This is the first time since 2001 that 9/11 has snuck up on me unannounced. For the past five years, the anniversary has been preceded by a sinking feeling in my stomach that wouldn’t leave until 9/12. And then, of course, there is the usual media rush to wring every last ounce of pathos from the day, so you couldn’t avoid it if you tried.
It is different this year. I didn’t have that usual dread, and thinking back on the event is beginning to feel more like a memory, rather than something that must be relived in every horrible detail. Even the news stations seem to be ratcheting back their usual overblown coverage: Aside from MSNBC, which, as I type, is rolling the news segment that aired at this hour on 9/11/2001 in real time (in what I consider to be a spectacular lack of tact), there have been nods to quiet memorials of the day, but nothing approaching the usual hysterical coverage.
Of course, much of that may be due to the reporting on the Petraeus hearing, which is dominating every news outlet, rather than any fundamental shift in perspective on the media’s part. But I remember that, on the five-year anniversary in 2006, talk was made of whether we would still feel the tragedy as keenly from that point out, or even remember it as faithfully, as we moved further from the event.
I’ve asked the same question many times myself. Part of me wonders if it’s a betrayal of the victims of 9/11 not to keep the emotions of that day as raw as they were six years ago. We’ve certainly been given ample opportunity to do so: Two feature films, countless "special reports" on the news . . . Americans seem to feel a collective responsibility not to let the wound heal. It has always been difficult for me to watch the footage and see the recreations of that day’s events — I almost had to leave the theater during trailers of Flight 93 and World Trade Center, five years after the fact — but I feel a twinge of guilt when I change the channel or turn the news off, as if I’m shirking a duty by not reliving that day in every anguishing detail.
On the other hand, we as a nation can sometimes have a dangerous tendency toward the hyperemotional. Simply knowing a thing is not enough; we have to feel it, to wallow in it, to cover ourselves in it completely, until we’re exhausted by the effort. We’ve even had the gall to turn our tragedy into entertainment and sell it at the box office with popcorn and soda. Knowing the kind of superficial faith that is built on sheer emotional experience, part of me wonders if this is really the best way to honor the dead. Memorials held by and for those who have lost loved ones will always be moving and appropriate, but should the rest of us presume to share in their level of grief simply because we watched the made-for-TV movie?
I don’t think "remembering" will be the problem at all. The details of 9/11 will always be easy to conjure; any American can tell you exactly where he was when the Towers fell. And maybe trying to summon the precise emotions of the day is neither necessary nor fruitful: So long as we are unrelenting in prayer — for those lost, for their families, for our country — and in our resolve that it will never again happen on our watch, maybe that’s the most fitting tribute we can give.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Margaret Cabaniss is the managing editor for InsideCatholic.com and Crisis Magazine.