Today, our nation's civic, religious and media leaders mobilized the nation to engage in a national day of remembrance of 9-11.
With so much patriotism and emotion in the air, it is almost sacrilegious to say that "this is the day on which innumerable Americans ... will be tempted to go about boring other Americans to death with their reminiscences of where they were and exactly how they heard the news...." But wait! Before you reach for your pitchfork, let me say this quote did not come from a current day 9-11 commentator. No, that's someone writing on the 10th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. But, you ask, how could that author, Bill Henry, a KHJ radio newsman, writing in the LA Times on Dec. 7, 1951, scoff at his fellow citizens who dared recall Pearl Harbor? Surely, he was blackballed from polite society? Wasn't the LA Times that gave him a platform for his sneering views subsequently inundated with hate-mail? No, Henry and the Times felt no censure, no outrage. Both went on to flourish. But I suspect the two would have felt a blow-back today, if these same words had been written about our ten year anniversary memories of 9-11.
So, what's the difference? Why did Bill Henry get away with saying those things then? Because Americans had moved on ten years after Pearl Harbor - so argues UC Irvine professor Jon Weiner. Weiner, in an LA Times article recently pointed out that there were good reasons why 9-11's widely-recognized partner in infamy, Pearl Harbor, was barely remembered at all ten years later. Weiner argues that the nation's agenda in 1951 was actually to dis-remember Pearl Harbor for geo-political reasons: by 1951, Japan, the perpetrator of the day of infamy, was our ally and the U.S. was embroiled in an ugly conflict on the Korean peninsula. Dwelling on Dec. 7, ten years later, Weiner claims, would have distracted the nation from its new priorities.
But what Weiner does not touch on is why 9-11 is so widely remembered today. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind, as I fight my own tears and am bombarded with the images and memories of those who lost loved ones on 9-11 and of pictures and videos of the horror and heroism of those at ground zero that day:
The victims of 9-11 were all innocents, non-combatants. Pearl Harbor was a military base. The casualties were fighting men. Most of us, as non-combatants, probably identify better with the horror of someone losing their life at the office, trapped in falling elevators, jumping to their death holding hands with a fellow worker, making a final phone call to a loved one...experiencing a nightmare exploding out of the routine.
The images of 9-11 were so compelling and numerous in our media-soaked age that it is impossible not to remember. Pearl Harbor was just barely documented on film and in photos. Live TV made all of us participants in what happened on 9-11 almost as much as those who were in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, PA. that day.
Finally: We can't move on because our nation's leaders want us to stay invested in a war-footing. For the U.S. public to continue making sacrifices to fight wars that sometimes look like the endless combat in George Orwell 's 1984, it's important to have some of the fanfare and media-hype of Sept. 11, 2011. In 1951, our enemies had changed, from Japan and Germany to the Soviet Union and Red China. The 10th anniversary of Pearl Harbor was an inconvenient milestone.
But not so Sept. 11, 2011. Today, we are told by our leaders, like vice-president Joe Biden, speaking at the Pentagon services this morning, that our enemies remain the same ones who attacked us ten years ago and that our fight with these evil-doers isn't over yet even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. So we can only hope 9-11's 20th anniversary - if we are fortunate enough to have put these wars and strife behind us then - will be a more muted remembrance than the one we're having today.