Saturday, September 11, 2010

Does America Need to Commemorate 9/11?

On Saturday, college football coaches whose schools have shoe contracts with German-based Adidas will don specially-designed shirts and hats featuring the Stars and Stripes to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Notre Dame, not to be undone, will also sport special patriotic logos on the back of players' helmets as they take on Michigan and its star-spangled coaching staff. The Cincinnati Reds, meanwhile, will commemorate the anniversary with a Navy SEAL team demonstration -- but only after honoring the anniversary of Pete Rose's record-breaking 4,192nd hit.

The folks at a local Lubbock, Texas bank decided to tone down their usual 9/11 tribute this year and will plant only 1,000 American flags in a local field instead of the usual 3,000 - approximately one for every victim of the attacks. "We wanted to get away from the sadness of a memorial and make it sort of a field where you can come and remember our loved ones, police officers, firefighters, veterans," a bank employee explained.

So that's where we are nine years later. While the gesture of burning books draws all the attention, the more mundane, if not outright militaristic commemorations continue on. So, too, do the claims and counterclaims of politicizing the anniversary, or sullying its memory by not politicizing it in just the right way through the requisite spirit of detached reverence.

Like the public commemorations of the attacks on Pearl Harbor in the 40s and 50s, the nation is compelled to make some public acknowledgment of enormous human losses. 9/11 shares with Pearl Harbor Day the sense as well of simmering revenge. Because the attacks were perpetrated by foreigners, it is a moment to reflect on what they did to us. In this way, the historical memory of 9/11, just like Pearl Harbor, has become inherently political. They could do this to us because people in charge failed in some way -- either to fully appreciate the strategic ramifications of the American oil embargo on Japan, or to apprehend an international criminal syndicate on a suicide mission. They became inherently political also as a rallying cry to avoid similar calamity the next time, even in vastly different international contexts with different foreign players.

But loss and revenge do not a patriotic holiday make. I couldn't even tell you the date of the Battle of Antietam or the sinking of the Maine. We remember the Alamo as a John Wayne movie. And we no longer commemorate Pearl Harbor Day. In due time, September 11th may become just one more historical factoid morning TV show anchors mention before kicking it over to the weather guy.

I actually want that to happen. No important message about national community will come out of Rich Rodriguez wearing a red-white-and-blue shirt. It will simply acknowledge that people died and other people are fighting because of it. Perhaps it will go a step further and celebrate heroic American manhood in the form of firefighters, cops, and soldiers, and oblige fellow citizens only to offer their ill-defined "support" for such figures. But these kinds of gestures, far from the scenes of the smoldering wreckage of that Tuesday morning, merely enable those who pour their own political meaning onto the day and appropriate the site of the World Trade Towers as a perverse hallowed ground -- a site too valuable to leave free of commercial redevelopment it must be acknowledged, as Jack Shafer brilliantly does. Most of America should just let it go.

Letting go will be especially hard for the New York City area (where I grew up) and DC (where I live now). Hundreds of people in my native Morris County, New Jersey, died in the attacks, and many people in the DC area knew Pentagon victims personally - like my wife's old youth soccer coach. I'll never forget watching F-15's circle over my girlfriend's (now wife's) apartment in Arlington at low altitude weeks later, guarding Washington from further attack. Nor will I forget the different meaning the American flags seemed to have on the overpasses and in people's yards in New Jersey than in central Virginia, where I was living at the time. The Jersey flags seemed so much more personal. They said "we are the America you attacked -- the lovers of a vibrant, brash, and heterogeneous megalopolis. And we are still here. And in our sorrow, we will endure." Elsewhere, the flag seemed so much more jingoistic, a flag-by-Toby Keith, "Let's Roll" banner. Still, even in the cities that suffered anger persists and will persist. In heading to the ATM machine in Providence two August ago I was surprised by the sign "Closed for Victory Day" on the door. The state of Rhode Island, its proud maritime tradition leading so many of its young men to watery graves in World War II, still commemorated the defeat of the Japanese. It did so, however, not on the day Japan surrendered but on the anniversary of the obliteration of Nagasaki. Some grudges last a long time.

As I was researching the commemoration of Armistice Day in the 1920s and 30s for my book, something an American Legionnaire in Iowa wrote about the day having a complicated meaning for veterans struck me in this vein of thought. He mentioned that for the veteran, Armistice Day had two meanings -- a public celebration of victory, and a more somber, personal, and private reflection on the comrades lost. The two could not be reconciled in a way the public would understand, at least in the American context of World War I in comparison to say, France, or Germany or Great Britain, whose losses were astronomically higher. Those personally affected by 9/11, even those who are simply natives to the metropolises attacked, probably feel the same way. Their local-level commemorations have an important meaning to their communities. Their dead remain absent. But the rehashed patriotism of the rest of the country does little any more to foster national unity and simply enables the further politicization of the event --as veterans of the Great War were careful to do themselves annually on November 11th.  

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