By Ed Hancox
Not far from where I grew up there's a tiny park, at its centerpiece is a misshapen lump of corroding metal. For years I could never decide whether the lump was a modern art installation or just a large piece of refuse that the town simply refused to collect. Years later I learned that it in fact was a piece of the USS Maine, a United States battleship which blew up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba in 1896. The destruction of a US Navy warship in a foreign port was as shocking to the citizens of end-of-the-century America as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 would be just over one hundred years later; the Maine would go on to serve as the causus belli for the Spanish-American War as Americans were passionately urged to “Remember the Maine!” Ten years on from the 9/11 attacks, we are being urged to remember them with the same vigor – this weekend seems to be nothing but wall-to-wall remembrances. The question I keep coming back to is why?
I was not touched directly by the attacks of 9/11, but I know two people who were – one lost a member of their immediate family at the World Trade Center, the other narrowly escaped from the building after the hijacked aircraft slammed into it. For them, and for all those who lost someone at the WTC, the Pentagon or on one of the airplanes, or who had their own miraculous escapes, they do not need incessant prodding to remember 9/11, the sense of fear, anguish, and of loss will be with them always; it is a day that has left an irrevocable mark upon them, an event they will carry with them for the rest of their days.
And then there's the rest of us. I remember how I felt on 9/11, the stark fear, the shaking of my perceptions, the disbelief that two iconic buildings I grew up with could be erased from the skyline. But in the weeks that followed, the shock wore off, and my life went pretty much back to where it had been before the attacks. I think anyone not directly affected by the attacks will find this to be true as well, if we are honest with ourselves. What has really changed in America because of 9/11 aside from random gropings at our nation's airports under the banner of “security”, involvement in two largely unnecessary and utterly pointless foreign wars (which themselves have had a negligible impact on our national life as compared to a conflict like World War II), and a vague, and baseless, unease towards people of the Muslim faith? In fact, what's remarkable is how little 9/11 changed this country. I recall in the immediate aftermath of the attack there was a palpable longing in the air for us to come together as a country, it seemed as though people wanted to stop living their increasingly self-absorbed lives and unite as a community, as the type of community we Americans have long idolized in films like It's A Wonderful Life. While the presidency of George W. Bush is criticized for many shortcomings, personally I will hold him as a failed president for failing to capitalize on this longing, but when asked to provide a direction for our national catharsis, the best Dubya could come up with was “go shopping”. Ten years later, we're more self-absorbed than ever.
9/11 didn't change everything, it in fact changed very little. Yet as the tenth anniversary of the attacks comes this weekend, we are being immersed in a sea of remembrance, whether we want to be or not. New memorials are being opened around the country, many in places that had no direct connection to any aspect of the attacks. Distastefully, bits of the wreckage of the World Trade Center are the centerpiece of a number of these memorials; WTC scrap serves as the modern equivalent of the bones of saints, objects of veneration in pursuit of the Dr. Phil-inspired attempts at “closure” for an event that didn't touch the lives of those penitents who seek it, at least not in the way of the people who I know who truly were affected by 9/11.
So for those of us fortunate enough to have made it through that dreadful day, let's make this anniversary the last one, let's stop demeaning the memory of those lost with psycho-babble attempts at closure or by raising kitschy memorials to an event that really didn't impact us, and let's let those who truly were affected deal with their grief, their fear and their loss on their own terms, without the forced attention of an otherwise disinterested nation.
Follow Ed on Twitter @EdwardHancox