Last year on 9/11 I came pretty close to forgetting.
Like any other weekday I woke up, briefly lay in bed trying to think of a compelling reason to call in sick to work, then dragged myself into my shower, then my car, then the office. After a trip to the vending machine for some breakfast trail mix I plonked down at my desk for my morning ritual of putting off pressing assignments to surf Reddit and Facebook for a couple hours.
Everything on my news feed looked like business as usual – sports talk, statuses about pumpkin spice lattes, somebody posting 743,000 pictures of their toddler.
And then, scrolling a little bit further, I landed on a huge picture of Flight 175 plowing into the side of the South Tower, an enormous black and orange fireball blooming toward the sky, an entire scrapyard’s worth of twisted debris and burning paper plummeting toward the ground below.
The picture had been posted by a girl I went to high school with; somebody I had spoken to maybe four times in my life. Above the gruesome image of mass murder she had included a quick message, almost as an afterthought:
I had been having a perfectly nice morning, going about my life, quietly aware in the back of my mind that this was the grim anniversary of a grim day, when I was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by horrifying imagery of death and destruction. An ordinary morning interrupted by disturbing images of violence – in a sense, it was kind of like reliving the actual day.
Naturally, I was extremely grateful to this girl for helping me relive one of the worst days in American history. I mean, if not for her, I probably would’ve spent my entire morning being happy or some stupid bullshit like that.
I don’t think we’re in any danger of forgetting 9/11. Twelve years after the fact I’m no closer to forgetting the images of jumbo jets crashing into buildings and people jumping hundreds of stories to their deaths than I was on 9/11 itself. And that’s a damn shame, because those are the things about that day I’d like to forget.
Terrorist attacks, by their nature, are designed to be memorable. They are arguably the world’s crudest and most brutal form of advertising – “This is who we are. This is what we’re capable of. Fear us.” A terrorist attack that is easily forgotten is a marketing failure for the terrorists. With limited resources, they have to make a big impression that lasts as long as possible in the popular consciousness.
So I think that when we spend a day replaying footage of the attacks on TV and splashing image macros of rubble and burning buildings all over the Internet in the name of never forgetting, we’re just helping the terrorists’ viral marketing campaign. 3000 people dying on live TV was bad enough; how much longer will we have to watch it in reruns and syndication?
Of course, we’ll never be able to truly forget what happened that day – it was a defining moment in our history, and we owe it to the dead to acknowledge that it happened and try to learn something from it. What I wish is that we could remember it as more than just a single date for sadness and mourning.
I’ve heard a lot of people suggest that 9/11 be made a national holiday, and with all due respect to their opinions, I really hope that that doesn’t happen.
For one thing, I don’t think that giving everybody the day off is going to generate any more reverence for the event. I don’t know a lot of people who spend Martin Luther King Jr. Day thinking about civil rights*, and while I do know some people from military families who go to cemeteries on Memorial Day, most of my friends and I treat it as an extra day for drinking and grilling.
*This is probably because I don’t know a lot of black people.
9/11 is still painfully fresh in our memories, but children born after 9/11 are already in middle school. They didn’t experience the event firsthand and they’ve never known a pre-9/11 world. To them, it’s a solemn piece of history, just as much as the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam is to us. If 9/11 becomes a national holiday I think it’ll take one generation before most kids will remember it as little more than a day off from school, which might actually count as the sort of forgetting we’re never supposed to do.
More importantly, I think that reducing our acknowledgment of the tragedy to one single day of intense, public sadness isn’t the right way to go about it. 9/11 is bigger than one day; a lot of the most valuable lessons we learned from it came months or years after the fact.
9/11 kicked off a decade of warfare, corruption, and insanity that we are only just now beginning to recover from. Remembering and honoring the heroes and victims from that day is important, but it’s also important to remember the mistakes we made in the aftermath – like blind faith in government, the surveillance state, and drone diplomacy – so we never make them again.
It’s encouraging to me that twelve years later, Americans refuse to be led into a war without adequate intelligence, we’re angry about being spied on, and less frightened of terrorist boogeymen than ever before. In that regard, 9/11 really has made us stronger. More importantly, it’s made us smarter.
Learning from our mistakes, I think, is the greatest honor we can give to the dead.
Truman Capps hopes you like his comedy blog where he talks about Syrian intervention and cultural attitudes toward terrorism.