It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years today. We all remember where we were like it was yesterday, what we were doing when we heard what had happened, shortly before 9 a.m. We stood transfixed in front of a television, confused at first, not knowing at first if it had been an accident, then horrified by what we were seeing and hearing as we realized what had actually happened and was happening. The horror of that day won’t be forgotten by those who experienced it. But we could say the same thing of any other horrible event, and we’re not the first generation to feel this way about the defining trauma of our lives.
I have no intention here of downplaying 9/11, what it meant to America and to the world, or of minimizing the horror, chaos, deaths and damage caused by Islamic terrorists when they hijacked four planes and crashed two of them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Besides the 19 hijackers, nearly 3,000 Americans died that day. It was horrible and we are all marked by it. And unlike any previous historical trauma, we have it all captured on film, in color and audio recordings of 911 calls and cell phone calls from inside the towers to emergency personal and to loved ones. It is safe to say 9/11 is the best recorded trauma in human history.
And yes, there is a “but” coming: But after ten years, we need to try putting 9/11 in perspective. Perspective happens only with time, in fact, and perhaps ten years isn’t enough distance, but shouldn’t we begin? If the Alamo in 1836 (Remember the Alamo!) didn’t define an American generation it was profound enough to be remembered, and that battle caused only somewhere between 182 and 257 dead Americans, if you count Tejanos who stood against Santa Anna and beside the defenders of the old mission. The perfidious attack on the Maine in 1989, if it was indeed an attack and not an accident (Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!) caused 274 American deaths and did define a generation. In 1941 Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, (A day that will live in infamy) killing another 2,402 Americans, defining another generation, the so-called “Greatest Generation.” It’s safe to say all those deaths were horrible (it is difficult to imagine a pleasant death), and all the survivors were as bereft as any survivors to come after.
In similar fashion, 9/11 will no doubt define the latest generation of Americans, and those growing up will grow up in its shadow, their lives forever altered from what they may have been if they had never taken place. Traumatic historical events have that effect, as a generation of Romans learned in the days of Hannibal (“Hannibal before the Gates!”) 2300 years ago. Many more died in those other, more distant traumatic events.
But the trauma cannot be measured by the human toll, can it? Is it the breathtaking destruction of the twin towers of the WTC itself collapsing that speaks to us or the lives being irrevocably torn from our grasp right before our eyes? It’s safe to say that had those towers been unoccupied that day it would not have the effect it has had on our consciousness. Had only cleaning crews been present would we be marking this day? Perhaps. But when, as in recent days, the government talks about creditable terrorist threats, it is safe to say we have a different and very visceral response to what we would have had those buildings been empty, or nearly so.
Needless to say, the Alamo, the Maine, and even Pearl Harbor, which presaged an American involvement in a world war that would claim in total some 405,000 American lives, did not receive a national day of remembrance. But 9/11 did – Patriot Day. The vote in favor of Joint Resolution 71 on October 25, 2001, was 407-0 in the U.S. House of Representatives. President Bush signed the resolution into law on December 18, 2001 as Public Law 107-89 and on September 4, 2002, Patriot Day was created and September 11 became a day of remembrance (but not a federal holiday).
We remember Pearl Harbor each December 7 even now, though far less emotionally as the Greatest Generation has passed on (but it was as strong an emotional event to my father to the day he died over sixty years later as 9/11 is to us), but we mark September 11 according to federal mandate. Again, and this is not to minimize what happened on 9/11, the Second World War caused tens of millions of deaths. The wars which sprang from 9/11 have so far amounted to far less, in the hundreds of thousands.
Of course, the Greatest Generation does have a day of sorts – Veterans Day – the day they inherited from the Great War generation, when it was known as Armistice Day, remembering a war in which 20 million human beings died in four years of indescribable horror (try reading Captain Edwin Campion Vaughan’s diary from 1917, published as Some Desperate Glory if you’re brave enough for a taste). Veterans Day is, of course, a national holiday. And it should be, if we’re measuring by the scale of the event being marked. After all, that’s 20 million plus the nearly 80 million of the Second World War – some one hundred million dead marked in one day of remembrance.
I’m not saying we ought to think about 9/11 less, or it’s dead, or to suggest that 3,000 in inconsequential in the face of 100 million. Those 3,000 are just as dead as the greater number, just as absent from their loved ones and friends and families as the greater total. The trauma is just as great for those of us today as it was for any other generation facing its losses.
I’m not saying we ought to remember those 3,000 less, but those 100 million more. All those people died to create the world we live in today, for better or worse, willingly or unwillingly. Their deaths all mean something, and we will never truly know what we have lost in them, in potentiality for the human race, what great figures who might have made a difference but will now not exist to impart their skills or their wisdom to the living. What I’m saying is, if it’s a day of remembrance, let’s do some damn remembering.
We are diminished by every lost life, whether one or three thousand or 100 million. Each of those lives meant something then and should mean something now. Yes, 9/11 deserves a day of remembrance, as does every great trauma and every war that has cost American lives. We should remember them all, even those we never knew, and spare a moment of silence for them. And we should be remembering the dead, not using them as an excuse to make more of them, or to politicize or to raise one religion up and put another down. We won’t have the closure other generations have had; the War on Terror seems likely to remain somewhat open-ended, even if the Master Mind, Osama bin Laden himself, is now dead as well. America needs to move on; every generation does, but it doesn’t have to forget, and it shouldn’t.