On 9/11, Can We Heal? Yes, But Not This Year...


A year ago, I asked my dad the following:

You remember December 7, 1941, right? It’s your generation’s 9/11.

When were people able or allowed to “be happy” on Dec. 7? How many years? Was it the end of WWII? Or something else?

What I meant, of course, is not “Can we celebrate 9/11 and be happy about it?” but rather, “Do we really have to be so gloomy on this day? Can someone celebrate their birthday if it happens to be 9/11?”

And I was genuinely interested in what happened over the years after Pearl Harbor, how the nation’s psyche dealt with the tragedy of his day. I thought it might shed some light on how our nation’s psyche should or could deal with the tragedy of this day. I felt then, and still do now, that for some reason we are being led to be unhappy on this day, especially this particular year.

I wondered why.

Here’s his response, more appropriate now than ever:

Hmmmm. You have made me think. So the first thing I thunk of was I had better go down the hall for a cup of coffee. Now I have it and I still have to think a bit.

I was nine years old when Pearl Harbor happened and, I suppose, in the fourth grade. So what was happening around me didn’t register like 9/11 would have for you. It did register, but in the same way as major events register for many people: they can remember where they were and what they were doing at the time the learned of the event. I have several such recollections, although on some I don’t have the date exact: Pearl Harbor, FDR’s death (playing in the back yard, April 1945—the 18th maybe), Japan’s surrender (Camp Allen mess hall, August 1945—12th), Kennedy’s assassination (teaching a programming course for honors freshman engineering students at Purdue, date foggy), 9/11 (right here).

As a nine-year-old, I was not aware of the storm of war in Europe or in Asia. Hitler’s invasion of Poland would not have registered on a then seven-year-old. So Pearl Harbor was obviously in my mind a big event but I did not see a big picture. FDR’s and the Congress’ declaration of war was also big, but again, I would have had no big picture.

Another facet of this is how we got news. There was no TV. We got news from the newspaper and the radio. Many folks got their news in one or two half-hour doses from the radio, one at noon and one around supper time. And not on the weekends, of course. So we were not continually bombarded with what today passes for “news.” We got the big picture. A battle raging here, a ship sunk there, a victory over the Axis somewhere, and so on.

News did become local at times when a “local boy” was killed in the war. But even that was not in my life much more than a story in the local Daily Peoples Press.

Are you thinking, Is he ever going to get to an answer? OK, right here! We were not led to be unhappy. Pearl Harbor Day, “a day that shall live in infamy,” was certainly noted each year. But during the Second World War we had other things to think about. That day in 1942 would have had little positive news. By that day in 1943, things were looking better, we might beat those Axis guys. By 1944, we had landed in Europe and were moving ahead (the Battle of the Bulge was bad news yet to come). We were moving in on Japan, island by island. Of course, by 1945, the war was over.

I do not remember gloom associated with Pearl Harbor Day. It was marked as a memorial both to the act and to the beginning of the U.S. entry into the war and all that that meant. Pearl Harbor the place became the physical memorial.

I am aware of the date each year and which anniversary it is. What often comes to mind during that brief awareness is a picture, a mental picture, not a real one. I am lying on the living room floor at 2-something East Mill Street, Owatonna, reading the Sunday funnies in color. I am still dressed for church and dinner (maybe in knickers and long stockings), which are over. The rug is a dark pattern. I see myself with my chin resting on my hands, my elbows on the floor, my legs bent at the knees to put my feet in the air. Now why that picture, I sure don’t know! But I know I read that way sometimes.

So the simple answer to your question is that to be “happy” was not a decision to be concerned with. We noted the day and went about our business or school or play and we didn’t get reminded from every direction what happened that day with graphic pictures replayed countless times accompanied by breathless commentary.

Oh, and note that 9/11 has no meaning at all to any of our grandchildren.

Gee, that was fun and I still have about half my coffee left!

Love, Dad

Now, a year after he replied, I know exactly what’s in store for Sunday, September 11th, 2011. It’s going to be a day filled with remembrance, certainly. But as he so aptly pointed out to me, we both think we will be led to be unhappy, though he came to that conclusion a year ago. It will be a day filled with “breathless commentary” and “graphic pictures replayed countless times.” And I don’t think that’s the way it should be.

I don’t need a crystal ball to know what will happen as I sit here writing this two days prior to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the tenth anniversary of another day which will very much live in infamy. No, I have the TV. It’s being hyped regularly as a full day of programming—such an apropos word, don’t you think? And that’s probably what makes me sad more than anything else. Instead of getting a well-deserved breath of relief, a catharsis, we’re going to relive that day, minute-by-minute, over and over.

Being bombarded by “what today passes for news” is not how progress is made. This is not how we heal. Sometimes the doctor orders quiet, respite, and rest. We won’t get that this year.

I learned from my Dad in his E-mail that much of the way they healed from Pearl Harbor was by celebrating the victories that followed. So, too, could we be celebrating the demise of various bad guys who orchestrated the events of a decade ago. It should be OK to celebrate the successes our country has had on the battlefield. We went to war, and we accomplished many of the goals we set out to accomplish. We could mark these events as turning points, times at which we could say, That’s done now. Times when we could recognize that we can move forward.

Instead, these accomplishments will be minimized in the nation’s dialog two days from now. We’re being instructed to be accepting of the bad guys’ anger and to try to understand their viewpoint and to recognize that blah blah blah. Maybe that’s a good idea, but some other day, perhaps? This day isn’t about them. It’s about us. Or, U.S., really. How can we move forward if the very events which might provide some traction are the very events which are being pushed aside?

We also move forward by sharing tears with and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with those who lost co-workers, friends, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, children, parents…. Instead, we will memorialize the events of September 11, 2001, with the aggrandizement of politicians, some of whose political lives hadn’t even started a decade ago. These are not the people the public wants to commiserate with. These are not the people whose grief should be shared. These are not the people we want to reach out and hug. So instead of sharing grief with the people who may desperately need to share, we and they are not being given a much-needed opportunity to move forward, to heal.

For many, this day and all which have yet to come will be days filled with tragedy and sadness—there’s no getting past that fact. Those who lost someone close to them or were injured as a result of the events of 9/11 or as a result of the ensuing wars will never be the same. It is for their sake and the sake of the rest of the country that I hope and pray that we will learn from this year as an example of how not to mark the anniversary of a tragedy.

We should learn so that we can heal.

Recent Comments