American Outlook
Fall 2002
Alan W. Dowd

Americans have notoriously short memories. As Henry Ford put it, “We want to live in the present.” In his quintessentially American way, Ford concluded, “History is more or less bunk.” September 11, 2001, is now a part of history. However, because of the destruction it wrought, the lives it ended or otherwise altered, and the images it produced, we may remember it in spite of ourselves. The question before us is: how should we remember it?

Perhaps fittingly, the first anniversary of the attacks was marked by a somewhat incoherent, even jumbled day of symbolism and ceremony. The president scrambled from Washington to Manhattan to western Pennsylvania and back, mourning the lost and consoling those who survived. The media replayed last year’s haunting images and wrenching stories. Half the nation paused to watch, while the other half soldiered on. Regardless of good intentions, all of this proved inadequate.

Thankfully, however, this first anniversary of the attacks wasn’t the final word on how we will observe September 11. Like freshly poured concrete, it takes time for the foundations of a nationally observed day of remembrance to harden and set. Memorial Day and Thanksgiving are just two examples. Thanksgiving was celebrated in various forms—and on various days—from the 1600s until 1863, when Lincoln officially proclaimed the holiday to rally a war-weary nation. Still, the nation didn’t observe the day en masse until the late 1800s. In fact, as late 1940, Thanksgiving Day was still in flux, shifting from the last Thursday in November to the second-to-last. Likewise, Memorial Day, which was instituted by a Union general to decorate the graves of Civil War dead, wasn’t observed in the South for decades. Indeed, some southern states still observe “Confederate Memorial Day” in April and the traditional Memorial Day in May. Given that history, the nation still has an opportunity over the next few years to lay the groundwork for an appropriate and lasting observance of September 11.

Writing in City Journal, essayist and editor Myron Magnet discussed the care that must be devoted to planning and erecting a monument to memorialize September 11 and its WorldTradeCenter victims. In Magnet’s view, the Manhattan memorial should be an “eloquent, unembarrassed declaration of the profound, shared but still inchoate grief, patriotism, resolve and rededication that the city and nation feel together.” In addition, he warned, it must not be an imitation of other memorials—a wall of names, empty granite chairs, bronzed figures frozen amid their struggle, “a trickle of water weeping out of polished stone.” Instead, it must meet the difficult challenge of being unique and timeless.

The nation faces a similar challenge in how it observes September 11. Some will argue that the best way to honor the victims of the terror attacks is to follow their example and keep on working, that to rest the great furnace of American commerce—even for a day—will give the terrorists a victory of sorts. Although reasonable people can disagree on this point, it seems that the very opposite is true. What separates us from the enemy—what separates civilization from barbarism—is how much we value life and freedom. In fact, to go about our business as if September 11 were just another day would seem to display the very kind of single-mindedness and callousness that we so despise in our enemy.

Like the memorial envisioned by Magnet, our observation of the day should reflect grand themes such as freedom, resolve, and unity. It must not become an imitation of other anniversaries or national holidays. September 11 must be different in character and tone. It is not Memorial Day, for that holiday honors members of the armed forces who died in wartime. Underscoring the hideous nature of our new enemy and the war it thrust upon us, the vast majority of the September 11 victims were not in the military. Moreover, the nation was at peace on the morning of September 11, at least until fanatics turned those four civilian airliners against our cities. Likewise, September 11 has little in common with Veterans Day, which once was a celebration of the end of the Great War and is now a day of recognition for all military veterans. September 11 shares no common ground with Independence Day, either, which has always been celebrated with frivolity and blasts of fireworks.

Let us hope, moreover, that September 11 doesn’t follow the path of Thanksgiving, which now marks little more than the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, or Pearl Harbor Day, which passes each December unobserved by most Americans. Those days are certainly worthy of commemoration, and many Americans do take time to reflect on them. But September 11 must become something more than a perfunctory memory or there will be no point in calling attention to it. To paraphrase Lincoln at Gettysburg, we cannot dedicate or consecrate the gaping hole in Manhattan, the western wall of the Pentagon, or the nameless field in Pennsylvania. That has already been done by the thousands who were killed and the hundreds who sacrificed themselves trying to save them. But we can—and must—dedicate the day they died to something more than parades, football games, holiday sales, or other leisure activities. In a word, September 11 should become both more and less than a national holiday.

Work and Happiness

The United States is held together by ideas rather than language, creed, ethnicity, or race. One of those ideas is that each person has a right to improve his lot in life, what Jefferson termed the pursuit of happiness. Congenitally optimistic, Americans have always been driven by the notion that if they work hard or long enough, they can improve their lives, build a more perfect nation, and perhaps, in the pursuit of happiness, find it. That is the profound simplicity of the American dream.

It is not surprising, then, that almost all of September 11’s victims died at work. They were financiers and flight attendants, brokers and bankers, vendors and waiters, soldiers and firefighters, business travelers and teachers. Many died doing what they loved, and some died doing what they had to do, but each died in pursuit of what he or she defined as happiness.

Even so, if the flurry of phone calls from the smoldering towers and hijacked airplanes is any indication, all of them died with something other than work on their minds and hearts. Some called their parents; some called their spouses and kids; others called friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters. Through the panic and shock and fear, they sent their love and said goodbye. Had the situation been reversed, had they instead been trapped at home with their loved ones, it is impossible to imagine them calling their places of business to say goodbye. There is a great lesson in that, and it is a lesson that should shape the way we observe September 11: some things are more important than work. Those things, like the conditions for happiness, may vary from person to person, but as a nation we should set aside a day to reflect on them—a kind of national Sabbath for rest and reflection. Individuals and communities could observe the day in their own ways but within the bounds of prudence and public safety, businesses of all kinds should be encouraged to close their doors each September 11.

