The Future of the 9/11 Past

Coming to terms with the fading memory of the day that changed everything.

The indispensable Beloit College Mindset List informs us that matriculating freshmen have never heard Ed McMahon announce “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” on live television, have never been darkened by the shadow of the Berlin Wall, and have never flown on Eastern Airlines. We have not quite reached the point when some adults don’t remember September 11, 2001. But that day approaches.

Like Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy Assassination, 9/11 is an event whose impression is so deeply etched in the minds of those who lived through it that it remains forever fresh. Those horrible events play so central a role in our collective consciousness that encountering grown men and women without this experiential common denominator undoubtedly will prove quite jarring. The artificial memory provided by YouTube, Google, and television documentaries just doesn’t quite capture the day.

I lived and worked in Washington, DC on 9/11. As usual, I arrived late for my job. The sirens in the background, the faces in the foreground, and the surreal reports on the car radio suggested something ugly on a beautiful day. Planes had crashed into one of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the local A.M. newsman reported, and the State Department had been bombed, too. This last bit of misinformation proved the first of many that day. Pictures rarely get it wrong, so television became the campfire around which Americans huddled. Never did the idiot box mesmerize us as it did then.

On 9/10, I had appeared on the idiot box debating the merits of the classroom study of pornography with one of the genre’s biggest stars, Nina Hartley (You could say we did a video together). It is difficult to conceive of our conversation occurring, on television or anywhere else, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Everything, from Washington’s obsession with a Congressman’s affair with a missing intern to the ability to drive by the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, changed in the nation’s capital after 9/11. In this sense, 9/11 proved our longest day. It encompassed the anthrax attacks, which left many wondering if the postman would deliver powdery death to the mailbox. Its sun still hadn’t set by the DC sniper attacks, which desolated the normally no-vacancy front-window row of treadmills at my neighborhood Gold’s Gym. Even during the procession of Ronald Reagan’s casket down Constitution Avenue, when a terror false alarm at the Capitol sent panic-stricken 200-pound women and ashen-faced old men sprinting past me in Carl Lewis-fashion towards Union Station—it was still 9/11.

The most vivid 9/11 impression occurred for me a month later and about 40 miles north of the Pentagon. As my Frederick, Maryland, Marine Reserve unit prepared to muster for drill, its first since the terrorist attack, faces not seen in months, even years, reappeared in the unpaved parking lot. The Ghosts of Marines Past sought readmittance. Clearly, they hadn’t signed up for the GI Bill. The unit rebuffed their attempts to rejoin. An exception was a government attorney whose World Trade Center office containing several suits, diplomas, but not, thankfully, him, had been obliterated. His witness at Ground Zero, and subsequent service in Iraq, put him in the focal points of the war-on-terrorism decade. Like the firemen who rushed up the stairs of the World Trade Center when common sense propelled everyone else to rush down, these Marines—embodying the adage “once a Marine, always a Marine”—pursued danger.

September 11th showed the worst of humanity. It also showed the best.

The strength of actual memory is that everyone has a different one of the same event. The hundreds of millions of Americans who lived through 9/11 possess hundreds of millions of stories about it. The weakness of virtual memory is that it imposes the same recollections on everyone through mass media. For those who didn’t live through it, the spectacular imagery of planes crashing into the towers or the grisly visuals of victims ending their suffering through death leaps will represent 9/11. But there is more to the story. As the distance grows between us and our past, our past becomes less personal. I guess you had to be there.

Events ensure that 9/11 will never be the same again. Through the filter of a decade, we see the worst terrorist attack in history as history. Instead of an immediate act of horrible evil to be avenged or human loss to be mourned, it becomes causal agent, demarcation point, and metaphor. The day is seen as the end of several decades of peace and prosperity and the beginning of a decade (or more) of war and stagnation. Whereas we might have marveled at the world’s lone superpower humbled by nineteen box-cutter-wielding fanatics, we now see a teetering superpower whose functioning symbols of military and financial power crushed by jet-bomb proved a harbinger of things to come. A moment of national unity, in light of the impeachment before and the harsh rhetoric after, transforms into an outlier within a period of intense political division. September 11th has evolved.

Our memory of 9/11 isn’t what it used to be. Ten years hence it won’t be what it is.