This Day in History: 9/11

Eleven years ago this morning I was in Hamden, Connecticut, waking up after a late night of dissertation writing to turn on CNN in time to watch the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Those structures stood less than two hours’ drive away from my apartment, and I knew people who lived in or regularly commuted to New York. (I barely ever went to the city myself, but still called my parents after the towers collapsed to let them know I was safe.) When I tell my own mundane story of 9/11, I tell of forcing myself to stop watching the TV, feeling the compulsion to do something but having no idea what that something might be. (“Should I give blood?”, I asked aloud in my empty apartment. I didn’t.) Of going to my pastor’s house that night to pray with others from our church, then driving back through a rough part of New Haven feeling absolutely safe — having deluded myself for the moment into believing that petty crime had been rendered impossible, that such a tragedy would inspire American citizens to come together in a revival of civic virtue. Or something like that.

That’s where I was — physically, emotionally, spiritually — on 9/11. But as the years separating us from 2001 start to pile up and memories fade, I also wonder if that day will continue to be “9/11,” or just another of the many significant but dimly remembered events that have happened to fall on September 11th.

1973 coup in Chile
Chile’s presidential palace is bombed during the 1973 coup – Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile

After all, when someone asks, “Where were you on 9/11?”, few Americans will think of the day in 1973 when right-wing forces led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected president of that South American country, the socialist Salvador Allende, who didn’t live to see 9/12. Backed by the United States government (which had sought to undermine Allende even before the coup), Pinochet’s regime ushered in an era of terrible repression. (It’s not the only 9/11 associated with U.S. intervention in Latin America: on that day in 1919 American Marines were inserted in Honduras, the fifth such action since 1903.)

Nor will most Americans recall that this 9/11 is the 155th anniversary of the Mountain Meadows massacre, when about 120 members of the Baker-Fancher wagon train traveling through southern Utah were slaughtered by Mormon militia and a few Paiute allies, the end of a five-day siege that left no adult settlers alive (seventeen younger children survived and were eventually returned to relatives). For some of the participants in the massacre, it was a chance to avenge the violent deaths of Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints during the movement’s formative decades in Missouri and Illinois. But taking place in the middle of a year-long confrontation between the U.S. government and Mormon leader Brigham Young (ruler of what Mark Twain called, after visiting Utah in 1861, “the only absolute monarchy in America”), the massacre precipitated federal investigations that finally led to the 1877 execution of one militia leader, John D. Lee, who went before the firing squad claiming to have been made a scapegoat by Young. (The fact that a Google News search this morning for “Mountain Meadows” produced nothing more than “This day in history” entries suggests how much has changed between 1857 and a year in which a Mormon is a major party nominee for the presidency itself.)

So why don’t we erect “9/11” as a temporal memorial that annually confronts us with those events? To some degree, which anniversaries are commemorated reflects Americans deciding (or, if you prefer, being told by a smaller subset of that group) how to construct and reinforce their collective national memory.

So rather than making 9/11 a moment to reflect on the hubris of American interventionism in the Western Hemisphere, or the interreligious violence of the 19th century that complicates a supposed legacy of toleration and liberty, we focus on the 9/11 when Americans again had to rethink an old assumption that theirs was a land protected (by God or Providence, perhaps) by two oceans.

But then, who now remembers 8/24?

As I’ve noted here before, this year marks the bicentennial of a war that most Americans could not possibly know or care less about: the War of 1812. Yet in the course of that little-remembered conflict, on August 24, 1814, British soldiers marched into America’s capital city and burned the residence of its president and the meeting place of its legislature — two possible targets of the 2001 attack that were spared thanks to the actions of passengers on United Flight 93.

Gaddis, Surprise, Security, and the American ExperienceHistorian John Lewis Gaddis notes that coincidence (“History rarely repeats itself, but on this occasion it came damn close”) in his reflection on 8/24, 9/11, and other such disasters in American history, Surprise, Security, and The American ExperienceAcknowledging that several factors combine to keep 8/24 from having the same place in our memories as 9/11 (the “comic-opera character of the event,” the light casualties produced, Andrew Jackson’s triumph at New Orleans the next year, the attack coming near the war’s end rather than its beginning, etc.), Gaddis underlines that

For Americans at the time, though, the humiliation was sharp. To sense how much so, consider the now thankfully never sung third verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, composed by Francis Scott Key to celebrate the failure of the British to take Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor after their withdrawal from Washington:

And where is that band who so hauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and country, shall leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul foot step's pollution
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.

It was a song intended, rather in the spirit of Dolley Madison, to salvage something from a national embarrassment and it ought to remind us that security and the self-confidence that comes with it have not always been part of the American experience. (pp. 11-12)

And whatever humiliation was felt gave way — in Gaddis’ analysis — to an unusually American reaction: the belief that “safety comes from enlarging, rather than contracting, [the country’s] sphere of responsibilities.” The “terror of flight” turned to the exuberance of expansion. Likewise, Gaddis argues, the disaster of Pearl Harbor (12/7) led to foreign policy makers embracing a role of global leadership in what came to be called “The American Century.” Until eventually even a prominent World War II veteran could forget 12/7.

After 9/11/2011, of course, the enlarging of America’s “sphere of responsibilities” to Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond produced results that are, at best, ambivalent. 8/24 gave way to the Battle of New Orleans, and 12/7 to D-Day. 9/11 may prove more enduring, lacking the ensuing national triumphs that could smooth away the edges of its memory.

In that sense, I wonder if 9/11 will have more in common with another 11th day anniversary: 11/11, the date an Armistice both ended the worst war to that point in history and launched the peacemaking process that planted seeds for an even worse conflict. Nearly a century later, Europeans and others still pause to commemorate World War I on 11/11; for decades to come, Americans might still be asking, “Where were you on 9/11?” without feeling the need to add the year.


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