Every September 11 in the United States, we are besieged with exhortations to remember the eponymous terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. These come in many forms, from the innocent social media posts of our friends and relatives and celebrities to the cynical ramblings of pundits and politicians who hope to convert their sanctimony into power.
I have always felt uncomfortable during public moments of silence. The moment of silence is an inherently coercive institution. It is the secular replacement for public prayer, but at least with a public prayer, I— the godless unbeliever— am left free to abstain from participation and to respectively collect my own thoughts. A moment of silence, however, demands all those present to participate or to disrupt. You are free to think as subversively as you like, of course— after all, we are not Communists— but you dare not make a peep about it. This is not the time for that.
Does the moment of silence engender thoughtful reflection on the state of the world leading to and following from the 9/11 attacks? No— it inculcates a deference to authority. Authority has deemed this moment as a time of silence. If you don’t obey, it is not the authority who will punish you, but the stunned and angry reactions of the crowd. The speaker (or no-speaker, if you will) thus holds the crowd in thrall.
It all seems innocent enough. What danger is a one or two minute moment of quiet? And really, in isolation, it is of little danger. We are all showing our respects to the dead, to the wounded. But it is never in isolation for public events like this. It is repeated. It has been a month, a year, two years, ten years, 14 years. It is at the beginning of inquests and ceremonies. It is never spontaneous. No crowd of hundreds, not even a crowd of ten, decides as one to suddenly enter a period of silent reflection. We are always called to it, and the person calling it is always the figurehead of some establishment, the establishment. It is in the establishment’s interest to make you think that your silence is the best way to honor the dead. While you are silent, they are organizing agendas and issuing orders. And if you raise questions during these moments, you are an asshole, a suppressive, a traitor.
We have been in an extended moment of silence since shortly after the attacks, when we meekly turned to any leader who could make sense of the tragedy for us. These were politicians who were capable of wrapping their own agenda in a tattered American flag, Very Important People who dressed their sociopathy up as righteousness, demagogues who turned our unity in shock to unity in fear and anger, and then marched one generation off to war and another generation off to shopping centers. And if you had anything to say about that, then fuck you, go live with the Taliban!
The moments of silence for 9/11 have waned in the past decade. That spell is perhaps fading. What persists now among us is an almost overwhelming desire to share our personal part in the tragedy, regardless of how far removed we actually were from it. Each of us has an experience-turned-perspective on the events, and want to share it with each other.
While these individual stories vary widely in their degree of sincerity, all but a few truly thoughtful gems tend to share a common theme: September 11 is a day of mourning, a day to be sad, a day to be mindful and vigilant, because a great tragedy befell our nation lo those fourteen years ago. We remind each other to “never forget”, as if the death of 3,000 humans in a day set a new pivot in human history; and as if those of us who would agree that it did, would be inclined to forget about it regardless.
We demand that society never forget the Holocaust— not necessarily our individual experiences of the Holocaust (most of us have none, after all) but, rather, to remember that it happened, that some people made it happen and other people allowed it to happen, and that the forces that led to that atrocity still exist, and still threaten to devour humanity. These are all verboten themes in memorializing 9/11, however. You dare not ask about the events that led to the attacks, because causality is irrelevant— they hate us for our freedom— or question the events that followed— you’re either with us or against us. Our collective memory of the Holocaust is not useful so much as a eulogy, but as a warning. Our collective memories of 9/11, however, are about being a part of an experience outside of context. It is about propagating a tribal mythology in which we are good and they are evil and terrorism against our nation will not stand.
Like the similar shared experiences of the assassinations of Kennedy and King, we engage in a process of sublimating our individual experiences into one great common anecdote. In the process, we achieve a unified sentiment, by necessity devoid of posture or prescription, re-lived as necessary to preserve the appropriate level of piety and deference that the event calls for, but with none of the pesky moral lessons. The tragedy exists for tragedy’s sake, and this is the only legitimate way of reflecting upon it.
Most of us alive now weren’t around for those assassinations, and an increasing number of us have little to no memory of September 11, 2001. But the more subversive realization is that this collective anecdote serves not to inform but to conform. Friends, Romans, countrymen, we are all one in this collective grief. Unity becomes more important than diversity, more important than liberty. You are encouraged to recollect the horrors you saw on television, or for an unfortunate few, outside your windows or down the street from you, or in your very office. What you are absolutely forbidden from, however, is advocacy, or sort of useful reflection. This is not the time for that.
Most of our personal stories are not relevant to the questions at hand. It is of no practical use to simply be a part of this mourning zeitgeist, except perhaps to fulfill a desperate desire to be connected to something which most of us were not. It doesn’t matter where I was on the morning of September 11, 2001 except as some personal proof that I was somewhere. But I wasn’t at Ground Zero or the Pentagon. I wasn’t rolling a cart up an airplane aisle. I wasn’t doing anything of import. I was, at best, a minute observer of a tragedy that happened to be televised live.
In the succeeding years, we’ve mobilized forces to reignite the Great Game, we’ve sent kids off to fight wars with the armies we have (rather than the armies we want). We’ve whisked individuals off to CIA black sites from which some never returned. We’ve tortured and murdered detainees and invented fancy euphemisms for it. We’ve read your emails and we’ve listened to your phone calls. We’ve renewed our state of emergency year after year. We’ve taken away your liquids and your dignity at airports in exchange for a kabuki theater of security. We are all complicit in these developments, for they happened under our watch.
This is what I want to remember every 9/11, and what I hope you will remember: that we allowed a tragedy of one day to become the tragedy of every day. That we allowed psychopaths to turn the horror we felt then into the horrors we perpetrate now.
I won’t ask where you were when you found out about the Abu Ghraib abuses, or when the Patriot Act was signed into law, or when you learned the technical details of waterboarding, or the countless day-to-day atrocities and abridgments of freedom that have been carried out not just with our silence but with our approval. Nor will I ask you to join me in silence to honor our dead liberties. I ask you only to contemplate and to discuss. To reflect and to debate. To argue, to object, to study, to review… to not remain silent, and to not suppress your reason with banal sentimentality. Fourteen years have passed, and it is no longer the time for that.