September 12, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
We’re forgetting 9/11. Maybe that’s not so terrible
The question is why?
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Claire’s Political Junkie. –JS
September 11, the anniversary of the three terrorist attacks on the United States, this year passed almost unnoticed. Granted, it was the 21st anniversary, which is not a milestone. But more importantly, the news media was also oversaturated with coverage of a dead queen.
Queen Elizabeth II began a long, winding passage to her final resting place as pundits wrestled with the meaning of monarchy, surely one of the more idle (although endlessly fascinating) topics if you are not an English taxpayer.
Then, the Ukrainian Army crashed into Russian lines and splintered them, advancing to the border in some areas as panicked soldiers abandoned their equipment, stole bicycles and hot-footed it back to the Motherland. And football season began.
Yet you would think that if Americans wanted to remember the day they promised to “never forget” — and if news corporations thought there was a market for September 11 memories — yesterday’s news coverage would have been different.
Although Joe Biden laid a wreath, and there were memorials around the country, these events received little-to-no coverage. My social media feeds, usually full of elegant short essays about where people were, how they learned about the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, and what they did, contained almost no posts on the topic, and the ones that did pass through my feed seemed … obligatory.
I was not moved to write one either: I have said those things, felt those feelings and I no longer have anything else to say on the topic.
The question is: why?
I don’t know, but here are some theories.
There has been so much to distract us, and those things have included a lot of death. First, in that 21 years, we have had two failed wars that killed nearly 500,000 people in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 6,000 Americans in Afghanistan, and more than 4,200 in Iraq. In addition, tens of thousands more American lives have been ruined because of military service in these war zones.
Second, mass shootings skyrocketed after 9/11.
Third, there were four years of Donald Trump, which felt like an ongoing national emergency, topped off by the first coup attempt broadcast live on TV.
Finally, there were two years of the covid crisis, during which the daily death rate sometimes exceeded the casualties on 9/11.
Since that day, more and more Americans have been forced to remember an event that is growing less and less distinct in their minds — or that they never saw in the first place.
Twenty-one and a half million Americans never experienced this event because they weren’t born yet; another 21 million were younger than four years old: that’s over 10 percent of the population.
Students who complete college next spring will be the first graduating class to have been born after the terrorist attacks, and take it from a college teacher: 9/11 is about as meaningful to them as Pearl Harbor was to me.
I don’t mean to diminish either event.
I recall being darkly fascinated by World War II and even thrilled by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words on that day, but only because living history had passed into the realm of romance and fantasy.
And I worry today that any of us writing about 9/11 will increasingly be writing in the realm of romance and fantasy.
Another obvious point is that 20 years is a long time.
The attacks are simply a less direct experience for anyone who was not on the spot or who did not lose a loved one on that day or from the aftereffects of the attack.
Although September 11, 2001, felt deeply personal to many of us who did not lose someone or were not in New York, that feeling faded over time — and for most, it was only ever a mass-mediated event. But the vast majority of us who did experience 9/11, either in person or by watching those endless loops on television, have moved on.
In 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Reuters reporter Mark Egan already saw signs of this happening in New York.
“Don’t call it Ground Zero, don’t use the term 9/11 widow, and don’t read the names of the dead,” some — even Mayor Michael Bloomberg — told him, while survivors resisted being defined by the day’s events of that day.
Describing the area around the recently completed memorial plaza as “trendy,” Egan reported that Americans had already accepted the more dangerous and surveillance-ridden world that 9/11 made.
It seems that the promise to “never forget” might be more meaningful at the moment of a calamity than it is decades down the line when it is hard to know what, or who, we are not forgetting.
And maybe forgetting is not such a terrible thing.
Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.