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The other day I went online to buy airline tickets. I looked at several websites, typed in the dates on which I wanted to fly, found the cheapest available fare, booked it, scribbled down the flight information, printed out the travel documents, made notes on my calendar, and then resumed my work. Not until a few hours later did I glance at the printout and realize that my departure date was September 11 – the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.
Yes, I’d known throughout my ticket-booking procedure that the date was September 11, but somehow it hadn’t registered in my mind as September 11. All along, I’d thought of it as if it were, well, just another date.
I was stunned by this, and a little – or maybe more than a little – saddened. I was immediately put in mind of Wordsworth’s sonnet “Surprised by Joy,” in which the poet, after a long period of mourning for his young daughter, is appalled to catch himself experiencing pleasure and even forgetting, for a moment, that his beloved little girl is dead. “Through what power, / Even for the least division of an hour,” he wonders, “Have I been so beguiled as to be blind / To my most grievous loss?”
It was not ever thus. A year or two after 9/11, I happened to fly on September 11, and was intensely aware of the date from the moment I booked it – not worried about a repeat, but very mindful of the monstrous, previously unimaginable chain of events on that world-changing day that had begun with ordinary people boarding airplanes. But now – well – time has done its work. Does my unexpected forgetfulness have anything to do with the fact that the the number of years between that terrible day and now has ticked into the double digits?
The passage of time would appear to have had other consequences. In June, a New York Daily News headline blared: “School kids trash 9/11 memorial.” A group of middle-schoolers from Brooklyn, it appeared, had been thrown out of the memorial at the site of the Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan after being caught tossing empty soda bottles and other rubbish into the fountains. It wasn’t an isolated incident. The other day, the New York Post reported that many “first responders and victims’ families” are “appalled” by the conduct of some visitors to the memorial – not just kids, but grown-ups – who reportedly act as if they’re at a “Disney attraction.” These visitors, most of them apparently tourists from out of town, laugh, take pictures, consume food and beverages, let their toddlers sit on the plaques bearing the names of the dead, and generally behave as if they’re at a Fourth of July picnic.
One reason for this behavior is, presumably, time’s passage – for most, the wound is no longer as sore as it was. Another reasons is that the signals are not entirely clear as to what exactly this place downtown is: is it intended to be a park of sorts, where most of this kind of activity (though certainly not the littering) is acceptable, or is it more like the U.S.S. Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, where, as the Post points out, “visitors are shown a video explaining the significance of the site before entering” and a sign reads: “Please conduct yourself with dignity and respect at all times. Remember this is hallowed ground.” According to the Post, visitors to the Arizona site actually do obey the video and signs, exhibiting suitable respect for the dead.
This last is actually pretty impressive, given that millions of members of the present generation of young American adults weren’t brought up with any manners whatsoever, let alone anything remotely resembling a concept of solemnity or gravitas, and certainly haven’t raised their own kids to know how to behave appropriately in various situations. (One of the guilty Brooklyn kids told the Daily News, apropos of his and his pals’ use of the memorial fountains as a garbage dump: “No one was disrespecting….No one was being serious. Everyone was kind of bored and it was just something to do.”) Still, the anecdotal evidence from the Arizona would seem to suggest that if you give people a clear and forceful indication of what kind of conduct is expected of them, most of those who aren’t totally lacking in couth will be, more or less, cooperative. One problem with the 9/11 memorial is that it’s not an old-fashioned monument like, say, the Lincoln Memorial, where the temple-like architecture, the imposing sculpture of the Great Emancipator, and the noble words carved into the marble all clue visitors into the fact that this is, indeed, no amusement park. Postmodern monument design tends to be more ambiguous: the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, completed in 2005, consists of hundreds of concrete blocks of varying heights which suggest, on the one hand, gravestones, and, on the other, benches. Every time I’ve walked past it, I’ve seen adults sitting on the stones and children running among them. Once or twice, around sunset, I’ve seen young couples making out. The atmosphere is always one of play, never solemnity. Such may also be the fate of the 9/11 memorial.
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