A few weeks ago there was this editorial questioning how resilient America is in this post 9/11 world. The article is less then it could have been and I suspect the question really deserves two answers. Generally, I’d say that the American people (and government) are a pretty resilient lot when you consider the reaction to a wide range of man-made or natural hazards.
There are some instances, particularly the attacks of 9/11,that must be considered an exception to the rule. Not only did the government collectively shit itself and engage in a buffet of flailing policies that will haunt us for many, many years to come but I’m not sure the American people did particularly well either. They stood by and cheered when wars were declared , torture was conducted in their names and freedoms were handed over.
And we were left with this schizophrenic relationship to this day. Vacillating between the ‘Huh? What? Oh, let’s just go shopping’ advice in the weeks after the attacks and a sort of death fetish that has grown up over the event. The site of the attack in New York now needs to be considered a sacred place for all eternity. We’re doomed to have to listen to the endless parade of family members and friends who lost people on that day along with the inane ‘It could’ve been me…’ stories.
I’m not denying or belittling people’s grief but I’m just not sure why we have to go through this annual scab ripping ritual and if we’ll ever be allowed to move on. Perhaps it’s the way we seem to be remembering the event. It’s been slightly more than a decade but given the explosion of the insatiable 24 news monster, 9/11 provides endless opportunities to relive the events, gape at the parade of still grieving family members and whisper to our children ‘bin Laden ad portas!’
I suppose at some point this will fade into our cultural heritage a lot like Pearl Harbor (or perhaps fade to obscurity like Oklahoma City seems destined to).
So all this was running through my mind when the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald came up in my playlist. Check it out…great song.
Here’s an event that probably wouldn’t have resonated much at all over space or time, yet because it merged with popular culture its lifespan and reach was increased. Will 9/11 achieve something similar? Will there be a depiction or inspiration in some form of art that delivers some deeper meaning or shared experience?
I can’t imagine the memorial will be that thing. Located in the middle of one of the most vibrant cities in the world, there are already disputes over how it should be used by the public.
…police, private security guards and volunteer guides are enforcing strict rules on decorum.
The measures are aimed at curbing what some relatives of victims see as rising disrespect, ranging from picnics under the newly planted oak trees to an incident in June when visiting high school students threw trash into one of the black pools marking the footprints of the fallen towers.
Nothing like serious vandalism has occurred, but even the most seemingly benign activities, such as thousands of tourists snapping photos of each other in front of the monument, are too much for relatives who refer to the site as “sacred ground.”
“People laughed and took pictures smiling, and so many people leaned on the tablets with all my friends’ names engraved in them, holding Starbucks cups, like it was a kitchen table,” complained Marianne Pizzitola, head of a fire department retirees group, in a widely published letter to the memorial’s president Joe Daniels.
Perhaps I’m a cold, heartless bastard but geez, I can think of few things that would make those who planned and executed the 9/11 attacks happier than the site of the attacks frozen in perpetual grimness and mourning.
So, how to respond to such things? The Mel Brooks method is one:
Another way is to blot out the memory entirely, depriving the perpetrators of the satisfaction of immortality. Stephen Cave talks about this strategy in relation to Anders Breivik and a 4th cen. BCE proto-Joker who burned down a magnificent temple in order to be famous.
To discourage copycats, Herostratus was not only tortured and executed. He was also subjected to a damnatio memoriae — the damnation of a man’s memory through banning (on pain of death) all mention of his name.
The Greeks understood that the importance of the hero-cult in their society risked fostering anti-heroes such as Herostratus. And they understood that those who would choose this route did not fear death, but rather obscurity and ridicule. Hence the damnatio memoriae was not only the most fitting punishment, but the best deterrent to would-be copycats.
Now, the fact that we’re reading an article about Herostratus some 2500 years later may indicate that this policy wasn’t particularly effective but he’s hardly a household name and the idea is certainly interesting. Almost all terrorists today crave attention. They need it because without it they simply have no power. Is there a way to deprive them of the notoriety they so desperately seek without becoming one of those regimes that forbids the publication of any bad news?
Can we remember without handing over the power of remembrance to the perpetrators? I suspect we can but that doing so has to take different forms based on individual circumstance. Remembering the Holocaust appropriately, for example, should look different than a memorial for the London Blitz. Innocents died in both but the former is a place of the dead that is visited by the living while the latter is a place of the living. Trying to turn the one into the other will result in something ranging from the absurd to the obscene (like trying to build a casino in the Wolf’s Lair) and in either case, not likely to be what we want.