Why I Avoided All 9/11 Coverage Yesterday

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.

Will writes:

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.

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  • I don’t like Pearl Harbor-9/11 comparisons. On the surface, the seem similar, two unprovoked attacks that resulted in similar casualties and propelled us into awareness of a world-wide conflict. But they are far too different in context and character to reach any sort of useful conclusion by comparing them.

    I think part of the reason Pearl Harbor was not remembered the same way that 9/11 was is the fact that it was a nation who attacked us, and we were able to see an eventual end to the bloodshed. 9/11, by contrast, was not one nation, but an ideology. It propelled us into conflict, but not one with a defining end point with treaties and new governments and Marshall Plans.

    Pearl Harbor became not just a stand-alone event, but the shocking beginning to a new World War. We were able to move on from Pearl because the war ended.

    We still grieve 9/11 because we don’t have an end point. Our troops are still deployed and dying, and though extremist terrorism is being revealed and exposed and done away with, it will always be a threat.


  • I agree, Tony. While it was a tragedy and I feel for those who lost loved ones that day, it was not the greatest tragedy to befall the world. In fact, there are many, much worse atrocities occurring around the world as we speak.

  • I came home from church and turned on the Steelers game, only to see that our NY-based station had preempted it for 9/11 memorial coverage. People were reading out each and every victim’s name… it was, as you say, too, too much. I am sick of hearing and seeing “We will never forget,” because it seems to me to mean “We will never forgive.” And I just can’t get down with that.

    Thanks for posting George Will. I’m not sure he’s ever said anything I could agree with before. 🙂

  • I agree with Wingnut that the two attacks were different. However, after Pearl Harbor we attacked the people who attacked us. (The Japanese) After 9/11 we attacked Afghanistan and then Iraq. None of the 9/11 attackers were Afghans or Iraqis. In 1941 it made sense to attack those who attacked us, in 2001 it made no sense to attack those who did not attack us.

  • Tom

    One year after 9/11, I had a discussion with a friend. Our workplace was planning a memorial on the anniversary. We discussed what the long-term impact the event would have on American history, We both agreed then that the event would be remembered as we remember Pearl Harbor. Apparently, we were wrong. I still think that it should be. I understand that America hasn’t experienced full closure, although there are definite signs in the death of Bin Laden, the collapse of Al Qaeda, and the Arab uprisings. The war on terrorism has never really been a war at all (despite the efforts of the US government), certainly not in the traditional sense, and there will never be a surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. It’s up to the American people to find closure. However, the media were determined that not only would we not forget, but that we also be forced to relive that tragic day. That is not closure. It’s simply a by-product of a media culture that has also given us pseudo-celebrity and fractured political discourse.

    Do we need a memorial? Yes. Should we “never forget?” We have never forgotten Pearl Harbor but we’ve erected memorials, put it in the context of history and moved on. Let’s move on.

  • Larry Barber

    I think we’ve totally lost proportion on the 9-11 attack. The total death count from 9-11 was less than 10% of the lives typically lost to automobile accidents each year. In other words, in the years since 9-11, we’ve lost over 100 times as many people to car accidents, and the republic as a whole does not appear to be in any danger of failing, at least not from car wrecks. The real tragedy of 9-11 is the US’s grossly disproportionate and misdirected response. After ten years of war we are probably less secure than before, we are certainly much poorer, the Arab/Muslim world is further radicalized against us, all while our economy goes further and further into the dumpster. But hey, it was all worth it to give George Bush a second term, wasn’t it?

  • Susan

    I agree with you Tony. Parading ourselves around as victims still after 10 years seems to be spiritually disturbing. I think the comparison with Pearl Harbor is apt and show that we are a much less mature country today than we were then. As pastor of a church in NJ I first thought to avoid the 9/11 anniversary taking center stage on Sunday morning. Worship didn’t focus on it but after worship we co-sponsored a 9/11 Walk: A Simple Act of Hope and Courage with a local Muslim community who has recently come under attach for wanting to build a mosque and school in our neighborhood. We decided to model “moving on” into a future where 9/11s are less likely to happen and fear doesn’t run the show.

  • As a Brit, I found myself naturally a little more detached – though we too had wall-to-wall coverage. I didn’t follow much of it, but I got the sense (and I hope I’m right) that marking the 10th anniversary *was* about closure: it was about completing big (extravagent?) memorials and complete ceremonies, in lieu of any real external event to say that that page of history has turned. That done, I sensed that more people could indeed move on.

    I’d rather doubt that 15 or 20 or 25 years will see anything on the same scale – but if it does, then there’s a real problem.

    • Melody

      Good point, Andrew. I hope you’re right.

  • Thanks for your courage in publishing this piece. A related book that is probably worth thinking about in relation to the new MLK memorial as well is “Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape” (http://amzn.to/oC0I1u).

  • Pat

    Could it be that we live in a much more jaded and media-saturated culture that the replay is needed to help people not to forget the evil as well as the heroism that was on display that day? I told someone this weekend that what happened on 9/11 was “real” reality versus the contrived reality we are inundated with on a daily basis via the so-called reality shows. What we see in 9/11 coverage is the real deal.

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  • Ann

    I work with veterans. Many of them rarely move on.