distance, that South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab Americans terrorized in the months and years after 9/11 would also have preferred a less politicized national response. Such testimony pours across social media every September:
I was a teenager who never left the house without holding a little American flag
because I was terrified of being attacked.
Kids would threaten me saying they would shoot me for my family “causing 9/11” […] again these were 3rd and 4th graders …
On 9/11 Arabs and anyone who looked Muslim realized how alone [we] were. We couldn’t come together with you and just mourn because the world turned against us and forced us to explain ourselves for something we didn’t even understand. That’s what 9/11 was like for us thanks for asking …
Indeed, many professionals in the field of atrocity and commemoration also believed that 9/11 remembrance should be focused on loss, echoing sculptor Joel Shapiro’s advice: “I think leaving the space empty would be the most effective remembrance.” In this context, like so much else about 9/11, the petitioners won the battle but lost the war. The memorial that was ultimately built was, like so many sites commemorating atrocities worldwide, aggressively abstract and nonrepresentational: lots of black granite and water. But no petition could stop the appropriation of 9/11 for political purposes in the larger national conversation. Or the urgent need of so many people to be right about everyone and everything.
You could argue that 9/11, which occurred in the infancy of social media—a time of message boards and group chats—gave rise to a certain kind of conspiracy theory, propagating faster, via digital technology, and more menacingly than those that came before. You could even argue that the 9/11 conspiracy theorist was, in some ways, a forebear of QAnon and the election fraud folklore of our present. Here, then, is a cautionary tale about how enduring conspiracy theories can be, and how they always end up in one place: with a call to take action, even extralegal action, that results all too often in violence.
No less than six hours after the attacks, someone wrote online that “if, in a few days, not one official has mentioned anything about the [controlled] demolition part, I think we have a really serious problem.” It was as if 9/11 liberated conspiracy thinking, not inspired it, a possibility enhanced by the theories, familiar from movies of the time, that describe causation and identify a culprit. Of course, for conspiratorialists, it is almost always the U.S. government, working from a carefully engineered plan. With the help of the media. And some sinister others. History is decisively about “cover stories” waiting to be revealed by crack crews of experienced social media users trained by a thousand crime procedurals to study tape, zoom, zoom some more, find the anomaly. The possible is told as the probable, and the probable as the incontrovertible, each leap empowered by the investigator’s prior bias—which seems to be the one thing the investigators can’t see for themselves.
It all seems so pulp literary. There’s always a villainous government agent who can work with ridiculous cool and intelligence when the need to plant fake evidence arises, and then another who says “missile” instead of “plane” one time and gives up the game. And the real culprits? Thin as paper characters, frankly, easy to pick apart. When not deconstructing the difference between a “controlled demolition” and an uncontrolled one, for instance, 9/11 “truth” films insist that Osama bin Laden had to be an actor because in one video from October 2001 he wears a ring and wristwatch, “forbidden,” we are dubiously told, “by people of the Islamic faith.”
It might be easy to dismiss the conspiracy theorists, notwithstanding that they represent a significant number of Americans. But other conventions have become ingrained in our collective memory, and these are more difficult to dismiss. It is history, now, that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when asked what Americans could do to help, President Bush said they should go shopping, that they should shop even more. Time listed the comment itself as one of the worst “economic missteps” of Bush’s tenure. Foreign policy expert Peter Feaver described hearing derision about it “countless times, usually offered as a laugh line.” Consider the comments underneath a 23-second YouTube clip of Bush speaking sometime after 9/11 and saying, “And I encourage you all to go shopping more”:
I remember this speech when he did it live. When he said “To go shopping” [it] was just utterly unbelievable and made me realize how much the Gov’t thinks we are just consumeristic sheep …
I remember that day. I was pumped! Ready to volunteer or donate blood. … Anything to help our country. Then it happened. “Go shopping.”
The most extraordinary thing about Bush’s call to go shopping, and the visceral reaction it received, however, is that he didn’t say it in the aftermath of 9/11. Rather, it was Rudy Giuliani who told New Yorkers on September 12 to “go shopping … do things … get out.” Similarly, that 23-second clip on YouTube actually comes from a 2006 press conference doctored so awkwardly that it is simply extraordinary to imagine anyone watching it and shouting into the comment feed: “I remember that day.” Bush did say things like it: during a speech before a joint session of Congress, he asked his audience “for its continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” Overall, though, he usually told people to spend time with their families, or go to religious services, or sign up for first responder or military training: “Too many have the wrong idea of Americans as shallow, materialist consumers,” he said in November 2001. “But this isn’t the America I know.”
