This week, Americans will commemorate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Newspapers, magazines, and TV lineups are already packed with essays and recollections. Our efforts to learn from the tragedy are wise; our wish to honor the fallen is noble; our instinct to mark the day is understandable. But as the media buildup illustrates, Americans have a weakness for fetishizing and sentimentalizing anniversaries, a weakness ill-suited to an ongoing war against terrorism. Before we look back at Sept. 11, let’s remember what we were looking back at when the terrorists struck.
One year ago today, people in government and the entertainment industry were busy honoring the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. A self-congratulatory movie by that name had grossed nearly $200 million. Another film about the war against Japan was scheduled to debut that fall. On Sept. 9, HBO launched an epic World War II miniseries. Recipients of the Medal of Honor were preparing to fly to Boston’s Logan Airport for a Sept. 12 convention at which a concert was scheduled to mark the anniversary of the erection of a Vietnam memorial.
Three days before Osama Bin Laden’s hijackers struck New York and Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz went to San Francisco to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the treaties that buried the Pacific war and cemented the Japanese-American alliance. In a speech at the ceremony, Powell recalled the Korean bloodshed, the Iron Curtain, and the nuclear war drills that darkened September 1951. But Powell’s message was upbeat. “What far-sighted thinkers and doers they were, the men and women who came here to write a formal end to World War II in the Pacific,” he declared. “They created the blueprints, the very framework, out of which a peaceful post-war world was constructed.” Unlike the treaty ending World War I, said Powell, “This peace would not contain the seeds of future war.” Wolfowitz agreed. As Powell called for the expansion of U.S.-Japan cooperation into a “global alliance” against “international crime, high seas piracy, HIV/AIDS, illegal narcotics, and other transnational threats,” terrorism was absent from the list.
Today, there is much second-guessing about why Powell, Wolfowitz, and others didn’t see what was coming. We look back and wonder why they weren’t looking ahead. There are many answers, but one is that they were doing what many of us are doing now: marking an anniversary, staging a ceremony, airbrushing our errors, glorifying our heroism, telling ourselves things will be OK, and confining our acknowledgment of perils to those that seem familiar. While some reporters labor to unearth ugly truths about what happened a year ago and to convey the ever-changing threats we face, their work risks being washed out by a prepackaged mediathon that puts closure before candor.
When we fetishize anniversaries, we risk squandering their lessons. We focus on the kind of attack we suffered that day—a massive strike by a nation-state, a plane hijacking by Arabs—losing sight of different enemies and methods more likely to follow. We imagine that the problem we face began on the day we were struck, forgetting the years beforehand in which it plagued other regions. And we foster an illusion that the story is over. Sept. 11 threatens to do for terrorism what Mother’s Day does for motherhood: liberate us from thinking about it 364 days a year.
The story isn’t over. It persists and mutates. Why is President Bush having so much trouble persuading the public and the world to stop Iraq’s nuclear program? Because many of us, myself included, don’t see what Iraq has to do with what happened on Sept. 11.
Why, then, do we focus on anniversaries? Why do we in the media organize our coverage around them? Because we can plan easily for them. In the age of terrorism, it is the worst of all possible reasons: We know they’re coming. We know exactly what they are and exactly when they’ll happen. That’s what Powell and Wolfowitz were doing a year ago, while a new and very different kind of sneak attack was underway. If we’re not careful, we’ll do it again.