I wrote this two years ago, in the run up to the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Whenever I re-read this, I’m struck by how much the resonance of that day has shifted. In these post-Fahrenheit-911, election season, best selling 911 commission report days, it can seem like the major events of that day revolved around the President in Florida, a few bureaucratic warriors in the White House. Through that diversion, Saddam Hussein gets dragged into the fray, along with 1,000 dead American soldiers.
But September 11 happened to normal people in New York, and low and mid-level figures in the Pentagon. And it’s still hard to watch the videos of the towers falling, or the planes crashing into them. I nearly cried this morning, listening to an NPR report on Gerard Barber’s widow. Even with the meticulous details of the 9–11 report, I still haven’t fully comprehended what happened that day. I don’t know if anyone has, and I know our leaders haven’t.
September 11, 2002
For the past few nights there have been swarms of mayflies on every street light in town. After a year of waiting as larvae at the bottoms of rivers, they emerge to mate. Each mayfly only lives one day, and the entire emergence is over in a week. In some areas a mayfly emergence can be so large that cities bring out snow plows to clear the streets. The other emergence that I’ve noticed is memorials of September 11, 2001 on television and radio. I keep wishing for a plow to clear the air waves of these constant recollections and recountings of the events of that morning. The problem is that, like most people, I never forgot. There is no river in our subconscious so deep that these memories could hide for a year, and being so near to the surface we don’t need help dredging them up for a memorial.
Every time someone mentions the World Trade Center the mere words bring back harsh memories of that morning. When I heard a brief note on the morning radio that a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers, I turned on the television to see if there was any more information elsewhere. I was grateful that I had bought a television recently, and that the previous tenant’s cable hadn’t run out yet. I watched as the different networks scrambled to find out what had happened, what was happening, and what would happen next. I listened and watched, hoping someone would say something more insightful than my stunned cursing as I watched each tower collapse.
I can still relive those hours I spent with my eyes glued to the television and my ears glued the radio and telephone. I remember first thinking that some pilot made a big mistake, and thinking that it’d be no big deal. I knew that the Empire State Building had been hit by a plane in the 40’s with no ill effects, and I knew the towers had withstood a bombing. I remember the way confidence turned to horror when a second plane struck. I remember the horror deepening as rumors that the Pentagon had been struck were confirmed. I remember the rumors of other planes that might be heading for other targets, a fear which didn’t end until every plane was on the ground, hours later. I remember when smoke and dust thickened and there were first rumors and then confirmation that the first tower fell. I remember when the second tower fell, and the smoke had cleared enough that I could see it, and I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t a movie, even though that was exactly what it looked like. I remember seeing a giant hole in the skyline when I flew home for Thanksgiving. I remember how people on the streets of New York still stopped and stared when a plane flew overhead.
It is because I remember these things that I don’t need a memorial.
Memorials are for events that have ended. We hold parades and picnics on November 11, the day that World War One ended, not June 28, the day that Archduke Ferdinand was shot. Similarly, we shouldn’t feel the need to memorialize September 11 as a special day, not until this is over, and not until we know what “this” is. We may have needed the national media to help us accept and understand what happened in the immediate aftermath. Now we need them to stop. We know what happened, and we want it to stop happening.
I don’t think our leaders truly want a memorial event either. Memorials require introspection, a capability lacking in the current administration. They are moving forward, at times trying to end this war, at times trying to expand it. On September 11, George W. Bush will watch as New York Governor George Pataki reads the Gettysburg address. They will stand at the site of what was once the World Trade Center, then The Pile, Ground Zero, and now The Void. Lincoln’s dedication of a cemetery will be used to commemorate a site on which almost three thousand people died, some pulverized and burnt into the dust which has been baked onto the surrounding buildings. It seems appropriate, but the differences between these two presidents’ circumstances are substantial. Lincoln’s words explained the deaths of thousands of soldiers in terms of the grand idea for which they were fighting. It is a speech that inspired, and continues to inspire, pride in the idea and necessity of a united United States of America. George W. Bush will be facing the families of people who died without knowing why, in a nation that is already united. He will be trying to convince the people that a war against Iraq is the right reaction to the events of last year. Lincoln was able to connect the bodies beneath the ground at Gettysburg to the future actions of the nation. George W. Bush will not do that, because no such connection can be made here. The fact that few of the events scheduled call for original speeches by our leaders shows that they are no more able than any one else to put those deaths into perspective, and to look inside themselves and those events for real meaning.