"9/11" Doesn't Do Tragedy Justice
USA Today, Aug. 21, 2002
by Samuel G. Freedman
A few hundred feet from the vast pit that remains of the World Trade Center, there stands a memorial to 1 million Irish who perished in a famine 150 years ago. The monument consists of a small, rocky hillside, and at its base hunches a peasant cottage, the thatch roof torn off in a futile plea for alms.
While it summons the past, this somber place was dedicated only in July. What made such recognition possible, so long after the tragedy itself, was historical and collective memory. And what made memory possible was a name: An Gorta Mor in Gaelic, "The Great Hunger."
Throughout the world, those who have endured catastrophe have given meaning to it with a name. African-Americans call their enslavement the Maafa, a Swahili word for "Great Suffering" or "Great Disaster." Armenians recall the 1915 genocide committed by Turks as Medze Aghede, "the Great Cataclysm," or tseghasbanoutyoune, "the race-killing." Jews remember the Nazi extermination as both the Shoah and the Holocaust, words that derive respectively from biblical accounts of destruction and sacrifice.
As our nation marks the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 innocents, we should absorb these lessons about the importance of language to memory. Our ubiquitous name for the mass murder, "9/11," is devoid of both history and poetry. It dishonors the spirits of the dead and averts the eyes of the living from what truly happened on that crystalline Indian-summer morning.
At some level, of course, "9/11" means to conflate the date of the attack and the telephone number for an emergency police operator. But through sheer, numbing rote, unthinking repetition -- tens of thousands of times in the media in 2002 alone, according to the LexisNexis database -- "9/11" has been reduced to the impersonality of binary code and haste of shorthand.
Rather than evoke anger or grief or battered resilience, the emotions so many Americans knew last September, "9/11" brings to mind only numerical slogans of a prosaic sort. It makes us think of 24/7, 7-11, 23-skidoo.
Even worse, "9/11" so lacks either physical detail or emotional truth that it serves not memory but its antithesis: amnesia. When Franklin Roosevelt called Pearl Harbor "a date which will live in infamy," when Winston Churchill warned of an "Iron Curtain," when the Cambodian survivors of Pol Pot spoke of the "killing fields," they hurled precise words and images against the human instinct to forget what is horrible. In pathetic contrast, "9/11" tells us nothing about what happened, why it happened, and who did it.
For these reasons, perhaps, one senses an undercurrent of disquiet among Americans about "9/11," a sense of its inadequacy, a concern that its very convenience and ubiquity make it so unequal to the task.
No word or phrase has arisen with the linguistic power of those thousands of "missing" fliers -- each one, in truth, a grave marker -- that spontaneously papered New York in the aftermath of the attack. The city's official commemoration of the first anniversary of the attack will prominently feature recitations of historical speeches, such as the Gettysburg Address, rather than any speech written expressly for this event.
The names that remember communal or societal tragedy, and thus seek to avoid its reiteration, look unflinchingly at the murderer and give voice to the murdered. They operate literally and symbolically, all at once. They connect the language of the past to the experience of the present. And, by doing all of that, they guard against the denial of history by the perpetrators.
"The terms, the names, the very process of naming have everything to do with how we behave as human beings and with our future," says Peter Balakian, author of Black Dog of Fate, an acclaimed memoir about growing up in suburbia while learning from his forebears about the Armenian genocide.
When what has happened is not properly articulated," Balakian continues, "there is a potential for moral chaos. Nomenclature has a profound moral dimension, which is to properly acknowledge the immoral nature of what happened with a word that has appropriate gravity. To not do that is to create a counterfeit history and to rob the victim culture of its experience."
Seemingly distant from that Armenian experience, yet actually quite proximate indeed, the Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., annually marks the Maafa with lectures, dramatic presentations and an oceanside worship service in memory of the millions of Africans who died in enslavement.
"When you have your own word for an event, then you define yourself and your destiny," says the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, senior pastor of the church. "The fact that Maafa is an African word makes it even more significant. It unsilences the dead. It bespeaks the feelings of the victims. 'Atlantic slave trade' and 'Middle Passage' bespeak the commercial people. It was business for them, but look at what it was for us."
Similarly, it is no mere coincidence that contemporary Irish have largely rejected what was once the standard descriptive phrase for their communal disaster, "potato famine." That term merely notes an agricultural episode.
"Great Hunger" touches a human sensation and implicitly reminds a listener that Irish hunger had a human cause, in the form of oppressive British rule.
The most charitable thing to be said about "9/11" is that it may prove to be a first draft.
The term "Holocaust" -- from a Greek translation of the ancient Hebrew churban, meaning an offering to God that was entirely burned -- was not widely adopted by Jewish scholars until the late 1950s. Maafa emerged from the Afrocentricity movement of the 1980s, more than a century after emancipation. The centennial of the Great Hunger stirred far less interest among Irish and Irish-Americans than did the 150th.
"Generally, the names for terrible destructions don't get assigned so much as they accrete with usage," says James Young, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts who has written about Holocaust memorials. "The warp-speed media coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks amounted to several years' worth of usage; so that after only a matter of weeks, everyone in every language seemed to 'know' these attacks by the media shorthand, '9/11'."
There is a tendency, too, in America to insist on closure even while the wound oozes and bleeds. The soulless brevity of "9/11" denies us even seconds to linger, to dwell, to mourn, to find courage. But, wish as we might for our naive former lives, our confrontation with Islamic terrorism will not conveniently vanish, and finding the name for tragedy and the language of memory will be essential to bearing the battle for decades ahead.