September 11, 2001 was supposed to go the way of December 7, 1941. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Class of 1904 and former Crimson president, pledged that it was a date that would live in infamy, but today most Americans refer to that day as the “Attack on Pearl Harbor,” not December 7. Years after the September terrorist attacks, linguists wondered if “9/11” would follow suit, and be given a name that reflects the actual events that transpired that day.
Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of September 11, and the date is still nameless. Congress passed a resolution officially declaring it “Patriot Day,” but for some reason our country prefers to leave 9/11 just as it is, a date frozen in time, as though somehow, somewhere, the towers are still falling.
A recent article traces the etymology of the name “9/11” in the public discourse, but most New Yorkers know that “9/11” is the antithesis of a name—it’s a placeholder for one. In the weeks and months that followed, you couldn’t bring yourself to say what had happened, to put it into words. The moment the day came up in a sentence, you just paused and realized that there was something ineffable about the whole thing, something distant and unspeakable. “We were planning on going upstate,” an average sentence might have gone a few weeks after the attacks, “but after…September 11…we didn’t think it was appropriate.”
This phenomenon is far from foreign to me. In the Jewish tradition, the day every year on which one commemorates the death of a close relative is called a “yahrzeit,” roughly translating to “a year’s time.” The name captures the essence of the inexpressibility of what is often lost when one loses a family member. It’s an emotion that was conveyed to me quite vividly after I watched my parents mourn the deaths of their own parents, sitting in silence and attempting to comprehend what had just happened.
More than a mere memorial day, a yahrzeit represents the necessity to break from the rhythm of life every once in a while and reflect on the indelible and inexpressible imprint a tragedy has left on your life. You’ve not only lost a loved one, the tradition tells you. You’ve lost a part of yourself.
9/11 marks such a yahrzeit for our generation. And on its tenth anniversary, it’s worth reflecting on the meaning conveyed by the day’s namelessness—the sense that Americans our age, in particular, lost something more than just the lives of those who perished that day.
The Cold War ended before most of us had our first memories. We led our early lives during the Clinton Administration, an era that for the first time in decades wasn’t characterized by the paranoia of our parents’ generation, with overtones of defense spending, espionage, and enemies on our soil. I remember a television host when I was 11 toasting to the fact that the United States wasn’t at war with anyone, and I wondered aloud why the United States would possibly be at war with anyone. With no foreign enemy threatening our very existence, our generation celebrated some of its best years during a climate of peace, before we had our innocence shaken out of us over the course of two hours on a clear September morning.
On that day, the principal of my school gathered my nine-year-old sister’s class together to tell them what had happened. He paused for a moment, hesitantly, and then prefaced his remarks with the following phrase:
“There are bad people in this world.”
Those seven words hovered in the background for the last 10 years of our lives. We soon came of age in a time of terrorism, deterrence, foreign wars, and security states—of Patriot Acts, detentions, torture, and drone strikes. Bin Laden’s death released some of the anxiety that had been building inside of us for the last decade, but lurking in the background there’s still this unshakable feeling left by the events of September 11—the feeling that, underneath it all, they had forced us to grow up far too soon.
The College is offering a number of programs this Sunday to help us share our experiences about the attacks. Together, we will continue to attempt to describe the indescribable, and coalesce as a generation around the day that changed us forever. And when we stand on the steps of Memorial Church as a community on Sunday to commemorate a year’s time, we should not only mourn for those who were murdered in cold blood on 9/11, but for our childhood. For our innocence. For ourselves.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.