I am an uncommonly selfish human being. My interest in history is, in part, an antidote to this.
To study the past is to understand that the world does not revolve around you. That American and international culture existed before you came onto the scene and will do just fine after you have gone. That while you can certainly make an impact on your physical and social environment in the brief time you have on Earth, you are nonetheless a mere blip in the broader space-time continuum.
Today, September 11, we observe the 12-year anniversary of the event that swiftly became this generation’s “I remember where I was” moment.
If asked, anyone over the age of 16 or 17 can, without a moment’s hesitation, tell you precisely what he or she was doing when word came that two airliners had plowed into the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, and how many seconds it took to sprint to the nearest television set and realize the situation was even worse than it sounded.
On one level, we engage in this act of collective memory-mongering as a coping mechanism—a means of making an unfathomable event fathomable by framing it in more personal, human terms. To this extent, such a practice is acceptable and perhaps even necessary in order to keep ourselves sane.
At the same time, there is something distinctly unattractive in reducing a great tragedy like the September 11 attacks to a personal anecdote. The way many people recount it, the point becomes not the fact of 9/11 itself, but rather the excitement of having watched it unfold, as if there were something unique or courageous about passively observing something from which one could not conceivably have averted one’s attention.
We have fashioned ourselves as having been active participants in an event that, in point of fact, we had absolutely nothing to do with.
As I rant, you can rest assured that I know from what I speak.
For the past 12 years, I have regularly regaled others with the tale of how, late in the afternoon on September 11, 2001, I hiked to the peak of Turkey Mountain, the highest point in my hometown, and faintly witnessed the massive plume of smoke hovering over Lower Manhattan some 40 miles south.
As memorable as this little adventure might have been for yours truly, what I have slowly come to realize is that, to everyone else, it has not a shred of interest or anything in the way of a point. It illustrates nothing except the cosmic accident that I happened to live in the New York metro area on the day the city was savagely attacked by a gang of terrorists. Why should anyone else care?
My advice, to myself and those in like circumstances, is to shut up about it. To recognize that 9/11, like past historical flashpoints to which I alluded at the start, is not about you, and you shouldn’t try to make it so.
Obviously, this plea does not apply to everyone. For the 3,000 who died, their friends and families, and the scores of rescuers and bystanders literally caught in the eye of the storm, 9/11 was very much a personal trauma that altered their lives in fairly profound ways. They can bang on forever about what the attacks mean to them. No one has any cause to stop them, and we might even learn something along the way.
For the rest of us, however, this is simply not the case. For us, who lost no loved ones in the attacks and whose lives were not immediately and violently disrupted by them, 9/11 is nothing more than an historical occurrence that we happened to see on live TV.
For whatever reason, a great number of us have trouble accepting this. We figure that if we conflate our memory of a significant event to the event itself, we can make ourselves feel significant as well. We see this in sports fans who refer to their favorite team as “we” rather than “they,” or in baby boomers who talk about the thrill of Woodstock and Monterey Pop as if they were there when, in fact, they were not.
We should all knock it off.
We should have the humility to distinguish between being a participant in a great drama and being a mere witness to one. Who, after all, are we trying to impress?