Reconciling 9/11 Memorials

Sept. 11, 2012 marked the eleventh anniversary of the day when four planes were hijacked, two towers fell, one wing of the Pentagon was obliterated and millions of lives were forever altered. On that anniversary, I found the online social sphere flooded with statuses and tweets lamenting the lives lost and celebrating the heroes who went above and beyond the call of duty on that tragic day. I also came across this Facebook status: “wish i could be remembering the americans of 9/11 but i have a lousy memory so i’ll just think about all the people we killed and got killed afterwards.” As one might have expected, this particular status generated quite the heated thread of comments, both attacking and defending the author.  

Reading this status and its consequent comment thread brought to the forefront of my thoughts a question that has been taking residence in my mind since the 10-year anniversary memorial service in New York City last year: How do we, as the responsible and respectful world citizens that we must become in this era of tightly woven global integration, reconcile our desire to respect and memorialize all whose lives were lost or forever changed with the fact that similar tragedies occur frequently in this world? Moreover, seeing as no human life is more precious than the next, should we prioritize grief for 9/11 over the equally tragic consequential loss of life in the wars that followed, simply because it was closer to home?

One only had to listen to two minutes of Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention before hearing her refer to our nation as “the greatest country on Earth.” This self-glorifying nationalistic attitude has been a mainstay in political speeches given on either side of the aisle for as long as I can remember and even longer. Whether reflective of national sentiment or a cause of it, it demonstrates the fact that the United States tends to hold an infallible image of itself, and be somewhat self-centered and egotistic in global affairs, including the wars in the Middle East.  

Now we delve into the context in which our Facebook subject decided to share that criticism. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did grow up in a New York City suburb that was greatly affected by this tragedy, so consider the following with as many grains of salt as you see fit.

Obviously, death and tragedy occur regularly in the world. So, the critic would ask, why do we pay attention and comment only when they occur within the US, or when we are the victims? The answer is simple enough. An event that occurs closer to home is more likely to have an effect on people due to proximity – primal instinct dictates that we pay the most heed to threats that come the closest to us personally. Therefore, it would only be logical that a greater awareness and grievance arises following an event occurring closer to home. According to New York Magazine statistics updated in September 2012, more people died from the attacks in New York alone, without the additional losses of life in Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, than U.S. troops in Operation Enduring Freedom – the official name for the war in Afghanistan following the attacks.

Objectively, an Afghani father killed as a result of Enduring Freedom is no less grievance-worthy than an American father who was killed in the collapse of Tower One, but humans do not view the world in objective terms. It is the subjective value of life that the criticism, in the context of 9/11, fails to recognize. Do not tell me that the American child should grieve equally for the loss of his father as for the death of an Afghani man unknown to him, or vice versa. It is true that the objective equivalence of the losses should be carefully considered in discussing the issue as we move forward in reconciling the inevitable differences we will encounter as the global population becomes increasingly interwoven. Still, on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths, do not dare to criticize the subjectivity of the children’s mourning.

Let us now direct our attention to our own campuses. For me, it’s Pomona College. I, along with people that I have spoken with on the issue, was a little surprised and taken aback when I realized that the administration seemed to avoid official recognition of the anniversary of September 11. It is entirely possible that there were commemorative activities planned that were not adequately advertised to students, which is effectively equivalent to not having them at all. The whole point of having activities dedicated to recognition of the anniversary is to allow for student involvement, which is impossible if the student body isn’t made aware of said activities. 

That being said, I would hope the lack of advertisement was a mere oversight. As reprehensible as that may sound, it is better than the administration having made the conscious decision to passively deny students the opportunity to express their personal grievances.

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