11 September 2012

On the Curious American Way of Memorializing Tragedy

I had just about nothing to say last year on this day about the events and legacy of the 9/11 attacks, and I had fully planned to not say anything at all this year about the topic. Just now, though, while perusing Facebook I was struck by how much content had already been posted there. People have uploaded one image after another, some of them changing their profile pics for the day. There are accounts of where each person was when they learned what was happening. President George W. Bush stops being persona non grata for the day and is quoted by some. I don't need to account for all this stuff, though. It's on your Facebook wall, too.

The epiphany I had just now, though, was that I have yet to see anything like this from my international friends. I've not yet seen a single "Always Remember"/"Never Forget" captioned photo of a bombing or mass attack that took place anywhere else in the world. Certainly, the 2,976 estimated deaths make the 9/11 attacks the deadliest single terror event on record by far. It's not the scale, though, that matters. Friends of mine from across the globe live in countries where there have been no shortage of tragedies, but they never say a word about them; at least, not in the way we do.

Several of my international pals live in, or are from, the United Kingdom. Yet, not once do I recall seeing a single captioned photo or status update from any of them memorializing lives lost during The Troubles or the London subway attack. In four years, I've not seen anything from anyone I know in India about the horrific Mumbai attacks. Those are recent incidents. Go back further and you have to be a history nerd like me to even be able to name any specific tragedies.

In my discussions with some of my international friends, a recurring theme is how wary of warfare their countries are and how we still largely treat it like a glorified summer camp. One of the chief reasons for this is that we've only ever had three wars fought on our home soil: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The 9/11 attacks have been written into the narrative of the last decade as the first attack/prelude to our military operations in Afghanistan (and our side adventure into Iraq), and in that context that day represents the first time in more than a century that there was actual bloodshed on American soil.

Our international friends, however, are surrounded by battlefield sites. They live near them, they work there, they pass them on the way to their kids' schools. A German friend of mine recently shared with me how curious it is to them that American tourists often seek out sites from World War II as though it's something to celebrate, rather than to mourn. It's because for us, we don't think of devastation and loss of life. For us, the war was a grand adventure; we went overseas, saved the world and came home where the womenfolk had kept things tidy. Certainly, our soldiers did not return unscathed. Thousands died on battlefields on nearly every other continent and many returned irrevocably damaged physically and psychologically. But America remained a bubble in which to live, free from daily reminders of endless bombings and mass graves.

Those kinds of daily reminders permeate the rest of the world, particularly throughout Europe. A captioned photo of an eagle crying just feels like something from a pep rally to me, rather than a meaningful, thoughtful observation of the loss of lives that the day represents. I fear that we don't even discuss this day anymore to mourn the dead, but out of some compulsion to try to recreate that day's emotions.

I don't mean to come across as harsh or snobbish about this. I recognize that many simply don't know how else to articulate their thoughts and feelings, and something about a photo of the Twin Towers smoking satisfies their need to say something because it feels like they ought to. It's not my intent to disparage how anyone processes the legacy of that day; I'm certainly not qualified to pass judgment on that. It just strikes me as curious that even though the rest of the world has dealt with terror attacks for decades, there is no analog to the way we Americans commemorate - celebrate, it seems at times - our greatest tragedy.


  1. Since being a part of social networks in recent years, I have always shared my photos and anecdotes on where I was the day our world changed. However, this morning I could not think of anything that did not seem trite or obligatory. We all saw it. We all felt it. It changed all of us. There is a time to mourn, and a time to carry on.

  2. For me, the epiphany today was just that we're the only people I can name who go through this annual ritual and pageantry over our national tragedy. It wasn't even about whether solemn quiet is preferable to making "God Bless America" trend all morning on Twitter. It was strictly about noticing that our international friends - all of whom have been touched by acts of terror their whole lives, and plenty of other tragedies as well - do not engage in the kind of pomp and circumstance that we do over 9/11.

    I'm personally more inclined toward the international approach of being rather subdued about such things, but that's just how I'm wired. Whenever I call attention to something, I try to make it something where I've got something specific to say, rather than to make sure I get attendance points for chiming in, and frankly, there's little left to be said about 9/11 eleven years later. Whatever there may be left to be said certainly will have to come from someone much wiser than me.

  3. Your epiphany noted. It's an interesting perspective I haven't heard before and I know that you don't mean to minimize the tragedy in any way. I was sitting at my desk on the 4th floor of 6 WTC when the first plane hit but my co-workers and I were quickly able to escape before tower 1 collapsed and destroyed our building. I guess feelings about commemorating the day are stronger for those who lost someone. I only knew the sister of one victim and haven't seen her since our grade school graduation in 1959. Will these ceremonies still be held 20, 50, 100 years from now? Do they have big ceremonies on the anniversaries of Antietam, Gettysburg, etc.? I don't know.

    1. You touch on an important point, Bob, and it's one that's been debated since that very morning: Just how much "claim" do we have to that day if we weren't directly connected to it? I've never set foot in New York City or the Pentagon. I didn't lose anyone that day. I don't know anyone whose life was actually affected by those horrific events.

      Though we were all affected on some level, the truth is that it's much more an abstract level for the millions of Americans such as myself. I would feel disingenuous to suggest that, outside of accepting a paradigm shift in our social narrative, I were to claim that the day meant to me anything close to what it means to those of you who were there.

      So, yeah, I should have specified that my remarks were intended to address exclusively the millions who were as far removed from the event as I was. Those of you who were there can pretty much tell the rest of us get bent so far as I'm concerned and I think that ties into my earlier epiphany. It seems that for Americans, tragedy is a collective experience whereas in the rest of the world, such matters are dealt with more privately.

      Our sense of community is one of our most important strengths as a society (despite what Ayn Rand and her disciples would have you believe). But it does strike me that maybe we're also bad about knowing when to go home and leave the grieving family to themselves.