What makes people mishear so badly? It can be argued, easily and with vehemence, that President Bush’s sin was making 9/11 into a larger cause, one with world-building, world-destroying implications. To instead insist, of all things, that he failed to invest enough significance in the event is an error of national magnitude. What did people want?
Such errors are everywhere. Not just the ambient ones, the ones that are hard to track—semiconsciously conflating 9/11 with other disasters, or even with disasters depicted in popular films. More dangerous are the errors that do achieve coherence, entering the national discourse and shaping rhetoric. There’s this one: your domestic political opponent doesn’t share America with you but, like the 9/11 attacker, seeks the death of your civilization. Hence Michael Anton’s famous 2016 essay “The Flight 93 Election,” in the Claremont Review of Books, which likened the potential election of Hillary Clinton to the hijacking of the fourth plane on 9/11, and admonished conservatives to “charge the cockpit or you will die.” Anton’s metaphor isn’t just visceral: it constructed and spoke for a politics, one that draws a quick, straight line between 9/11 and the thinking of the rightist mobs and militias that breached the Capitol in January. “Patriots” storm the control center, which is in the wrong hands; they break down gates and doors and take back power they see as having been illegally seized from them. They use their numbers, take their chances. That’s what they do. That the halls of Congress or the Michigan statehouse are not, in fact, the cockpit of an airplane in flight—that everyone expects to go back to their hotels afterward, literally and metaphorically—only makes the rhetoric more available, easier to perform, and more dangerous.
And there’s this one: paint the victims of the attacks in the image of one’s cultural and political allies—and erase the loss of others. It is not just those who allege that no Jews died in the 9/11 attack, when hundreds did. Or those who say that no Muslims did, when dozens of Muslim-American workers and first responders perished. Or that 9/11 was a loss for “Americans,” when roughly 400 foreign nationals also died. Or that it was just some amoral, asking-for-it “technocratic corps” that died. How hard it has been to recognize the victims of 9/11, to see like and other at the same time. This failure almost seems systemic, or fated. In the winter of 2001, plans for a statue reproducing the famous impromptu flag-raising on 9/11 by three firefighters included a Black figure and a Latino figure alongside a Caucasian one, and first responders and their families responded with anger. Their argument that the original event involved three white men was mimetically accurate, and they wanted the real faces. In so doing, however, they dismissed the possibility of tribute to rescue workers of other races, like the 12 Black firefighters who died that day. Fairly swiftly, the project was canceled. Caught between the demands of two indefatigable narratives, that statue became a cultural impossibility. Boil down 9/11 to one bracing image of who served, and who was lost. We just can’t do it.
It does seem that a generational turn in the conversation has happened, and with it an opportunity to look with fresher eyes at an object that has been too close to the lens for a long time. On the 18th anniversary—9/11/19—a factoid flashed across social media: for the first time, women and men who had not yet been born on 9/11 could now volunteer to join the armed forces and fight the wars that 9/11 instigated. Advocates of 9/11 compensation efforts have also publicized an analogous milestone: very soon, more people will have died from illnesses contracted on the 9/11 site during the initial emergency and cleanup efforts than from the attacks themselves. Taken together, these two statements tell us something similar, that our response to a traumatic event now overshadows the event itself, that our national wound is being treated not just by people who felt it, but by those who have only known the response to it.
This milestoning—which instructs us to see our response to 9/11, and not 9/11 itself, as the trial that must be overcome—is increasingly frequent if you look for it. It promises healing, even undoing: the renewal, with funding until 2090, of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund in 2019; the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, timed symbolically (as of this writing) to be completed by September 11, 2021. Ben Rhodes, who worked for both the 9/11 Commission under Lee Hamilton and the Obama White House, has declared that the current coronavirus pandemic signals that the “9/11 Era Is Over”; he says that for the students in his college seminars, the idea of antiterrorism has no context, addresses no problem. Even President Trump promised to depart from the “War on Terror.” It is the rare right-wing nationalist who asks a national audience, as did Trump: “You think our country’s so innocent?” And yet, for every moment Trump promised a post-9/11 future, his xenophobic rage and anti-Muslim biases, his closeness to Giuliani, his sanctification of police and other first responders, and even his Queens accent kept dragging us all straight back.
