As the tenth anniversary of the tragedy approached, many people in the media began to write stories of remembrance.
Ten years before, a shocking surprise attack had killed roughly 3000 people. The perpetrators of the attack had sought to terrorize Americans when the planes suddenly appeared that morning over an unsuspecting city. Forces were promptly marshaled in response, but many coming to the aid of those involved in the first wave of the attack died as well. The leaders of the U.S. responded swiftly with strong rhetoric, and soon the country was involved in a long war with soldiers dying in unfamiliar, far-away places.
As reporters began to gear up for the tenth anniversary of this horrific event, they found that most people barely thought much about the incident, let alone the date. Many newspapers put a small story on the front page, but it was not the lead — it was buried among the dozen or so other miscellaneous items there. The major magazines barely mentioned the anniversary.
Even in the city where the event had transpired, reactions had become muted with time. A few small ceremonies and religious services were held, but a reporter who interviewed 15 people on the street in that city found that only 9 of them even knew the significance of the day. In another town on the other side of the country, another reporter found only 3 of 23 people interviewed could identify why that date was important.
Ten years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “Day Which Will Live in Infamy,” the vast majority of people in the U.S. no longer thought about the significance of December 7th, 1941.
Some readers may find such a comparison with 9/11 to be a bad analogy or even distasteful, but I think it is important to consider why an event that ultimately resulted in a war that killed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers (and wounded more than half a million more) was barely recalled a decade later. Meanwhile, this week we are being treated to a non-stop nation-wide media frenzy of remembrance and memorial over an event that resulted in an ongoing war which has lasted twice as long and has resulted in a tiny fraction of that number of casualties.
I do not at all mean to downplay the tragedy of 9/11 or the suffering of the families and friends of those who died. I thoroughly believe that they should have their own public or private memorials to those they knew, much as families and friends of Pearl Harbor casualties did in 1951.
But we should strongly consider what our collective nationwide obsession with this day says about us and about our reaction to the terrorists who caused this event.
The obvious difference between 9/11 and 12/7 is that the latter involved mostly military casualties, while the former involved mostly civilian. But 9/11 also occurred in a place that would maximize the terror inflicted — in our largest city, in the middle of the densely populated East Coast. And it was not just any civilians who were impacted: the casualties included many powerful men and women who worked in the office spaces that were close to the core of the upper-class business elite in Manhattan.
I know that to say this risks offending many people, but we have to acknowledge that the media is more likely to dwell on deaths of elite business people in Manhattan than on the deaths of mostly lower-class and middle-class soldiers stationed on a different sort of island, thousands of miles from home for most, in a territory that wasn’t even yet an actual state within the United States. It is not merely the number of deaths that matter for terrorists, but also the visibility of the targets.
So, when I bring up these comparisons, I do so to emphasize what should be obvious to everyone — the 9/11 terrorists were seeking to inflict terror on the population. Their primary objective was not to kill 3000 people or to destroy property or resources (as in Pearl Harbor), but to cause a psychological wound that would spread throughout the country and would not heal.
The terrorists have won.
- The terrorists won when average Americans began to view everyone with vaguely Middle Eastern features as a potential terrorist, thereby alienating them and perhaps driving a few of them to extremism.
- The terrorists won when Americans encouraged Congressmen of both parties to go ahead with wars and laws and “Patriot Acts” that none of them understood. (Or, if they did understand them, they misled the public as to the true intentions of these actions.)
- The terrorists won when we created a Department of Homeland Security that has further confused and fractured an enormous intelligence community, which now mostly exists to spy on anyone, all the time, without regard for legal protections.
- The terrorists won when we allowed our military officers to detain and torture people without any legal protections or any oversight by traditional rules governing declared wars.
- The terrorists won when we took off our shoes and belts, and then squeezed our shampoo into tiny containers inside of plastic bags, to satisfy some arbitrary rules on planes, all in the name of keeping people “safe.”
