9/11, 20 Anniversaries Later

“But time soon passes. Even the deepest pain eventually loses its edge in the more vivid reality of the present; then, what once was unbearable becomes strangely familiar. And after much familiarity, it assumes the insignificance of just another milestone, ever marking the journey to higher ground.”

-- N. Maria Kwami

This past Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. For those of us who can vividly remember that day, it feels like a significant milestone to have finally reached. I’ve noticed a trend over the past five years, however -- 9/11 doesn’t feel like it used to. The day used to be one for wearing your most patriotic gear, listening to cringy jingoistic songs, and focusing on the remembrance of those who died. In NYC especially, the day was set aside for visiting Ground Zero and listening to the recitation of the names of the dead.  Now, the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil feels almost like...a normal day.

The times, they are a’changing. 

In his New York Daily News column marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Harry Siegal points how just how much things have changed in NYC

“There are now 3,716 NYPD officers remaining who were on the job on 9/11, or just more than 10% of the department, down from just under 50% in 2012. There are about 2,100 firefighters remaining who were on the job on 9/11, or just less than 20%.

The drop-off may be even steeper for the city as a whole. Eight years ago, the Department of Planning told me that nearly half of New Yorkers then hadn’t been here on 9/11. About 2 million people had arrived here from other places and a million more had been born here, while 650,000 New Yorkers had died.”

There is no way of accurately counting how many current NYC residents were also residents on 9/11/2001, but those numbers give a sense of how much things have changed in the city most affected by the terrorist attack.

I’ve noticed over time the response to the anniversary of 9/11 has become more and more subdued. That’s not to say that the day passes completely without comment -- the recitation of names still takes place at Ground Zero, and I’m sure it still draws a large crowd. Memorials still take place at the Pentagon and the sight of the Flight 93 crash. But with each passing year, and I’ve noticed this over the past few years especially, the public reaction has become more and more muted. In one sense that is a good thing; not spending the day singing songs about putting boots in asses is a positive step. So is the idea of time helping to heal wounds, even if the scars remain all these years later.  

The 20th anniversary reminded me of another reason why the public reaction to the day has fallen off -- there is a whole generation that either was not alive for or does not have any concrete memory of 9/11/2001. Anyone 20 years or younger wasn’t alive on that day, and anyone between 20 and 30 likely has no real recollection of that day other than the adults were very upset. 

It is very difficult to explain to someone who wasn’t there what that day was like. Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower at 8:46 am, Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 am, Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 am, the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 am, Flight 93 was purposely crashed into a field in Pennsylvania at 10:03 am, and the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 am. Save for the initial impact at the North Tower, everything that took place at the World Trade Center was broadcast live on television. We had no idea what was happening, who was doing it, or why. We watched a plane slam into a building on purpose. We had no idea what the next target would be. There are no words to describe the fear every American felt on that day. You had to be there to understand.

But time keeps moving forward, and now we have a generation with no emotional or visceral connection to 9/11. That’s not to say that they are incapable of understanding that what happened that day was awful, but the anniversary doesn’t hit them the way it does us who watched it all live. It’s history, but it’s not their history. 

Perhaps that is for the best. As more time passes and the number of people who weren’t alive to witness the attacks grows, I suspect that the anniversary of 9/11 will become more like the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. A day for remembrance of those who died, yes, but also something close to an average American day. The incandescent rage in the first few years after 9/11/2001 produced some truly horrifying policies, most of which we are still living with to this day -- I’ll gladly take muted remembrance over that.