So, what did you do to commemorate 9/11? Did you even pause to consider its significance? Or, as appears to be the attitude of most Americans fourteen years after that horrific day, have you somehow forgotten or repressed the pain we all felt and instead moved on with the rest of your life?
Those are harsh questions to be sure, and they may well mischaracterize the current national sense of awareness and memory, but the truth is that, for whatever reason, we, as a nation, have paid increasingly less attention to the day as a historical marker, even as we have acquiesced to the level of increased security and the concomitant loss of freedom that have followed in its aftermath.
The world for most Americans changed on that day, even if they didn’t lose a loved one or know of anyone who had. The attacks marked the first time since Pearl Harbor that the United States had been attacked, and the first time ever (at least since the War of 1812) that an attack had been visited within the boundaries of its states. (Hawaii was still a territory, almost two full decades from statehood, in 1941.) And it was certainly the first time that acts of stateless terrorism from abroad had been visited on our land.
Happily, it has also been the last, albeit isolated incidents like the 2013 Patriots’ Day bombing in Boston cannot be discounted. But have our memories really faded so dramatically? And, if they have, why have they? Life goes on. That would be the easy cliché to explain the change in attitude.
I recall learning about Pearl Harbor as a child. I don’t remember how old I was, but I know that my parents and grandparents and their friends and siblings discussed it (and the war that followed) often enough that it made an impact on me. Similarly, I was aware of the Holocaust, and, because I had nothing but Armenian parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, of the Armenian Genocide. Those were history lessons and implanted memories that I received at a very early age.
My sense is that today’s youth are not so heavily imbued with the 9/11 attacks, and if I’m right, part of the reason is that the attacks are not a subject of conversation amongst their parents and their parents’ friend and relatives. The topic, either because it’s too painful, or more probably, because it has lost its impact on our collective emotions, has faded as a point of major significance. Even the videos of the twin towers crumbling after the jet planes crashed through them seem to have less impact than they did in the years immediately following the attacks. Then, even watching those images was almost too painful to bear. Now, they may cause a cringe, perhaps even a momentary flash of anger, but then we are on to the events of the day, however trivial they may be.
So much is different now than it was fourteen years ago. So much exists to offer escape from anything close to national trauma, such as the country felt that day. Then, most news still came to us via newspapers and the television networks. Now, newspapers are almost irrelevant to most Americans and the television networks are almost the last place to go to get breaking news. Even the cable stations are becoming passé. Facebook and Twitter and the other social media are where it’s at if you want to find out what’s happening in the world.
And the more trivial that information happens to be, the better. Reality TV has taken over for the sitcoms of the past (the Kardashians are so much more fun to follow than the characters on “Seinfeld” and “Friends”), just as specialty competitions (e.g., the Food Network’s “Chopped” and the Golf Channel’s “Big Break”) have replaced general-interest game shows. (Is “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” still on?) We really just want to be entertained, rather than informed, and preferably in no more than 140 characters or its equivalent in nanoseconds.
Even the TSA appears to be “loosening up,” which may not be a form of trivialization, but it certainly isn’t intense scrutiny when, for no apparent reason, on a flight I took recently I was ushered into a line with a group of fellow passengers where I didn’t have to take my shoes off or remove my laptop from my briefcase. When I asked the TSA agent why, he just shrugged and motioned me to the happy line. And I did feel happy, even if I wasn’t sure if I felt quite as safe as I had on past flights.
The world has become more complicated, and much of it is trivial. Yes, terrorism is still very much alive and well as a form of warfare for non-states (al Qaeda in all its variant cells) and would-be states (ISIS and the out-of-power Taliban). And immigrants are fleeing the real wars that are being waged throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. But we in America seem much more consumed by Donald Trump’s latest outrage and Hillary’s personal e-mail account.
Human nature hasn’t changed, but the compression of time in relation to it has. The explosion of information has created the equivalent of a national overload, and the ready availability of it has caused us to look for simply digested bits of tasty morsels. We don’t want anything that we have to chew on real hard or long, and we find exceedingly distasteful anything that might evoke reminders of the risks attendant to the lives we lead.
In retrospect, maybe the attacks of 9/11 are better left forgotten, or at least less remembered. Fewer than 3,000 people were killed. Far more die every year in motor vehicle accidents. We trust our government to keep us safe, and if we can be inconvenienced even less in the process (TSA happy lines) so much the better.
Meanwhile, football season is back, and with the right cable package and a good DVR, you can watch any game you want. You can even skip the commercials and those irritating breaking news bulletins.