Friday, September 11, 2009

patriot day; or, how do we remember the people w/o making things political?

When I think about 9/11, I remember the flyers posted by family and friends on New York's walls and telephone poles looking for the lost. Picture after picture. Flyers that in my world until then, I had only seen used for lost pets, now used to find family and friends.There is one image I don't think I will ever forget. It was the image of a young boy in jeans and a t-shirt putting up a flyer of his dad. The picture was taken at the man's birthday party. He is smiling as a large flaming birthday cake was set before him. In the picture is a middle aged man in a shirt and tie. He was portly, with white hair, and his face is a little rosy from celebrating. Underneath the photo in shaky letters was the man's name and a description of what he was wearing that day. It said "Dad, if you see this, call  us. We love you." I don't know what happened to that family. The odds are in his favor 15,000 people got out of the towers that day: but 2,800 didn't.

9/11 has been politicized. Two controversial wars are being fought in the name of justice (or vengeance). The design of the ground zero memorial has become a platform for New York politicians to gain votes. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani used our memory of his strong leadeship in a time of distress as political capital. The naming of the honorary day itself "patriot day" is distasetful to Americans who associate it with the Bush Adminstration and the Patriot Act.

I must admit that I write today with full knowledge that by writing about the politics of 9/11 I am just as guilty as those I am criticizing. So be it. But, I have to start there because the real stories of 9/11: the victims; those in the air and on the ground, in uniform and plain clothes, at ground zero and 3000 miles away have often been lost behind these discussions. I hate the term patriot day (and yes, I am refusing to capitalize it). I think the term is loaded and distasteful. It has been dragged through the muck and the mud and come out on the other side forever tainted.

Truth. On that day eight years ago people died. A lot of people. People from all over the world. Most of the 2800 victims were Americans, but some were not. There were victims from 8 nations in the final death toll. While the attack was in New York, the towers belonged to the world. On that day, many mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons died. Our assurance in our collective safety died. Our trust in our infallibility died.

But, it wasn't these deaths that made us into patriots. The first flags were about something different than the patriotism that was spawned after that day. The rhetoric of war and the language of "you either support our agenda of vengeance or you do not love america" was born. The word patriot was changed. The flag waving began to mean something else entirely. After 9/11 there were rules about how you can love your nation. If you were anti-violence--for any reason--you were unpatriotic. If you saw deaths of any kind as a tragedy that should be avoided you were on the wrong side. Critical discourse: not patriotic. Protest and dissent: not patriotic. Questions and doubt: not patriotic. (unless we are talking about healthcare reform, but that is for another day).

In talking about 9/11 we have conceptualized and nominalized our individual experiences until they fit into the collective story. The offical story, the capital "H" History is not about the people. It isn't really even about America. It is about changing the words to fit into the story you want to tell. It should be about how a group of people attacked another group of people. It should be about how we will always miss them. How we will always remember them. Instead it is about terrorists, patriots, heroes, enemy combatents, us, them. When we use these terms then people, like the man in the 9/11 flyer, become concepts. We have a lot less compassion for concepts.

I remember 9/11. I remember the people. I mourn the loss of my neighbors and friends. Not the loss of patriots.


  1. I also dislike the label patriot day and have become even more wary of using the term in the last eight years.

    Thank you for pointing out that, "Most of the 2800 victims were Americans, but some were not. There were victims from 8 nations in the final death toll. While the attack was in New York, the towers belonged to the world."

  2. Last week, one of my students shared that there were 93 bodies that were never claimed, she says there is speculation that many of those may have been illegals. She says, it is likely that the families were too scared to come forward and claim their loved ones for fear they would be deported. So, the nation count could actually be even higher than 8.