A Year Later

by Leon Wieseltier | September 2, 2002

A society that is notorious for its inability to remember is about to do nothing else. America eats the past, which is why people eaten by the past run to it; but even the American creed of newness will pause on September 11, and learn its limitations. The yahrzeit is here, and the least lachrymose country on earth is devising its rituals of commemoration. The interesting question is whether the memory will have life outside the media. September 11 will be a test of the American sense of reality, for it marks the anniversary of a day on which reality bested every representation of it. Most of us will be remembering an event that we never saw, which is precisely the character of collective memory: knowledge made so immediate that it feels like experience. This may be an illusion, but it is a vital illusion. It is a fiction created against oblivion. Most of us saw the towers fall only on the screen; but what we saw was so shocking that even as it riveted our gaze to the screen it shook our gaze loose from it, so that we looked not at the screen but through the screen. We were not, strictly speaking, witnesses of what happened; and yet we gained a kind of knowledge by acquaintance. It was a measure of the horror that the media were too weak to interfere with our consciousness of it. In American existence, this counts as an epiphany. For the managers of meaning, the anchors and the reporters and the commentators, were themselves too shocked to set to work.

But later they set to work, and "September 11" was born. "September 11" was the deadening of September 11. It was deadened, like all images and ideas that are hallowed, by repetition, and also by sentiment, which is what our popular culture uses to drive away lasting significance. The American heart is the bouncer at the door of the American mind. And so the memory entrepreneurs--I take this term from a profoundly stimulating study of "the ethics of memory" by Avishai Margalit that Harvard University Press will publish in the fall-- transformed the recollection of the event into what Tom Brokaw, speaking recently in Pasadena about his network's big plans for the anniversary, referred to unpejoratively as an "emotional bath." The media is greedy for tears. I expect also that what will be commemorated on television will be the coverage of the catastrophe as much as the catastrophe itself. Many reporters have an unattractive tendency to believe that an event that they have covered is an event that has happened to them. This is understandable, I suppose: when you are close it is hard to concede that you are far. But this is no time for insiders. The bathos of Aaron Brown and Diane Sawyer and Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters, the moistening eyes and the bitten lips and the plangent sighs, the slumming with the ordinary folk, will be very hard to take. It will be important to recall that these are not representative figures and not figures of spiritual authority. They are tourists in history, and like all tourists they are emotional athletes. Their solemnity is always just around the corner from their self-congratulation. They are paid never to recede before what they do not understand; to have words even when they do not have thoughts; to leave good feelings even, or especially, in the wake of bad tidings. They fear nothing so much as stillness. And so the objective of this commemoration, if it is to honor the dead and to quicken the sorrow, must be to resist the notion that a television audience is a family or a community or a nation, and (if you will pardon the expression) to re-privatize the wound. There is nothing that anybody can say or show on television that will be as crushing as what one may oneself imagine about what it must have been like to perish at the World Trade Center a year ago. Imagination is television's mortal enemy; and mourning is, to a large extent, an activity of the imagination, which presents the absent and resurrects the dead. "The truth is that people relished this experience. It's obvious that they would never have wished this calamity on themselves or others, but inside the perimeter lines and beyond the public's view it served for many of them as an unexpected liberation--a national tragedy of course, but one that was contained, unambiguous, and surprisingly energizing." I find these words in William Langewiesche's account of the clean-up--or what he too cleverly calls "the unbuilding"--of the World Trade Center in The Atlantic. There I find also reports of "the vital new culture that grew up at the Trade Center site," and "the magnificent smoking terrain of the Trade Center site--this ever-changing American geography" and "the creative turbulence that followed the attacks." The tone is wrong. Langewiesche describes the courageous engineers who entered the infernal ruins as "tak[ing] in the sights": "The truth is, we all liked it there. ... It was ... an intriguing place to be, and less macabre than outsiders supposed." The articles are unforgettable; but finally they diminish the story into a tale of adventure, a memoir of real men and real disaster, a perfect storm. Langewiesche could have written about the aftermath of the Johnstown flood or the Lisbon earthquake in precisely this manner. His affecting narrative has the unfortunate effect of de-historicizing its subject. The World Trade Center was not unbuilt, it was attacked. This was not the work of the gods, or the consequence of a series of physical and chemical reactions ("[i]t would be simplifying things, but not by much, to conclude that it was paperwork that brought the South Tower down"), it was the act of enemies of the United States who will act again. I know that Langewiesche knows this; but his articles are in their way complicit in the transformation of September 11 into "September 11," which was in large part a dissociation of the event's political and strategic aspects from the event's social and emotional aspects, so that what remained was a holy day and a homily about heroism. This concentrated the American spirit, but it dispersed the American will. What we will be commemorating on September 11, after all, is the beginning of a war. "They forget death, Basil," remarks the wife of the hero in the Howells novel, explaining why she does not wish to move to New York, "they forget death in New York." Her husband retorts with the metropolitan philosophy: "Well, I don't know that I've ever found much advantage in remembering it." These days they forget death less easily in New York; but in truth there can be a certain dignity in forgetting death. Life must not be a long mortification. The frontier between memory and morbidity must be vigilantly policed. But if death may be usefully forgotten, it may not be usefully misremembered. A shallow mourning is a hideous thing. Or so I reflected the other day, when I came upon the perfect mourner's accessory, a Judith Leiber bag that portrays, in black crystals on white crystals, the World Trade Center. For under $4,000 evidence may be given of a broken Manhattan heart. Otherwise the terrorists will have won.

By Leon Wieseltier

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/year-later