As psychologists have observed, it often takes time, decades even, for a traumatizing episode to rise to the surface of consciousness so that it can be processed by the self-conscious individual. And 20 years is a rough number that recurs in such instances. The truth, however, is that political time in a fractious country is itself fractious, and that the legacy of 9/11 is not one story but many, not one era but many, refusing to play out in synchronous political time and refusing to coalesce into one of those utopian pluralisms that American political rhetoric so often celebrates.
For the government insider who made policy, who had a voice, it is time to move on. To the cultural conservative who saw the election of 2016, as did Michael Anton, as a Flight 93 moment, the 9/11 Era began 15 years after the fact, when there was a president who saw a war on Western civilization and fought on those terms. And for many Muslim Americans and many non-Muslim people of color as well, the 9/11 Era that they can define nationally might only be starting. In Ramy Youssef’s television show Ramy, set in the present moment in New Jersey, the specter of 9/11 is everywhere, as are government agents still haphazardly keeping watch: “I see you, okay?” one character says to a potential mole during a Ramadan event, surveilling the surveillance. “Do not fuck with me,” he says, then adds with emphasis, “I know what’s going on.”
To unify the country for just one day—and for 9/11 to truly serve as a day worth remembering—it would be false to try to unify these narratives. The clock of American time doesn’t work that way, and most of us recognize, at this point, that the same old aphorisms of unity are tired, too. What if we could invent new terms, though, or at least attempt what we haven’t tried before?
Perhaps for the 20th anniversary of 9/11 we could do this much. Drop the vague #NeverForget hashtags that point toward no actual consensus about nation and memory. Cancel the lights and the ballgames. Instead, mourn—in the traditional way, with seriousness and calm—those who perished on 9/11. And having mourned properly, we could then tend to the business of the next generation, for whom 9/11 itself is remote but the damage done in its aftermath all too present, and for whom mourning may also be the right response. What truth and reconciliation might we obtain, for instance, if we instead allowed 9/11 this one symbolic use (and this one only), if we spent the day thinking only about the people who truly lost something, regardless of whatever agenda they theoretically represent?
The people who died or have suffered for years after participating in the rescue and excavation. The police and other responders—psychically scarred by the real or symbolic weight of what fell on them—for whom 9/11 represented the expectation that they would have to become soldiers on 15 minutes’ notice. The people who suffered neglect, intimidation, violence, and lethal force because police and other first responders could suddenly become soldiers—with soldiers’ weapons—on 15 minutes’ notice. The people surveilled because of where they lived, how they worshipped, what they looked like, newly and further subject to threats, isolation, and imprisonment. The soldiers sent overseas to fight and defend—the ones who didn’t come back, and the ones who did, their lives permanently altered. The people across the world whose families and homes were destroyed by the response to 9/11, whose neighborhoods and towns became war zones, their skies turned unnatural and death-dealing. The people everywhere, here and elsewhere, unhealed and not healing. Just count up the loss, the dislocation, the pain. Sweep it all up. Related and not. Fill up the social media feeds of the world with loss.
We all know this will not happen. I suspect that, as you read that list, you found things you didn’t want to do, or things you believed others wouldn’t want to do, or things you believed couldn’t be done. I suspect that you questioned, at some point, the emphasis I placed on the pain felt by some people over others. You’re thinking that I’ve ignored the authentic moments of remembrance and catharsis that current 9/11 commemoration does represent for millions. Or understated the pain of those who have suffered from its policy consequences. And I suspect, too, that you’ve grown weary of the “we” that I use, the presumption embedded in that nationalistic first-person plural pronoun. I know all that. I feel the emptiness, the failure of audience, of address, as I type every word. But why not try to dream into being a new “we” that might matter, some kind of contentious see-and-be-seen inclusive republic, instead of dreaming about a lost unity that never really existed?
Looking for meaning in 9/11 for the past two years has convinced me that commemorating it is not a reinforcing agent of national amity anymore, if it ever was, and that we need to stop trying to project strength and political meaning through a horrible, deadening event. But it convinced me, too, that something might be gained once we did stop, that even a brief reflective calm might be the shared experience we require. What if, instead of believing that our strength is in our longing for some abstract national purpose, or our vast meaning-making machinery, we showed instead the righteousness of our skepticism, and the fierceness and comprehension of our sorrow? We’re incredibly adept storytellers. Just once a year, maybe, we could simply be still, and instead focus on what everyone has lost, and keeps losing.
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