Patriot Day: The Terrible Misnomer

Editorial Notebook

On Sept. 4 of this year, President Bush officially named the most infamous day in recent memory. He proclaimed that Sept. 11, 2002 and every subsequent Sept. 11 would be called Patriot Day. This announcement was not big news; The New York Times thought it was only worth A20 coverage. But the choice of Patriot Day really is shocking, because it distorts the focus of this solemn day.

The anniversary of Sept. 11 should be a day of complete sadness in honor of the thousands of victims. But with a name like Patriot Day there is the danger that the anniversary will become a day when we think more about our country than we do about the victims.

The signs of this danger were already evident in the official proclamation of Patriot Day. In that proclamation, President Bush cites Sept. 11 as a day that brought the nation together, and he urges Americans to remember the patriotism with which America responded to the attacks: “From the tragedy of September 11 emerged a stronger Nation, renewed by a spirit of national pride and a true love of country.” This feel-good message may be appropriate on other days, but on the anniversary of Sept. 11 it detracts from the focus on the victims. The victims of the attacks came from America as well as dozens of foreign countries. It is to those victims, not to this country, that the anniversary of Sept. 11 should be dedicated.

But the problem with the name Patriot Day goes deeper than its failure to see the worldwide aspect of the Sept. 11 tragedy. Putting a patriotic spin on such a day is emotionally and intellectually dishonest. Thinking of patriotism on Sept. 11 would no doubt make us feel better about the tragedy, but the anniversary is a time when we need to feel the deep sadness of the event. Something terrible happened on Sept. 11, and we should not try to lessen our grief by ascribing false meaning to the attacks.

Even though it’s tempting to portray the victims of Sept. 11 as martyrs who gave their lives so that Americans could come together, this simply isn’t the truth. While there were hundreds of government workers who died serving their country, the deaths of the vast majority of the victims had nothing to do with serving their country or with patriotism; they were just going about their everyday lives without thinking of America or global politics.

The Sept. 11 attack was a nihilistic act, and we distort the memory of the tragedy when we pretend that the victims died for a purpose, patriotic or otherwise.

Is patriotism what we think about when we see pictures of victims jumping out of the burning skyscrapers? Does the video of the collapsing towers make us think of patriotism? What about the rubble at Ground Zero, or the smoky wall of the Pentagon? These are horrible images, and the only thing they make me think of is how vulnerable and frail we all are. We can commemorate patriotic martyrs on D-Day, Pearl Harbor Day, Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, and countless other times during the year, but the anniversary of Sept. 11 should be set aside as a day of complete tragedy, a day of sadness, a day when our thoughts go to things more sacred than love of country.

Instead of calling the anniversary Patriot Day, the president and Congress might consider following in the footsteps of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City. Before Sept. 11, the Oklahoma City bombing had been the largest act of terrorism on American soil, and yet the state and local governments of Oklahoma decided not to give an official name to April 19, the anniversary of the bombing. But if the anniversary of the terrorist attacks must be named, let’s make sure that the name allows us to remember the tragedy honestly. Instead of Patriot Day, we could call it “Remembrance Day,” or simply “Nine-Eleven.”