If the nation’s political leaders were able to convince employers to do this—whether through moral suasion or legislation—September 11 would have a dramatically different feel and tone from every other national holiday. There would be no presents to buy, no holiday sales to visit, no customers to serve. Instead, the entire nation would reflect on what we lost and what we still have. Perhaps just as important, by observing future anniversaries in this way, we could insulate the day from the superficial gunk and pageantry that collects around other U.S. holidays, leaving its deeper meaning and purpose intact.

One Nation, Many Faiths

That’s a tall order for a fidgety, restless nation like ours. This is, after all, the land of fast food, FedEx, and fax machines. Americans seldom dwell on the past and rarely appreciate the present. Instead, we look ahead and move ahead, always bustling, multitasking, expending energy, cutting inefficiency, saving time, pursuing happiness. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed 170 years ago, “Everyone is in motion, some in quest of power, others of gain.” In Tocqueville’s timeless view, we were then—and remain today—“so confused, so excited, so active.”

Of course, work is by no means a bad thing. When it builds up and creates and nurtures, when it has meaning and purpose beyond the moment, work is a wonderful—indeed, essential—part of life. But without rest and reflection, work can actually destroy us and what we build, imperceptibly devouring the space and time that make life worth living and happiness worth pursuing. As British historian C. N. Parkinson wrote, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Perhaps this is why God ordained the Sabbath, a day of rest.

By setting aside a day to reflect and rest as one nation, we would honor the memory of those who died, take stock of the work they did, and appreciate the things they created. In doing so, we would implicitly recognize that the men and women who died on September 11 were more than the sum of their labors. Likewise, a nation is more than the sum of its consumption, production, and wealth. Just one day of rest out of 365 is anything but extravagant or excessive. A national Sabbath—perhaps “Day of Remembrance” would be more palatable—would be a mere eye-blink in the dizzying pace of a year.

This is not to imply that September 11 should become a day only for religious people. Like Thanksgiving, a Day of Remembrance may have religious undertones, but it need not be a religious day. Just as one can be thankful on the fourth Thursday in November without believing in a personal God, one can be reflective and restful on September 11 without worshipping a Creator.

Nor does a Day of Remembrance necessarily have to be a day of mourning. As Rabbi Hayim Donin observes in his book To Be a Jew, the Sabbath, when properly practiced, “is a day of peaceful tranquility, inner joy, and spiritual uplift.” But how can we be tranquil as a war rages, how can we be joyful as we recall mass-murder, how can we be uplifted by a day so dark and a memory so raw? There is no easy answer to those hard questions, especially for the thousands of families torn apart by September 11. Unlike the rest of us, who watched the death and destruction through the safe filter of television, these secondary victims of September 11 are haunted by constant reminders of that awful day—the undented pillow, the uncelebrated birthday, the unspoken “I love you.” A Day of Remembrance, however, could give America a chance to reflect on life rather than death, to remember the heroism and selflessness that followed the attacks rather than the cowardice and hatred that spawned them.

The actions of men like Father Mychal Judge and his fellow firefighters, who ran into danger when others ran away, should uplift our spirits. The story of Flight 93, whose passengers sacrificed themselves to spare untold hundreds from death and an entire nation from further trauma, should be passed down to inspire our children and their children and future generations of Americans.  In addition, the fact that people from every walk of life and almost a hundred countries can work together in one building, in one city, in one great nation, should bring us joy and even a sense of awe. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed, “They died because of how they lived—as free men and women, proud of their freedom, proud of their country, and proud of their country’s cause.” Although he spoke those words outside the Pentagon, they apply equally to the victims in Manhattan and Pennsylvania.

Finally, the goodness and fairness of our countrymen, which was never more evident than after the attacks, should give us great peace. We did not lash out in blind fury. We did not imitate our enemy by murdering innocents. Instead, we fed and clothed the friendless Afghani people, as is our way in war. In 2002 alone, America will pour $300 million in humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, the very same country that nurtured and sponsored al Qaeda. Nor did we turn against our Arab-American neighbors: we did not burn mosques or condemn an entire faith for the actions of a barbaric few.

A Secular Holy Day

Some will argue that a National Sabbath or Day of Remembrance cannot be observed in our secular, multicultural society. But they are forgetting what followed September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks, this nation of countless creeds turned away from its many labors, diversions, games, traditions, and rituals, and people of various faiths prayed with one voice. People of no religious persuasion paused to reflect and remember. Our Congress beseeched God for guidance and endurance. Political, religious, and business leaders gathered together in a place of worship to grieve and reflect. And our president spoke with the words and cadence of a priest: “This world He created is of moral design,” President Bush assured the nation. “Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.”

Astonishingly, after this outpouring of words and acts of religious faith, the First Amendment remained intact. Church and State remained separate, and thanks in part to the strength and resolve it found during that first day of remembrance, America emerged from its fetal position of despair and doubt with the determination to make the best of a darker, grimmer tomorrow.

September 11 is different from any other day in American history, and the way we observe it should be as well. As Rabbi Donin writes, “Modern man may celebrate many holidays, but he observes few holy days.” If ever there was a holy day for this great, secular republic, it is September 11.