On the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks, President Bush declared that the day be known hereafter as Patriot Day, in an effort to honor the sacrifices of the brave firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers, and to re-cast the day into something analogous to Memorial Day or Veterans Day. In four years, I’ve never heard anyone refer to September 11th by this name, and don’t expect to. A pale euphemism for a national catastrophe, it doesn’t register with anyone’s physical or psychological experience of that day. I expect the pretense of printing the name on calendars will fade away in time.
The more honest analogue for September 11th is of course December 7th, 1941, the only other time outside of the War of 1812 that United States territory was attacked by a foreign enemy. December 7th, too, brought forth examples of heroism and sacrifice along with the losses, but Americans were generally more concerned with avenging the dead of Pearl Harbor than reciting their names every year. They remembered the attack with anger and resolve, and repressed the pain.
The attitude was probably best exemplified by President Roosevelt. As the second anniversary of Pearl Harbor approached in 1943, Congress jointly passed a resolution calling December 7th “Armed Services Honor Day.” Roosevelt, though, vetoed the bill. “December 7, two years ago,” he wrote, “is a day that is remembered in this country as one of infamy on the part of a treacherous enemy. The day itself requires no reminder, and its anniversary should rather serve to cause all the people of the nation to increase their efforts contributing to the successful prosecution of the war.”
Similarly, the Washington Post called December 7th a day of “deep humiliation” that should remind us of “our pitiful unpreparedness and our laxity in the face of disaster.”
Talking this way about the September 11th attacks is liable to get one accused of being unpatriotic, or worse, insensitive. Last Sunday, families gathered at Ground Zero to read the names of the dead, and emotions ran high as always. I wonder for how much longer we will encourage survivors to come back to the scene of their greatest torment and re-enact their grief in such a public way. Such rituals can only serve to keep old wounds forever fresh, and they provide an annual reminder for our enemies of the devastating effectiveness of their deeds.
Even while the wounds of Pearl Harbor were fresh, Franklin Roosevelt recognized that a great nation shouldn’t grovel so much in the mire of one of its darkest days, especially when it had a war to win. It is not true that repressing the pain of loss means forgetting it. That is one of our touchy-feely myths. Repression is a key to survival, and Americans once knew this intuitively.
Today, people under 50 barely know what December 7th signifies. That’s not an endorsement of ignorance, but December 7th’s quiet place in our calendar is more appropriate than not. Someday, one hopes, September 11th will join it there, devoid of euphemism and indulgence, as another somber reminder that our freedoms are never guaranteed and rarely safe. Our losses we’ll tally in private.