The twelfth anniversary of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks seems to have crept up on us, in a way that previous anniversaries did not.
Every year of the first decade of the new world, we prepared ourselves for that awful configuration of numbers, 9/11. We stiffened our sinews and watched again, for brief and painful seconds, the footage of the planes plunging into the Twin Towers, like a dagger driven into the heart of freedom and decency and human civilization. We felt a tear, a flash of anger, and we rebuked ourselves, depending on political temperament, either for emotional weakness (“Do not let the terrorists win”) or vengeful thoughts (“Hatred only begets hatred”).
We always — always — paused the video before those souls, faced with the choice of burning or jumping, leapt from the 90th floor. What must go through your mind, we asked, to jump, all the while knowing— But we couldn’t finish the question and it seemed futile because we could not answer it anyway. No one could.
Those images, and 9/11 was a day in which in terrorist acts and terrorist symbology coincided in monstrous synchronicity, are too horrifying still, defying in their enormity the human capacity for understanding.
We will never forget, we told ourselves. How could we? And yet, this year is the first where there is no large-scale effort to commemorate the events of twelve years ago. Almost 70% of Americans say they have “moved on from September 11th,” according to a survey reported by USA Today. Only 12% plan a formal observance, with half opting to mark the day in an informal way. Nearly one-third said they would do nothing.
In Israel, the victims of terrorism are memorialized every year on Yom HaZikaron (the Day of Remembrance). A siren sounds and everything stops: work, speech, commerce; even the cars come to a halt on the highway. Public television broadcasts the names of every Israeli soldier killed in war and every civilian killed by terrorists. These commemorations immediately precede Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day. In Israel, “they died so that we may be free” is no mere cliché.
We would expect the rawness of 9/11, our basic emotional connection to the events of that day, to fade with time. No forward-looking society can nourish itself on a diet of fear and retribution, and none should. But our moral and intellectual relationship to 9/11 also seems to be loosening, our understanding of what the attack on America and the West meant and means. Living in a time of 24-hour news, five-minute YouTube videos, and 30-second commercials may have robbed us of our sense of historical import.
In the month following al-Qaeda’s onslaught, President Bush signed into law a House resolution designating September 11th “Patriot Day” (President Obama later added “and National Day of Service and Remembrance”). However, Patriot Day is not a federal holiday, like Memorial Day or Veterans Day, and without this governmental heft it has been largely forgotten. The absence of a formalized day of remembrance, on which schools and businesses close for prayers and memorials and great speeches, will only exacerbate the fading of 9/11 in the popular imagination. America needs its own Yom HaZikaron.
Last year, we had another 9/11 in the shape of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. (Perhaps the anti-Americans who so enjoyed taunting us about “the other 9/11”, the 1973 coup against Chile’s Marxist president, will be satisfied now there is another “other 9/11”. Perhaps not. As I write this, on the night of September 10th, the website of Democracy Now! — the digital St Peter’s Square of the post-American left — is carrying six stories about the Chilean coup on its homepage and not one about 9/11. The radicals should at least have the honesty to clarify that when they talk about “the other 9/11”, the attack on America is the “other”.)
The terrorist murders of J. Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone S. Woods were an Islamist attack on the United States. They were not the result of some anti-Islamic video nasty but another blow against democratic liberalism and Western civilization by a wicked and fanatical enemy, an enemy that spills not one drop of blood less, that takes not one life fewer because we seek to deny that it exists, that it is a threat, and that its perverse ideology and not our historical slights is the cause of its malevolence.
I fear we are forgetting these things; forgetting who we are, who they are, why we must win — and why we deserve to. I fear that 9/11 is becoming another date to us, a tidy historical event dulled by the polite formalities of chapter headings and footnotes. For an optimist, these fears are unbidden and unwelcome but, try as I might, I cannot shake them. I can only hope that I am wrong, trust in the wisdom of free people guided by grace, and offer my benediction of love and defiance: God bless America.