- The terrorists won when we allowed the TSA to roam the country (as it has been doing lately), harassing people on buses, trains, and just about anywhere — despite the lack of any evidence of any actual terrorist threats.
- The terrorists won when the average American is afraid to board a plane without requiring young children, disabled people, and nonagenarian cancer patients to be molested by government agents, while the rest either submit to naked pictures or actions that would be deemed sexual assault if performed without consent to someone on the street without probable cause.
The purpose of terrorism is to cause the target to act in a way that violates its own standards, because the target is terrified. We have taken away our own rights and freedoms, we have taken away the rights of others without any legal recourse, and we continue to increase the extent of these extreme actions with every passing year.
For anyone who thinks that all of these actions are justified in the name of “safety” or “protection” from actual terrorist threats, please consider the number of terrorists actually apprehended by the TSA (none to date) or even the fake ones that have been caught by the TSA during tests (most slip through).
But more importantly, please consider that any terrorist who actually wanted to inflict more damage on the U.S. could find tens of thousands of easier targets than planes. What exactly is preventing a terrorist from blowing up a bus or subway or mall or a major intersection in a metropolitan area or even an airport (outside the “security zone”)? The answer: very little. And yet, where are the terrorist attacks? If there were even a small amount of extremist terrorists who were actually in the U.S. and actively trying to get on planes to do some damage, why don’t we see them taking action against any number of other easily accessible targets?
There will always be people who will act in unexpected ways, and those people will sometimes find a way to cause damage. But we have sacrificed our time, our money, and numerous resources, as well as our basic rights — for very little gain in actual “security.” We have wasted many more than 3000 lifespans collectively participating in security theater. Is this the best way to honor those 3000 lives cut short? Wasting our lives standing in lines in airports — shoeless, beltless, with shampoo and toothpaste in the appropriate sized baggie, waiting to be questioned and groped?
In World War II, there was a clear goal: defeat Hitler, and get Japan to surrender. Once that was accomplished, most people could go home and get on with their lives. The best way for a soldier to honor his dead comrades from Pearl Harbor (or from the million casualties among servicemen in the rest of the war) was to build a better life, to stand up for freedom and democracy at home in the U.S. — in essence, to live up to the patriotic ideals the war was fought for. The best way to honor the dead was to live well after the threats of terrorism and fascism had been vanquished.
That is one of the most important reasons why the tenth anniversary of Pearl Harbor was not an occasion for national mourning and remembrance. We had collectively realized that the terror that came on December 7th, 1941, the Day Which Will Live in Infamy, was no longer a major threat. Other “threats” and perhaps needless panics would emerge (Communists, Civil Rights, the Sexual Revolution, the Cold War,the War on Drugs, etc.), but the psychological wounds of WWII were felt more by the soldiers who fought than by the bystanders who “remembered.”
Ten years is enough of a mourning period. It has been longer than the mourning period for any monarch or other death in history. Perhaps now is the time to reconsider what we can do so that the terrorists do not win permanently. We need not — and should not — forget.
But to truly honor the lives of those who died in 9/11, it is time for us to start living ours again. Stop being terrorized and afraid in the name of meaningless “security,” which is what the terrorists wanted you to do. Instead, join in the fight — as our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers did after Pearl Harbor — for the preservation of our American system of freedom and democracy. And, by “join the fight,” I do not mean to go to war — I mean to celebrate the ideals the United States was founded on and to continue to support them. At this time of economic crisis and general malaise among the population, the last thing we need is to relive bad memories.
As Abraham Lincoln said, after a battle which killed many thousands of Americans in a matter of only a couple days:
[W]e can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The 9/11 victims may not have been soldiers directly fighting for a cause, but they were as much standard-bearers for some of the best parts of America. If we can dedicate ourselves to Lincoln’s “great task” in their name, we may finally move beyond a meaningless self-pitying media frenzy of remembrance that tacitly celebrates the terrorists’ victory, and on to a better future for our country.