I had a media-free weekend. Well, electronic media, at least. I did read the newspaper. One of the nice things thing about the newspaper is that you can skip the stuff you don’t want to read, which is not possible with TV or radio.
As tragic as 9/11 was — and it was — I find all of the commemorations to be too, too much, and that includes the fountains and the Freedom Tower in New York City. In his book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, Miroslav Volf accused Americans of building memorials so that those inanimate monuments could do the remembering for us. When I first heard him speak on that thesis, I was unconvinced. No more. Now I think that he’s totally right.
Even as I write this, on the morning of September 12, I’m listening to NPR’s Morning Edition, and what are they talking about? 9/11, of course.
In his weekend column, George Will, with whom I am not predisposed to agree, wrote an excellent column about the difference between this year and the 10-year anniversary of Pearl Harbor, an event which provoked us into a war that cost 50 million lives, 418,000 of which were American. Maybe we need to read that again: 418,000 Americans died in WWII.
On Dec. 8, 1951, the day after the 10th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the New York Times’front page made a one-paragraph mention of commemorations the day before, when the paper’s page had not mentioned the anniversary. The Dec. 8 Washington Post’s front pagenoted no commemorations the previous day. On Dec. 7, the page had featured a familiar 10-year-old photograph of the burning battleships. It seems to have been published because a new process made possible printing it for the first time in color. At the bottom of the page, a six-paragraph story began: “Greater Washington today will mark the tenth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack by testing its air raid defenses.” The story explained that “the sirens are part of a ‘paper bombing’ of Washington” that would include “mock attacks by atom bombs and high explosives.”
The most interesting question is not how America in 2011 is unlike America in 2001 but how it is unlike what it was in 1951. The intensity of today’s focus on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 testifies to more than the multiplication of media ravenous for content, and to more than today’s unhistorical and self-dramatizing tendency to think that eruptions of evil are violations of a natural entitlement to happiness. It also represents the search for refuge from a decade defined by unsatisfactory responses to Sept. 11.
I have vivid memories of the morning of 9/11/01. And I have enormous respect for the people in NYC who lived through it and who have far more vivid memories than I. Let’s respectfully honor the dead, and, dare I say it, let’s move on.